For the vast majority of Americans, the U.S. Navy and sea power are a given. The freedom of navigation, the openness of sea lines of communication, that Washington will send in the Marines in the event of a crisis – all of these are a matter of fact, as American as apple pie or Sunday football.
The problem is that reality does not reflect the expectations. It’s often the case that we don’t appreciate things until they are weakened or simply gone. After years of shrinking budgets, political indecision, and near continuous operations the Navy and Marines are stretched and in desperate need of considerable repair. At least this is the argument put forward by Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute in his well-written, cogent, and timely book, “Seablindness”.
Cropsey, a Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations is well placed to comment on the state of naval affairs. His previous book, “Mayday” is an insightful analysis of the history of U.S. naval power. In “Seablindness” he takes to task America’s political class and lays plenty of blame at the feet of Congress, the White House, and both parties.
Sequestration and the Budget Control Act were, quite simply, disasters for the Navy and Marine Corps. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan too pulled attention away from the Navy and Marines’ core missions. For all intents and purposes, the Marines became a second army (something apocryphal to say – to Marine friends and readers, please forgive the turn of phrase) and the Navy became a support arm to the land conflict. This occurred while both services were simultaneously expected to meet their core missions – dominance of the high seas, crisis response, and amphibious operations.
A fundamental problem underpinning this, and indeed all national security and force planning dialogues is an underappreciation of the threat environment and a fixation on that which is immediately in front of politicians. The end of the Cold War witnessed the mothballing of a number of vessels and a commensurate drawdown of tonnage. This is not surprising. The monolithic Soviet Union lost and the West, ostensibly, one.
In its wake, a diversity of threats appears – piracy, terrorism, humanitarian crises and interventions. Yet, it was wrongly assumed that great power conflict equally withered away. Today the United States faces a resurgent and aggressive Russia, an expansionist – literally – China, and a destabilizing Iran. Of these adversaries only one presents a true existential threat – Russia. Yet these three states could well strain the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps to the limit should conflict emerge as Cropsey highlights.
Using scenarios involving China and Russia, Cropsey illustrates the potential consequences of this neglect. American naval forces becoming overstretched, leaving Washington in a position where it cannot respond to Moscow-manufactured crises in the Black Sea and the Baltic, and acquiescing to Beijing’s dominance of the South China Sea and Pacific.
America’s adversaries are clearly aiming to counter the strengths of the Navy and Marines. Diesel-electric submarines, long range supersonic cruise missiles, maneuverable re-entry vehicles, among others, to say nothing of electronic and cyberwarfare capabilities all aim to undermine the strengths on which the Department of Defense counts to win future conflicts. Yet, while countless research and development dollars are spent on innovative and novel technologies, today’s Navy and Marine Corps has little to show for the investment. Next generation cruisers and destroyers have been whittled down to single digit orders; future amphibious transport and assault vehicles wallow in planning and testing.
Washington appears to be, at best, idle, while Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran surge ahead. America’s dominance of the high seas is no longer a guarantee.
Beyond the immediate crisis consequences of the inattention and atrophy of the Navy and Marines are the signals it sends to our partners and allies around the world. In 1996, during the Taiwan crisis President Clinton sent two carrier battle groups to the region. America would be hard pressed to do that today and it is almost certain our adversaries and allies alike know this to be the case.
Cropsey also interviews the spouses of the sailors and Marines who experience countless difficulties and pitfalls from extended tours and resource shortfalls. It is easy in debates on force structure and personnel targets to lose sight of the impact that these decisions have on the families. Failing to provide adequately for the sailors and Marines deployed abroad significantly affects those on the home front.
While Cropsey adroitly addresses the consequences of political vacillation. Where he falls somewhat short is in failing to identify how Washington finds its way out of the morass. Issues of politics and funding are certainly beyond his remit, and he admits as much in the introduction, but the reader is left wanting more – how do we build, equip, and train the next generation Navy and Marines in this contentious political climate? How does Congress overcome partisan schisms to plan projects and programs that are ten years in the making? How on earth can we avoid the next F-35 debacle?
Controlling the high seas is critical to great power success and survival. This is something the Greeks, the Spanish, and the British well knew and appreciated. In this environment, Americans seem to have forgotten this truism and are allowing its naval power to wither due to inattention and excessive use. Not only is this dangerous to American global power it is downright insulting to the brave sailors and Marines who daily risk their lives to ensure domestic tranquility. They deserve more.