Streetwise Professor

October 19, 2010

The Ghost of Christmas Future, Naval Edition

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:16 pm

I gave Bryan McGrath at Information Dissemination a hard time for his “Obama’s just a politician doing what politicians do” defense of Woodward’s portrayal of the president.  Bryan’s defense notwithstanding, I stand by my criticism.

That said, Bryan has a piece titled “A Seapower Manifesto” on ID that is well worth reading.  He shares my concerns about SecDef Gates’s “analysis” of US naval power, and the implications of that mindset for not just the Navy, but America’s strategic position.  Gates’s recitation of the current preponderance of American naval force is clearly intended to lay the predicate for a substantial downsizing of the Navy.

In response, Bryan makes a point that has exercised me for years:  the procurement and strategy decisions potential adversaries make are endogenous.  Strategy is not something that can be made  unilaterally, in a vacuum: potential adversaries respond to our decisions.  (That’s the way that economists/political scientists/game theorists conceive of “strategic” situations: strategic players act and react.)   American naval predominance in large part reflects our first mover advantage; given that preponderance, it doesn’t make much sense for anybody else–either friend or potential foe–to invest heavily in naval capability.  But if the US were to reduce substantially its naval force, the strategic calculations would change, for the Chinese particularly, but for others as well.  Gates seems to be thinking in a linear way, and under the assumption that no one else will respond to our actions.

Both of these ideas are profoundly wrong.  Given the nature of strategic interaction, the situation is not linear.  As Bryan phrases it, there can be a “tipping point”–a non-linearity–in which a modest decline in US naval force structure could lead to a discontinuous change in the strategic balance as others seize the opportunity created by our retrenchment.

Bryan also points out some things that need to be fixed, notably shipbuilding.

But most importantly, he points out the pressing  need to think strategically, and to devise a force structure that fits the strategy.  In crafting this strategy it is essential to remember that the US is first and foremost a maritime nation and a maritime power, rather than a continental one.

This is a matter of some concern to me, because my impression from my days at Navy, and from my reading since, that US Navy officers tend to be techno-centric rather than stratego-centric.  This is a problem of longstanding.  In the sailing days, the intricacies of sailing and seamanship dominated naval education and thinking.  As steam came to the fore, engineering became the most important skill for officers intent on career advancement: this was elevated to an extreme in the nuclear navy.  Thus, there is room for serious concern that there has been an underinvestment in the development of naval strategists, and insufficient incentive for naval officers to develop these skills.

This was all brought home this afternoon when watching a show on the rise of the Royal Navy (an episode on Sir Francis Drake, the Armada, etc.)  and then, in jarring juxtaposition, reading an article on the gutting of that self-same Royal Navy (already a shadow of its former self, as my visit to Portsmouth this June made painfully clear.)  Deeming it impossible to afford both a carrier and the planes to fly off it, the Cameron government went with the carrier, axed its Harrier force, and announced plans to operate the carriers as helo ships for 8-10 years before buying F-35s.  I would bet dimes to donuts that in 10 years, that purchase decision will be kicked down the road like a rusty can.  (An appropriate metaphor, alas, for the “modern” British navy.)  The whole decision is an absurdity, a political compromise completely unhinged from any strategic concept.

I’ve often said that the UK is like the Ghost of Christmas Future, giving us a glimpse of what the future holds if we continue down the path we are on now.  That’s true of economic policy, social policy, and foreign/military policy.  The absurdity of a carrier with no planes should serve to concentrate American minds today on what years of neglect will do.

But it’s even worse than that.  When asked: if not Britain, who?, post-1945 the answer was obvious–the US.  If you ask today: If not the US, who?  the only answer is silence.  The silence of a vacuum that will be filled by . . .

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  1. Returning to So?’s question, I think a major, and perhaps main, contribution to the problems of US naval construction is the withering away of the civilian ship-building industry. In prior times it generated skills, competition, economies of scale, etc, that kept costs down – and I would further note that historically, practically all successful naval buildups were made on the base of a flourishing civilian shipbuilding industry.

    Of course this just further backs SWP’s point (China accounts for around 33% of global shipbuilding capacity).

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — October 19, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  2. If not US – China ?! The answer definitely is not obvious. May be I should read Mahan’s book – but really did the presence of a large navy have substantial impact on the commerce of American companies – in terms of ease of procurement of raw materials / strategic partnerships? A large and larger naval presence would mean an increase in defense budget – thus big government – is that consistent with the republican small govt. philosophy?

    Comment by Surya — October 20, 2010 @ 8:36 am

  3. USA cannot afford to reduce its military spending. Do you know that the rest of the World spends almost as much money on the military as USA. That means that when USA starts the war against the rest of the World, we may not be victorious. I say USA should be spending 10 times more than all the other countries of the World combined!

    The idea of reducing taxes on US taxpayers is horrible. Instead, we must tax them an extra $3 trillion and give this $3 trillion to various military industrial corporations that so selflessly contribute to the re-election campaigns of our officials!

    Comment by Ostap Bender — October 21, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  4. BTW, the navalists here might be interested in this article:

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — October 22, 2010 @ 12:20 am

  5. That’s why churning out hulls should be outsourced to Korea and Japan, and only the fitting out should be done in the States. WRT the great peacekeeping role played by the USN, what about Somali pirates? How hard would it be for the mighty USN to flatten a couple of pirate strongholds as an example to others? And keep bulldozing them if the problem persists?

    Comment by So? — October 23, 2010 @ 5:45 am

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