A multinational fleet-in-being would also lead to greater intelligence sharing and allow us greater forward presence, closer to enemy shores. This would make it easier to identify key targets. In fact, the 1,000-ship multinational navy is essentially the seagoing equivalent of counterinsurgency.
But while the 1,000-ship navy would help cut down on smuggling and piracy, and possibly terrorism, it doesn’t really deal with the basic strategic function of the U.S. Navy: the need to offer a serious, inviolable instrument for inflicting great punishment—a stare-down capability. Nor does it address the need to quickly transport troops and equipment to distant conflicts.
“The Navy is not primarily about low-level raiding, piracy patrols, and riverine warfare,” Jim Thomas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, told me. “If we delude ourselves into thinking that it is, we’re finished as a great power.” Piracy, for example, has been a scourge for hundreds of years in some of the very same places we say it cannot be tolerated, like off the Horn of Africa or in archipelagic Southeast Asia. As the late Vice Admiral and Navy futurist Arthur Cebrowski once told me, with a dismissive wave of his arm, “Piracy is just part of the noise.” No matter how the Pentagon spins it, the reality is that development of a 1,000-ship international navy is not a way of maintaining our current strength; rather, it’s a way of elegantly managing American decline.
But let’s remember that while the relative decline of the British Royal Navy helped produce World War I, Britain and its allies still won that war, thanks in some measure to sea power—and that Britain would go on to triumph in an even greater world war two decades later. Our own growing relative weakness need not mean that our adversaries gain advantage. Decline can be overrated.
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.