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Munich All Over Again: Is the US Navy too Small?

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Munich All Over Again: Is the US Navy too Small?

The number of active U.S. Navy warships has sunk to its lowest in over 100 years and that scares some U.S. lawmakers.

Munich All Over Again: Is the US Navy too Small?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/AP

The number of deployable U.S. Navy warships has decreased dramatically over the last three decades, which is detrimentally affecting the national security of the United States, according to some U.S. naval analysts and lawmakers.

The U.S. Navy currently operates 272 ships – the largest and most powerful naval force in the world – structured around its ten aircraft carrier strike groups. The number of deployable warships is slated to increase to 308, according to the latest U.S. Navy shipbuilding plan. However, these numbers do not seem to satisfy U.S. defense hawks.

Testifying in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, former Secretary of the Navy, John F. Lehman, who served under  U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, said that the United States was safer when the U.S. Navy’s size was substantially larger and the goal of a 600-ship fleet within reach.

“The 600 ship Navy was not to win a war. It was to deter a war,” said Lehman, according to a local media report. “It succeeded. It ended the Cold War without firing a shot.” He added that the current size of the fleet makes the United States weaker. “We’ve got to reverse that,” he emphasized.

A former U.S. naval officer concurred. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” he said. “And we are rhyming again, not only with the post-Vietnam period of disarmament. But we’re rhyming more disturbingly with the 1930’s,” said the former U.S. Atlantic Fleet Commander, Admiral Robert J. Natter.

Not to be outdone, the Committee Chairman Randy Forbes added: “Just last week I was informed by the Navy that, across the board, the Navy will only be able to meet 42 percent of anticipated demand for forces in Fiscal year 2017,” the hawkish chairman said. “The conclusion we should all be drawing from this data is, we need more ships, more aircrafts, and more enabling of Naval power.”

I have written about both Forbes and Lehman before (See: “What Hawks Have to Say About the US Navy’s New Maritime Strategy”). I labeled both of them strategic hedgehog-tactical fox hybrid analysts suffering from what I call the “Gathering Storm Syndrome.”

As I explained, men and women affected by the “Gathering Storm Syndrome” are obsessed with the belief that restraint in international politics is more often than not a mistake, and that the danger of appeasement is omnipresent.

As a consequence of this perpetual threat of appeasement a nation is in mortal danger at any sign of weakness or indecision since “any international confrontation, whether against Iran, China, or Russia, is in reality a fight against a camouflaged form of Nazism, and any false compromise will only delay the inevitable clash of arms.” (See: “What Can Isaiah Berlin Teach Us About Naval Analysis?”).

Using the Munich and Reagan examples are predictable (yet poorly chosen) historical analogies to say the least.  These historical examples offer little in analytical substance and are merely rhetorical devices to camouflage the very obvious point that neither Forbes, Lehman, nor Natter can back up their statements with objective military analyses.

For example, how does an increase in the number of warships precisely affect the overall national security of the United States save the obvious deterrence factor? Is there, in fact, a direct correlation between the number of ships and U.S. national security? What are the opportunity costs of spending money on warships rather than investing it in other technologies or military hardware? At what moment precisely,  can we expect China and Russia to take advantage of U.S. naval weakness? Will Beijing and Moscow automatically switch to a more aggressive posture if the number of warships falls below 250? Or is it 260?

Defense hawks usually offer broad generalizations about the dangers of projecting weakness and the need to signal strengths and resolve, but offer very little details when pressed. As I repeatedly stated before, the world’s most powerful navy does not need to signal its resolve and strengths; rather, let the navy’s capabilities and size speak for itself. I wrote last year:

Signaling uncompromising resolve (…) fails to take into account the opportunity cost of pursuing such a hawkish line at the expense of trust-building mechanisms and maritime cooperation agreements between the countries mentioned above and the United States, which could help reduce tensions.

Perhaps, [Forbes and Lehman] should heed Margaret Thatcher’s saying that “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Also as George Smiley notes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, fanatics (i.e. defense hawks) are always prone to uncompromising attitudes, yet “the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” Thus, signaling strong resolve may actually have the reverse effect.

Defense hawks also have a tendency to provide analyses that do not take into account that military power is always relative and in flux, as I explained in 2015:

[M]ilitary power always has to be compared and analyzed in relative and not absolute terms. If one does not take into account the dialectical nature of military competition, neither realistic threat assessments nor assessments on the proper amount of resources spent to meet those threats can be made. 

To say that the U.S. Navy is underfunded, may perhaps not be considered outlandish inside the beltway of the United States capital city, but to any serious military analysts statements like the ones quoted above are misleading and do not really move the debate about the future of the U.S. Navy forward.

Consequently, I suggest that rather than looking at the number of warships, lawmakers are better advised to look at the U.S. Navy’s outdated strategy.

For, as I reported in the past (See: “IS the U.S. Navy too Weak to Fight in the Asia-Pacific?”), in reality, the primary reason for the apparent shortage of U.S. Navy warships, next to a demanding forward deployment schedule, is an ambitious U.S. war plan which calls for the decisive defeat of an adversary in one region, while denying “ the objectives of—or impose unacceptable risk on—a second aggressor in another region.”

The three regions the U.S. Navy is currently forward deployed to are the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean/Middle East. Given current fiscal realities, perhaps it is time to revise naval battle plans, rather than to call for more ships without offering a proper justification save the usual generalizations and euphemisms for spending precious U.S. tax dollars.