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Trump’s New Navy: Does the US Really Need 350 Warships?

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Trump’s New Navy: Does the US Really Need 350 Warships?

Defense hawks are embracing Donald Trump’s idea of expanding U.S. naval power.

Trump’s New Navy: Does the US Really Need 350 Warships?
Credit: US Navy

While we cannot be certain about anything when it comes to Donald Trump’s future defense policies, U.S. defense hawks — in particular advocates for a larger U.S. Navy – have quickly embraced Trump’s victory as a means to expand U.S. military power through a Reaganesque defense spending spree.

U.S. naval power advocates are enthusiastic about Trump’s reported commitment to build a 350-ship Navy (up from 272 ships in service today). Defense hawks are also pleased that Randy Forbes, an advocate for a 350-ship navy and $20 billion annual shipbuilding programs, is allegedly being considered for secretary of the navy – the Department of the Navy’s top civilian job.

Indeed, “[t]he 350-ship navy, cruiser modernization – those naval planks [in Donald Trump’s policies] are lifted from Randy Forbes,” a source familiar with Trump’s national security team told USNI News. Forbes is without a doubt a qualified candidate for the position and will do very well.

However, if analysts are blinded by growing tonnage statistics,  it will also mean that we once more will not have a serious discussion about the underpinning of our naval strategy and the overall role that the U.S. Navy should play in the world, beyond the usual Department of Defense boiler plates offered in public documents.

I have written about Randy Forbes and his acolytes on multiple occasions (See: “What Hawks Have to Say About the US Navy’s New Maritime Strategy”) and I came up with a rather convoluted definition for individuals like Forbes, calling them strategic hedgehog-tactical fox hybrid analysts under the influence of the so-called Gathering Storm Syndrome.

Policymakers affected by the Gathering Storm Syndrome have embraced Churchill’s dictum laid out in the first volume of his history of World War II, called The Gathering Storm, as a universal principle applicable at all times under any circumstances and against any adversary: Appeasement (i.e. disarmament paired with political compromise) makes the aggressor only more aggressive; and restraint in international politics is more often than not a mistake to be paid for at a later stage with “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

As I explained:

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?”).

In addition, analysts of the kind described above are also obsessed with academic concepts such as credibility that end up complicating rather than simplifying a particular problem and obfuscate decision makers, while camouflaging that there really is no objective military analysis backing up their claims. Gathering Storm policy makers would dismiss arguments like I laid out in 2015:

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, [policy makers affected by Gathering Storm syndrome] 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.

Gathering Storm policymakers 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, except for the usual non sequiturs (“We need more ships and we need to show more resolve”).

Whether the U.S. Navy will have 272 or 350 ships, it will remain the most powerful naval force in the world for decades to come. No naval force in the world can even remotely militarily challenge U.S. naval supremacy. And this is not likely to change any time soon. Furthermore, defense hawks 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. 

Elsewhere, I suggested that rather than looking at the number of new warships, policymakers should rather look at the U.S. Navy’s outdated strategy (See: “Is the U.S. Navy too Weak to Fight in the Asia-Pacific?”):

[I]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 impos[ing] 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.

Last, advocates for a 350-ship Navy fail to answer fundamental questions, as I also summarized previously:

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?

We need answers to these questions if we want a mature public debate about the role of the U.S. Navy and how the service is best used to safeguard U.S. interests around the world.  This will be more important than ever under a Trump presidency. Embracing a U.S. naval buildup without backing it up with appropriate analysis cannot be in the interest of U.S. national security policymakers. Given the post-truth nature of our times, objective military analysis will be more important than ever in the years ahead and we need to continue to question Gathering Storm analysts, in particular when they do not provide more than set phrases in justifying their actions and recommendations.