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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The future of US naval primacy: A response to Mark Helprin

Nathaniel Adler, MPA

Earlier this month, Mark Helprin of the Claremont Institute wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about the decline of US naval dominance. Here I respond to his argument and offer a few thoughts of my own.

In short, I think his case is heavily overstated.

First, there are good legal, logistical, and political reasons that the administration hasn’t attacked Somali pirate bases, so I find Helprin’s suggestion that our restraint is a “symptom of a sickness” both confusing and troubling. The United States Navy (USN) is successfully working with its counterparts all over the world to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, and to interdict pirate ships whenever possible.

Piracy and its disruption of maritime commerce in the region is undoubtedly a growing problem; however, given the fact that these pirates rarely hurt anyone, hunting them preemptively hardly seems like the first step towards re-establishing America’s naval might.

Helprin misses the point that the problem in the Gulf of Aden is not the size of the USN, but rather the lawless and destitute condition of Somalia, an entirely separate issue. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen and General David Petraeus have said in a different context, we can’t kill our way out of this one.

Helprin laments the reductions in US naval forces, and worries about the ability of the USN to defend the seas and to project power globally. However these reductions only look dramatic relative to where our own gargantuan navy used to be. The United States has 11 of the world's 22 aircraft carriers, and no country outside the NATO alliance has more than one. (Note that China has zero.) Additionally, the non-US carriers are largely symbolic, often too small to have much strategic utility outside humanitarian assistance.

This striking asymmetry in US naval power exists not just with carriers, but with other warships as well, so the sense that we are following the Royal Navy “into near oblivion” seems premature. Is the US retiring aging vessels from its massive and immensely expensive navy? Sure. Does it have a peer competitor that is anywhere near challenging it? No.

This brings us to China. I understand that it is a golden rule of all alarmist op-eds on military affairs to always include at least one vague suggestion that China threatens to overtake the US at something sometime in the future, lest the warning sirens not be fully activated. However, the hypothetical naval parity with China that Helprin warns of is very far away (if it ever happens at all).

Is China modernizing its navy? Yes. Should we keep an eye on it? Absolutely. Should we cast the priorities of the United States’ force posture, at exorbitant cost, and at a time of tremendous financial hardship, in terms of an endless effort to maintain past margins of relative global superiority? I’m not so sure.

Finally, Helprin also fails to address the body of evidence suggesting that increasingly capable and cheap anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles (plus advances in submarine technology) will make large surface naval warfare vessels almost obsolete in future conflicts. If this is true, does it really make sense to continue investing billions in maintaining such a massive fleet of large warships? Maybe; but if so, Helprin hasn’t convinced me.

So what are we to make of all this?

Ultimately, the most interesting and thought-provoking thing about Helprin’s piece is that it is not just about the US’s waning margin of naval dominance, but it is also about something larger, the fear of decline. Helprin, whether intentionally or not, seems to use the erosion of the United States’ naval power as a harbinger for a diminishing US posture in the world more broadly.

A continued debate about whether we can or should be maintaining such a robust navy given the financial crisis and our massive deficit will have to be left to comments or later posts, but it seems worth noting that other great naval powers in history have facilitated their own decline by not being dynamic enough to adjust to ebbs in their own capabilities. Rather, they bankrupted themselves by continuing to project force onto far away conflicts that they could not afford, often in an effort to maintain appearances, as if they were still at the height of their capability. In J.H. Elliott’s article “Managing Decline: Olivares and the Grand Strategy of Imperial Spain,” he describes the last throes of the Spanish Empire:

The Mantuan affair illustrates, I believe, the extreme difficulties of disengagement for an imperial power. The sheer extent of its commitments means that almost everything is perceived as affecting its vital interests. Hence the prevalence of the domino theory in the Madrid of the 1630s. But it is legitimate to ask whether anyone in the Spain of Olivares advocated an alternative foreign policy – one that would seek to reduce the area of its vital interests and, if necessary, sacrifice reputation to solvency. In other words, did anyone dare to think the unthinkable, the possibility of a staged retreat from empire?

If anyone nowadays is daring to think the unthinkable, it certainly isn’t Helprin, and for now I probably agree with him. I don’t think the US is teetering on the precipice of decline, and unlike Helprin I don’t think US naval primacy is going anywhere anytime soon. Naval and maritime power is vitally important for a major power like the United States, and sufficiently maintaining that force is currently, and will continue to be, a priority.

Nevertheless, in light of history, it does also seem important to think critically about what exactly we can afford, where our priorities as a nation should be, and what kind of role the United States should play in a contemporary rather than bygone international order.

1 comment:

  1. I would add that US naval supremacy is important not only for the US but for the world itself, which benefits from our financial and material sacrifice as the global guarantor of freedom of the seas and open sea lines of communication and commerce.