Nobody Asked Me, But...We Look Stupid

By Commander John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

President-elect Obama, now that he has picked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on, is more likely to look at high-end weapon systems for savings rather than a quick reduction in operating funds. This means the U.S. Air Force and Navy will get a very close look, possibly along the lines of the Clinton-era bottom-up review in 1993. This dynamic does not make for a favorable budget environment.

At no time in my professional life to date, including the difficult period of Tail Hook, have I seen the Navy seem so powerless. Army and Air Force folks with whom I work on a daily basis cannot understand how the rules of engagement and maritime law have come to a point where the Navy seems restricted to the role of a passive observer.

As we sit still, the Indian Navy and German helicopters, or even extremist Islamic entities, take matters into their own hands and gather the public-relations laurels. One imagines our leadership sitting in the Pentagon wringing their hands in frustration—"But what can we do, our hands are tied!"

By whom ? By the judge advocate generals ? Do we have a fear of failure at work here ? If so, that sentiment runs counter to the deepest traditions of the Navy. Does anyone remember the spirit of Admiral David G. Farragut's famous 1864 exhortation, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" ?

A mere eight and a half years ago, dynamic leadership was overseeing daily routine boardings and takedowns of Iraq sanctions violators in the Persian Gulf. I witnessed these dangerous operations firsthand, under the firm hand of a real seadog: then-Captain Mike Lefever. Believe me, the environment was very uncertain. SEALs and others, conducting boardings of the most difficult targets in many cases, had no idea of whether or not there would be resistance.

Perhaps the cover of a UN sanctions regime was all that was needed. But my own reading of maritime law—which we were required to study before deploying to the Gulf—was that piracy was one of those areas in which the Navy had a substantial degree of freedom of action. And it still does.

We should have seen this coming when the Royal Navy was similarly embarrassed by the Iranians in March 2007, and we should have adjusted accordingly. This negative publicity could not have come at a worse moment. The counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained U.S. Navy resources, while at the same time highlighting the limits of sea power.

And sea power remains a fundamental component of the U.S. national and military defense strategies. But our Navy may become fatally weakened if we cannot excel in the area in which we have the most to lose: at sea. The U.S. Navy was reborn in 1794 in response to piracy—highhanded actions by the Barbary Pirates and the buccaneering French Republic. It would be a shame and a paradox of history that our lack of response to piracy prefigured our Navy's decline.

There seems to be a fundamental lack of awareness about the seriousness of the perception problem. Sometimes Navy leaders see the world through a porthole - that is, through their own institutional lens. Our leaders need to contact their service colleagues and look at the situation from their perspective. They need to understand that arguments that make sense within a narrow institution often look silly to those outside "the culture." If we are damned if we don't and damned if we do, I for one prefer that we be damned if we do.

Commander Kuehn is an associate professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His most recent book is Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Building of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2008).

Commander Kuehn teaches military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is currently writing his dissertation to complete a Ph.D. from Kansas State University.

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