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Two Cheers for the New Navalism

Reorienting U.S. strategy around sea power is a good idea—provided it can be done responsibly.
The Great White Fleet By John Charles Roach, 1984.

At the end of the 19th century, the United States was gripped by a sudden enthusiasm for sea power. The immediate impetus was literary in nature—in one of the most massively influential works of military strategy ever published, American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan developed a view of history which linked the fortunes of states to their command of the seas. Applied to his own country—then in what Mahan considered “a period of commercial and naval decadence”—this theory suggested the United States needed to seriously build up its maritime power, or risk losing out to rivals who did. His calls were taken seriously by “navalist” statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who eagerly set about turning what had been a moldering collection of Civil War relics into one of the world’s premier battlefleets. 

Fast forward to 2021, and a similar anxiety about the state of America’s navy is playing out among a growing coterie of legislators, national security officials, and defense commentators. Like their turn-of-the-century forebears, today’s navalists see maritime dominance as critical to national power, and worry the country is being outclassed by its competitors. They note with alarm China’s rapidly expanding naval capabilities: Last year, Beijing acquired, in terms of sheer numbers, the largest fleet on the planet, even as the U.S. plans to cut its own shipbuilding budget. The geographic arena of Sino-American competition is also adduced to bolster the case; clearly ships, submarines, and naval aircraft will play a more important role in the Western Pacific than tanks and infantry. 

For adherents of this view, the obvious prescription is to boost investment in maritime capabilities—and that is exactly what they have been pushing for. Some have advocated for diverting money from other areas. “You can’t get to where you need to be if you just continue to cut the pie one-third, one-third, one-third,” the chair of the House Seapower Subcommittee argued earlier this year, “the Navy’s share of resources have to grow.” Others have been blunter:  “We need more money” was the message the Chief of Naval Operations offered in January. All agree, as a recent cover piece for National Review put it, that the demands of great power competition mean “America must become a sea power again.”

Although skeptics will understandably wince at the invocation of what is already a hoary national security cliché, an explicitly navalist strategy does have considerable attractions. China, despite the frequent exaggerations of some foreign policy circles, is still America’s number one geopolitical challenge. It is the only country which even approaches peer status, and the only serious alternative hegemon on offer. So, if the U.S. is going to maintain a serious military, it makes sense to tool it for an actual threat, rather than the counter-insurgency phantoms the Pentagon has chased for the last two decades. This is especially true when one considers the importance of commercial sea lanes, which—since they account for 80 percent of global trade—Washington is interested in keeping open and safe.

Moreover, prioritizing the Navy at the expense of other services can act as a check on strategic adventurism. For a country like the United States, which lacks serious threats from its neighbors, strong ground forces are almost inherently expeditionary; their very existence, in addition to being rather expensive, can create a strong temptation to use. A powerful navy, on the other hand, can serve a more naturally defensive purpose, guarding potential avenues of attack and patrolling commercial sea lanes without posing an overtly offensive threat (although of course there are exceptions to this general rule—recall the recent use of submarines in launching missile strikes against Syria). It is for this reason that enthusiasts for what is now termed “foreign policy restraint” have long held navalist sympathies: “From Cromwell to Cobden,” as one 19th century newspaper proclaimed, “good radicals have ever insisted on an all-powerful navy.” 

But although its general logic is sound, the U.S. should be wary of uncritically embracing the new navalism. The same problems which have bedeviled other areas of our defense establishment—prodigious spending, mediocrity and underperformance, and massive threat inflation—loom over the navy as well. To ensure they are kept in check, three broad principles should be adopted to guide decision-making.

Firstly, new investments in the Navy should be made with existing resources. It will be easy and tempting for policymakers to simply advocate increasing topline spending, but the reality is that the roughly $715 billion we currently spend on defense is more than sufficient. The issue is the way we allocate it—giving the three major services a roughly equal proportion of money just doesn’t reflect the country’s strategic needs. A massive army was necessary to deter Soviet divisions from rushing the Fulda Gap; it was also (unfortunately) crucial to the wars our government chose to wage in Iraq and Afghanistan. But since the need for huge ground forces is less pronounced today than at any other point in recent history, the U.S. should look to cut the Army’s excess capability and divert the savings into the Navy (one way to do this, as one commentator suggested last year, may be to slim down the Army’s expensive and unwieldy armor and air units).

Secondly, beyond merely securing adequate resources for naval programs, policymakers must get comfortable exercising zealous oversight. The F-35 may be the poster child for a broken acquisition process, but the Navy has had its fair share of procurement disasters. The development of the Littoral Combat Ship, for instance, began in the early 2000s to provide a cheap, effective way to “dominate the near-land battlespace”. But in the ensuing decade and a half, per-unit cost more than doubled, design and mechanical problems proliferated at a stunning rate, and the concept as whole performed so poorly that the first two ships are set to be decommissioned only 12 years after their launch. And since even successful programs are astronomically expensive (a single Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier costs around $13 billion), ensuring that the builders, buyers, and maintainers of naval hardware are held accountable by both Congressional and Defense leadership will be enormously important.

Finally, it will be crucial to clearly and accurately articulate the strategic purpose to which American naval power will be put. Beijing is not an all-powerful boogeyman, and although there is an ideological dimension at play, the Sino-American rivalry is primarily driven by interests, not values. The stakes of maritime competition are therefore significant, but limited: Chinese naval dominance could lead to the forcible takeover of Taiwan, the gradual peeling away of allies like Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, and the erection of barriers or controls on seaborne commerce and navigation which are unfavorable to American economic interests. Working backwards, the U.S. can then use these threats to identify end-states around which to orient an achievable naval strategy. But if Washington refuses to identify clear strategic goals—or, worse, embraces inflated and unrealistic ones—the resultant naval moves may undermine our national security, provoking Beijing rather than deterring it. 

As they work to build up American sea power, policymakers should be mindful of both the pitfalls and opportunities of the new navalism. Simply ploughing money into the Navy is likely to leave the U.S. with a more expensive and less effective force, all the while increasing the risks of major power war. But if done wisely, a maritime-centric strategy can help the country rebalance its defense policy in a more prudent and effective manner, protecting core national interests without imposing onerous expenses. 

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst and writer based in Northern Virginia.



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