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.
The Weary Titan

As noted, today we have only half the nearly 600 ships that the U.S. Navy had in the 1980s, when it was directed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman; he observes that now, because we are building only five ships per year, “we’re on the way to a 150-ship Navy.”

This attrition is partly a result of the high cost of the war in Iraq and the shrinkage of discretionary funds in the national budget, but it’s also a function of the procurement process itself. The building of naval platforms offers a case study in how a vast and aged bureaucratic system is subject to disease and calcification—which are in part what doomed Pharaonic Egypt, Mayan Central America, and Soviet Russia.

To get this bureaucracy to agree on a new class of ship can take years—even decades—of studies and committee meetings, in which slowing down the process is easy and taking even the smallest risk is hard. Consequently, by the time a ship is launched, it is already dated. Yet because the ship must be equipped with every weapons system conceivable, the cost remains high. (To leave any weapon system out is to make the ship, to some degree, more vulnerable—and that means risk.) The Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer on which I was embedded in 2005 cost nearly $1 billion. The new DDG-1000 Zumwalt–class destroyer, envisioned in one form or another for 12 years and beset with delays, could end up costing $3 billion a ship—if any get built. The new Gerald R. Ford–class aircraft carriers could cost a whopping $8 billion each—not including $6 billion of research-and-development costs.

History can be cruel to such a geologic pace; this slowness is a recipe for vulnerability and nasty strategic surprise. We have a capital-intensive Navy consisting of vessels that cost tens of billions of dollars, and that must therefore each deploy for decades if they are to return the investment. Yet all a future peer competitor like China need do to greatly devalue our fleet is to improve its ballistic- missile technology to the point where we’re forced to move our carriers, say, 100 miles east of their present positions off the Asian mainland, to keep them out of missile range. Worse, a nuclear-radiation device arriving in a container in the harbor at, say, Norfolk, Virginia, could render these multi­billion-dollar platforms suddenly unusable.

The coming technological era of precision and stealth will not be friendly to gargantuan objects like carriers. Consider the “supercavitation” torpedo, a torpedo that launches from a small boat and, by its ability to create a cushion of air between it and the surrounding water, can travel at 200 knots (regular torpedoes can travel at only 35 knots) and immobilize a carrier on detonation.

Fortunately, our defense bureaucracy is slowly rising to the challenge—not by eliminating such threats but by diminishing them. For instance, the new Ford-class carriers will be built with laser guns to kill incoming missiles, anti-torpedo torpedoes to deal with supercavitation technology, and electric catapults for launching UAVs in case fighter jets, with their human pilots, give way to enhanced remote-controlled Predators that can be re­fueled in the air.

Decline can be imperceptible. But if you think that what I have been describing does not constitute decline, consider the financial burden of sustaining this Navy. Admiral Mullen was “hanging on by his fingernails” trying to keep current projects going, according to one expert. “It would take a Chinese-perpetrated 9/11 to give us the budget we need,” the same expert told me, “and the Chinese would never be that stupid. They will bleed us slowly, by just doing what they’re doing.” On October 26, 2006, a Chinese Song-class attack submarine, equipped with Russian-made wake-homing torpedoes, reportedly stalked the USS Kitty Hawk Carrier Strike Group in the Pacific. The sub boldly surfaced within firing range before being detected only five miles from the carrier itself.

That incident might prove to be a better harbinger of the future than anything going on in Iraq. A second incident, this past January, provided another augury. When the Chinese destroyed an aging weather satellite with a missile-launched interceptor, “they ended two decades of restraint over the militarization of space,” as Vice Admiral John G. Morgan Jr., deputy chief of naval operations for information, plans, and strategy, told me. According to Stratfor, a consulting company that analyzes intelligence, the Chinese are developing a space-warfare capability that could allow them to limit U.S. naval power without a massive naval buildup of their own, by threatening our satellite-based intelligence-gathering and weapons systems.

The danger isn’t China per se. China’s actions are merely a premonition of a future that will favor nations with dynamic start-up defense bureaucracies less careful and doubt-ridden than our own, unburdened by layers of committees and commissions, and willing to buy—or steal—cutting-edge technology.

To grasp what our military is up against, think of our defense bureaucracy as a great metropolitan newspaper, proud of its editorial oversight, accuracy, and formal English usage, yet besieged and occasionally humiliated by bloggers, whose usage is sloppy and whose fact-checking is weak, sometimes nonexistent. The paper soldiers on, winning awards and affecting the national debate, even as each half decade its opinion carries less weight. Now think of an $8 billion Ford-class carrier surprised by dozens of jet-skis ridden by Iranians armed with shoulder-fired missiles—a scenario one expert described to me. Such an attack wouldn’t destroy the carrier, but it might kill sailors and damage some of the radar and planes on deck, worth millions of dollars. Imagine the headlines. Riding through the Strait of Malacca with a carrier strike group not long ago, I saw how easy it is for small fishing boats to draw suddenly alongside.

Another likely future scenario our Navy may have to confront, described to me by Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, is so distributive and networked that it’s reminiscent of the Borg aliens in Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, who are able, because of their collective mind, to simultaneously experience what only one of them witnesses. Instead of one big sonar device on a warship, there would be hundreds or thousands of hydrophones floating all over the ocean, each the size of a soda can, listening to submarines and sending information simultaneously.

And if the United States develops such technology, there is no guarantee that we could keep it from the open market. “Because of new surveillance measures, you could have whole zones of the ocean where you are unable to operate safely on the surface,” Donald Henry, special assistant to the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, told me. Technology and the risk of unconventional attacks “could drive navies underwater, unless carrier strike groups are protected by something we don’t have yet.” The faster technology progresses, the less likely people will play by our rules.

Meanwhile, as costs drive us toward that 150-ship Navy, we may need to delegate some tasks to private naval companies, in the same way that private contractors have been used on land in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Navy Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in an emergency we might even issue letters of marque, the way we did during the Revolutionary War, giving privateers the legal authority to act in our defense. Allowing privateers to help with, say, the drug-interdiction effort in the Caribbean would enable uniformed sailors to concentrate on the Pacific and Indian oceans.

More submarines might seem like a quick fix for many of these challenges. They operate under the surface. They are moving, underwater intelligence factories, able to listen to cell-phone conversations on land. They can launch missiles at targets on shore. Some are now being refitted so that they can clandestinely deliver Special Operations teams onto beaches. But the catch is that they are expensive. Each fast-attack, Los Angeles–class submarine costs easily more than $1 billion in today’s dollars, despite having much less general firepower than a comparably priced Arleigh Burke–class destroyer.

Today, the United States devotes 4.38 percent of its annual gross domestic product to defense. Before the Iraq War, it was 3.5 percent. Although two dozen or so countries spend more on defense than we do relative to GDP, we still spend more in absolute terms than much of the rest of the world combined. But if we are to maintain our current relative military advantage, we will have to spend at even higher rates. Admiral Morgan, the deputy chief of naval operations for information, plans, and strategy, told me that to maintain our naval primacy, we may need to devote close to 5 percent of GDP (assuming a growing economy) to defense. Yet it’s unclear whether the American public will abide that.

During the Cold War, our 600-ship Navy needed to be in only three places in force—the Atlantic and Pacific flanks of the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean; we sometimes subcontracted out less-important tropical sea-lanes to other free-world navies (in this, Admiral Mullen’s 1,000-ship fleet-in-being does have a recent precedent). Now we need to cover the Earth with less than half that number of ships. Decline can never be admitted as such until a rival makes demonstrable inroads into your power. But naval trends now appear to buttress political and economic ones that suggest that we are indeed headed for a world with multiple competing powers.

Of course, admirals will continue to march to Capitol Hill and declare that no matter the size of the budget, they will succeed in every mission. Managing decline requires “a degree of self-delusion,” as Aaron Friedberg put it in his 1988 book, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905. “British statesmen,” Friedberg observed, “continued to talk as if nothing of any significance” had occurred, even as they abandoned worldwide sea supremacy. Abandoning supremacy was, in Friedberg’s view, a “prudent” and “sensible” strategy, given the economic and political realities of the time. And it didn’t stop Britain from helping to save the world in succeeding decades.

We could do much worse.

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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