America’s Elegant Decline

Hulls in the water could soon displace boots on the ground as the most important military catchphrase of our time. But our Navy is stretched thin. How we manage dwindling naval resources will go a long way toward determining our future standing in the world.

Beware pendulum swings. Before 9/11, not enough U.S. generals believed that the future of war was unconventional and tied to global anarchy. They insisted on having divisions to fight against, not ragtag groups of religious warriors who, as it turned out, fought better than state armies in the Muslim world ever did. Now the Pentagon is consumed by a focus on urban warfare and counterinsurgency; inside military circles, the development of culturally adroit foreign-area officers (FAOs) and the learning of exotic languages have become the rage. My own warnings about anarchy (“The Coming Anarchy,” February 1994 Atlantic) and my concentration on FAOs and Army Special Forces in recent books may have helped this trend. But have we pushed it too far? We may finally master the art of counterinsurgency just in time for it to recede in importance.

History suggests that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be imperfect guideposts to conflicts ahead. The quaint Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 gave no intimation of World War I. Neither World War II nor Korea prepared us for Vietnam, which was more similar to the Philippine War of 1899–1902 than to its immediate predecessors. The ease of the Gulf War provided no hint of what an ordeal the Iraq War would be. Today, while we remain fixated on street fighting in Baghdad, the militaries of China, India, South Korea, and Japan are modernizing, and Russia has maintained and subsidized its military research-and- development base by selling weapons to China and others. Though counterinsurgency will remain a core part of our military doctrine, the Pentagon does not have the luxury of planning for one military future; it must plan for several.

“Regular wars” between major states could be as frequent in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. In his 2005 book, Another Bloody Century, the British scholar Colin Gray, a professor of international politics and strategic studies at the University of Reading, explains convincingly that these future wars will not require any “manifestation of insanity by political leaders,” nor even an “aberration from normal statecraft,” but may come about merely because of what Thucydides recognized as “fear, honour, and interest.” Wars between the United States and a Sino-Russian axis or between the United States and a coalition of rogue states are just two of the scenarios Gray imagines.

Are we prepared to fight these wars? Our Army and Marine Corps together constitute the most battle- hardened regular land force in the world. But it has been a long time since our Navy has truly fought another navy, or our Air Force another air force. In the future they could be tested to the same extent that the Army and Marine Corps have been. The current catchphrase is boots on the ground; in the future it could be hulls in the water.

Democracy and supremacy undermine the tragic sense required for long-range planning. A “peaceful, gain- loving nation” like the United States “is not far-sighted, and far-sightedness is needed for adequate military preparation, especially in these days,” warned Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890, a time when—although the Panama Canal was soon to be built and World War I lay just over the horizon—America was still preoccupied with land-based westward expansion (Wounded Knee, the last battle of the Indian Wars, was fought that year). Mahan notwithstanding, too few strategists at the time were thinking seriously about sea power. Today we are similarly obsessed with dirty land wars, and our 300-ship Navy is roughly half the size it was in the mid-1980s.

A great navy is like oxygen: You notice it only when it is gone. But the strength of a nation’s sea presence, more than any other indicator, has throughout history often been the best barometer of that nation’s power and prospects. “Those far-distant storm-beaten ships upon which [Napoleon’s] Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world,” Mahan wrote, describing how the British Royal Navy had checked Napoleon’s ambitions. In our day, carrier strike groups, floating in international waters only a few miles off enemy territory, require no visas or exit strategies. Despite the quagmire of Iraq, we remain the greatest outside power in the Middle East because of our ability to pro­ject destructive fire from warships in the Indian Ocean and its tributary waters such as the Persian Gulf. Our sea power allows us to lose a limited war on land without catastrophic consequences. The Navy, together with the Air Force, constitutes our insurance policy. The Navy also plays a crucial role as the bus driver for most of the Army’s equipment, whenever the Army deploys overseas.

Army units can’t forward-deploy anywhere in significant numbers without a national debate. Not so the Navy. Forget the cliché about the essence of the Navy being tradition; I’ve spent enough time with junior officers and enlisted sailors on Pacific deployments to know that the essence of our Navy is operations: disaster relief, tracking Chinese subs, guarding sea-lanes, and so forth. American sailors don’t care what the mission is, as long as there is one, and the farther forward the better. The seminal event for the U.S. Navy was John Paul Jones’s interdiction of the British during the Revolutionary War—which occurred off Yorkshire, on the other side of the Atlantic. During the quasi-war that President John Adams waged against France from 1798 to 1800, U.S. warships protected American merchant vessels off what is today Indonesia. American warships operated off North Africa in the First Barbary War of 1801 to 1805. The War of 1812 found the Navy as far down the globe as the coast of Brazil and as far up as the North Cape of Scandinavia. Peter Swartz, an expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, observes that because operating thousands of miles from home ports is so ingrained in U.S. naval tradition, no one thinks it odd that even the Coast Guard has ships in service from Greenland to South America.

Great navies help preserve international stability. When the British navy began to decline, the vacuum it left behind helped engender the competition among major powers that led to World War I. After the U.S. Navy was forced to depart Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, piracy quintupled in the Southeast Asian archipelago—which includes one of the world’s busiest waterways, the Strait of Malacca. In an age when 90 percent of global commerce travels by sea, and 95 percent of our imports and exports from outside North America do the same (even as that trade volume is set to double by 2020), and when 75 percent of the world’s population is clustered within 200 miles of the sea, the relative decline of our Navy is a big, dangerous fact to which our elites appear blind.

The End of the Mahanian Century?

The best way to understand the tenuousness of our grip on “hard,” military power (to say nothing of “soft,” diplomatic power) is to understand our situation at sea. This requires an acquaintance with two books published a century ago: Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, which was written in 1890, and Julian S. Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, which came out in 1911.

Few books have had more influence on military policy than Mahan’s. It affected the thinking of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—as well as that of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II—and it helped prompt the naval buildup before World War I. Mahan showed that because the sea is the great “commons” of civilization, naval power—to protect merchant fleets—had always been the determining factor in European political struggles. The strength of his argument lay less in its originality than in its comprehensiveness, achieved by numerous examples. He pointed out that there were no great sea battles in the Second Punic War, because Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean was a deciding factor in Carthage’s defeat. He noted that George Washington partly attributed America’s victory in its war for independence to France’s control of the seas—even as several decades earlier France had lost the Seven Years’ War partly because of its neglect of sea power.

Mahan believed in concentrating national naval forces in search of the decisive battle: For him, success was about sinking the other fleet. Mahan’s aggressive sensibility perfectly matched the temperament of Theodore Roosevelt. As a result, it was in the quiet years before World War I that America became a great sea power—and consequently a Great Power.

Julian Corbett, a British historian, did not so much disagree with Mahan as offer a subtler approach, placing greater emphasis on doing more with less. Corbett asserted that just because one nation has lost control of the sea, another nation has not necessarily gained it. A naval coalition that may appear weak and dispersed can, if properly constituted, have “a reality of strength.” He called this a “fleet in being”—a collection of ships that can quickly coalesce into a unified fleet when necessary. This fleet-in-being wouldn’t need to dominate or sink other fleets; it could be effective by seizing bases and policing choke points. Such a deceptively able fleet, Corbett argued, should pursue an “active and vigorous life” in the conduct of limited defense, by, for example, carrying out harassing operations. As it happened, Corbett’s book came out after the British Royal Navy had reduced its worldwide presence by leveraging the growing sea power of its allies Japan and the United States.

A hundred years later, the Mahanian Century has ended. The period of 1890 to 1989 was about dominance: controlling vast oceanic spaces by making sure your national navy had more ships than those of your competitors. This era reached its zenith in 1945, when the U.S. Navy and its vast fleet of supply ships numbered 6,700. With no peer competitor in sight, the president and Congress moved quickly to cut that Navy, along with the standing Army, considerably. By 1950, the United States had only 634 ships. The drawdown helped set the stage for the “Revolt of the Admirals,” when a group of officers warned the nation of calamities ahead. (Indeed, two decades later the Soviet navy would be a near-peer competitor.) But in a 1954 article in Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, a young Harvard academic named Samuel P. Huntington told the Navy not to feel sorry for itself:

The resources which a service is able to obtain in a democratic society are a function of the public support of that service. The service has the responsibility to develop this necessary support, and it can only do this if it possesses a strategic concept which clearly formulates its relationship to the national security.

Huntington recommended that the Navy emphasize its ability to support ground troops from the sea: Any battles with the Soviet Union were likely to be on land, so the Navy needed to play up the job it could do in a war with a great land power. The Navy took Huntington’s advice, and it worked: For the remainder of the Cold War, the Navy was able to hold the line at roughly 600 ships, in part by arguing for its importance in supporting a ground war against the Soviet Union and its allies—it would be the Navy’s job to get soldiers to the fight, and to soften up the battlefield with offshore firepower.

In 1991, the Gulf War provided a live-action demonstration of this capacity. Even so, by 1997, post–Cold War budget cuts had reduced the Navy to 365 ships. (In the Quadrennial Defense Review of that year, the Pentagon established a “red line” of 300 ships, below which the Navy would not go.) Of course the 300-ship Navy could still, in the words of Robert O. Work, vice president for strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, in Washington, “pound the snot” out of primitive challengers like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, because the precision revolution in weaponry enabled, for instance, a single wire-guided missile from a U.S. destroyer to accomplish what in Vietnam had required wave after wave of carrier-based planes.

Still, the fewer vessels you have, the riskier each deployment, because a ship can’t be in two places at once. Due to the rapid increase in ship-borne trade, globalization favors large navies that protect trade and tanker routes. Additionally, while the United States remains a great naval power, it is no longer a maritime power; that is, we don’t have much of a merchant fleet left to support our warships in an emergency. We’ve been priced out of the shipbuilding market by cheap-labor countries in Asia.

All of this puts us in a precarious position. History shows that powerful competitor navies can easily emerge out of nowhere in just a few decades. The vast majority of American ships that saw combat in World War II had not even been planned before the spring of 1941. The Indian navy, which may soon be the third-largest in the world, was not on many people’s radar screens at the close of the Cold War. Nor, for that matter, was the now- expanding Chinese submarine fleet. Robert Work told me that he believes the eventual incorporation of Taiwan into China will have the effect that the Battle of Wounded Knee had on the United States: It will psychologically close an era of national consolidation for the Chinese, thereby dramatically redirecting their military energies outward, beyond their coastal waters. Tellingly, whereas the U.S. Navy pays homage to Mahan by naming buildings after him, the Chinese avidly read him; the Chinese are the Mahanians now.

Then there is the Japanese navy, which now operates 117 warships, including 16 submarines. In a sense, we’re back to 1890, when a spark of naval competition among rising powers like Japan, Germany, and the United States left Britain unable to maintain its relative advantage.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent book, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, was published in September.

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