Hollowing Out the U.S. Navy

by HERBERT LONDON January 2, 2013

From the time Alfred Mahan wrote his classic work on naval power at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present, this two ocean nation relied on sea power to protect its territory at home and its interests abroad. In fact, it was axiomatic to suggest that the hegemonic role the United States played in maintaining global equilibrium was directly related to its ability to project naval power.

Clearly this wasn't always the case. In the World War I period from 1914 to 1918 the United States had a fleet level of 363, a fleet smaller than Germany, the United Kingdom and France. It remained at that level in the 1920's (an average of 376) and during the ‘30's till 1938 (an average of 339 ships). Needless to remind anyone about the onset of WWII there was a slight increase in new vessels from '39 to '41, during the Lend Lease period, (a total of 394), but by 1942, with the war in full swing, there were 1782 ships in the Navy and by 1945 at the end of the war, the U.S. had 6768 vessels.

This force level was not sustainable. With retrenchment very much in the air after the war, naval forces were reduced to 634 in 1950. However Cold War sabre rattling as a function of Stalinist diplomacy, led to ship levels in the U.S. increasing to 1030 by 1955, a high point from '55 to the present.

In the 1960's naval forces averaged 878 during the decade and in the 1970's averaged a reduced 606. In fact, President Reagan who often discussed the need for a 600 ship navy never reached that goal in his eight years in office, the highest level being 594 in 1987 and an average of 561 during his tenure.

Now the U.S. Navy is a mere shadow of itself. During the recent presidential debate, candidate Mitt Romney noted that naval capability had shrunk to a level lower than World War I. Technically he was correct since naval forces are now at 287. President Obama glibly responded by suggesting this is irrelevant; after all, we don't rely on bayonets or horses either. His implication is that our ships are more sophisticated than their predecessors at sea so the numbers do not carry the same logistical weight they once did.

By any standard this is questionable. Numbers matter. If one third of our ships are in repair and one third are in port for the rest and relaxation of sailors, there are approximately 90 vessels available to patrol the seven seas protecting American interests. This is not only an historical record, it is a number inadequate for the task at hand.

An active and assertive blue water Chinese navy is intent on challenging U.S. naval superiority in the Pacific. In the past, challenges of this kind were met by a show of force, an aircraft carrier force or joint military maneuvers with an allied nation. At the moment, we do not have the fleet strength for a symbolic act or to engage in joint training with say, Japan. The Obama administration has simply hollowed out U.S. capabilities.

The argument for this decision is that we cannot afford to be a supreme military force. It was revealing that administration officials said recently the U.S. would not be a super power by 2030. Based on the possibility of sequestration and further military retrenchment, that date may be an exaggeration. Decline is a choice and it appears as if the Obama team has opted to embrace it based on the goal of additional domestic spending.

Military spending is four and a half percent of GDP, a far cry from World War II levels and a fraction of domestic spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. What the Obama team does not seem to realize is that a hollow military capability puts at risk everything this nation has accomplished. Domestic spending clearly has its place, but defense spending refers to our very existence. If we insist on underwriting so-called entitlements at the expense of our naval assets, we will relinquish the future and put ourselves in the position of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. When that ship went down and when the ship of state goes down, it doesn't matter who has the best view of the horizon.


Herbert London is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the President of the London Center for Policy Research. He is the author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). 


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