Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era

By Barrett Tillman

Currently, the Navy inventory includes some 280 combatant, logistics, and support vessels, plus 3,700 aircraft. But—more important to many—We the People employ 340,000 active-duty Navy personnel and 68,000 reservists plus 175,000 active-duty Marines and 39,600 reservists. This is not to mention 185,000 Navy Department civilians. 2

The current administration is on record as advocating a reduction in military spending between 10 and 25 percent, preferring to rely on diplomacy in hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Early this year Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), chairman of the House Finance Committee, wrote:

It is possible to debate how strong America should be militarily in relation to the rest of the world. But that is not a debate that needs to be entered into to reduce the military budget by a large amount. If, beginning one year from now, we were to cut military spending by 25 percent from its projected levels, we would still be immeasurably stronger than any combination of nations with whom we might be engaged. 3

President Barack Obama was less specific after the election, posting identical statements about naval policy on his personal and White House Web sites:

We must recapitalize our naval forces, replacing aging ships and modernizing existing platforms, while adapting them to the 21st century. Obama and Biden will add to the Maritime Pre-Positioning Force Squadrons to support operations ashore and invest in smaller, more capable ships, providing the agility to operate close to shore and the reach to rapidly deploy Marines to global crises. 4

The White House site did not address specifics about spending levels or percentage of reductions, but blue-water operations are notably absent from the President's naval agenda.

Clearly, the threat to America's conventional naval force structure looms hull-up on the political horizon. The question for naval professionals and their supporters therefore becomes: How do we justify a large blue-water Navy that has not fought a war at sea in three generations?

Hard Aground

If we found ourselves with 320 ships tomorrow, what would we do with the extras? Or, in the public relations arena, does it even matter? Where public opinion counts, it's not hard to conclude that perception trumps reality. As the popular Internet mantra says, "The Army and Marine Corps are at war. America is at the mall." So where does that leave the Navy?

To many observers, it leaves the service hard aground in the post-naval era. If "the naval era" is defined as the era of sea control, it ended in 1945—the last year of Fleet-size combat operations. Because the most recent sea battle worthy of the name occurred in October 1944, we are now into the seventh decade of the post-naval era.

The global war on terrorism is essentially a rifle fight. As much as partisans rankle at the notion, navies are largely irrelevant to its conduct, and the Air Force has been marginalized. In fact, unmanned aerial systems represent the growth industry, approaching the importance of manned aircraft. Meanwhile, the air superiority mission is nearly extinct: American pilots have shot down only 55 hostile aircraft in 36 years, the last one in 1999.

But the problem extends far beyond hardware to the fundamental realm of roles and missions. In a revealing document, the Department of Defense does not consider conventional warfighting a priority-land, sea, or air. In fact, the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review listed four missions under "Operationalizing the National Defense Strategy":

  • Defeating terrorist networks.
  • Defending the homeland in depth.
  • Shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads.
  • Preventing the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction. 5

An inbound question, low and fast out of left field: If not even DOD is concerned about conventional warfare, why do we persist in building a warfighting Fleet? We need to ask that question of ourselves so we can attempt to answer it when it's inevitably raised by doubters with their hands on the purse strings.

Clearly the Navy has a public-relations problem, since the taxpayers have opted for "change," including less military spending. Shaping public opinion to support the current force structure poses a daunting task, tacitly admitted in the Navy's official PR vehicle, an annual presentation depicting the service's activities. The 2008 version contains some 118 images, of which four involved firing live ordnance (none in combat) while 20 or more depicted humanitarian or relief missions. 6

It was not always such.

Centuries of Combat

During the 16th through 18th centuries, conflict at sea was more or less constant. It peaked in the 17th century when naval actions occurred in at least 79 of those 100 years. Following Trafalgar in 1805, sea battles or engagements diminished with the Royal Navy's supremacy but still occurred in at least 27 of the next 65 years, from Asia to North America. 7

No naval actions since 1945 have required combat fleets to protect sea lanes—the very reason navies exist. Instead, light forces have proved most useful, escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf and currently combating pirates off Africa. Meanwhile, only isolated engagements have occurred in odd places at random intervals. In 1967 the Egyptian Navy inaugurated the missile age in war at sea by sinking an Israeli destroyer, but there have been no naval surface-to-surface missile engagements since. In the 1971 Indo-Pakistani clash, the Indians sank a French-built Paki submarine, and one of her sisters torpedoed a British-built Indian destroyer.

More than ten years later off the Falklands, HMS Conqueror torpedoed the 44-year-old cruiser General Belgrano , which had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the USS Phoenix (CL-46). It was the second and last time since World War II that a submarine had sunk an enemy ship.

In 1988, U.S. Navy ships and aircraft conducted Operation Praying Mantis, sinking an Iranian frigate, a gunboat, and three speedboats. The captain of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) termed it "the largest American sea battle since World War II." Though a grandiose description, it was nonetheless accurate—and remains so today. 8

Pundits might counter the notion of the post-naval era by noting that amphibious operations have occurred since World War II. But they are rare: the most notable subsequent cross-beach operations were Inchon (United States, 1950), Suez (Anglo-French, 1956), and the Falklands (British, 1982), and none was seriously opposed on the beach. A forced entry such as Tarawa or Iwo Jima has not occurred in 64 years and does not appear likely in the immediate future. Consequently, some critics question the need for the Marine Corps' new expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV). Indeed, the Marines emphasize aerial lift to avoid the fight at the high tide mark, hence the tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey. 9

Deterrence and Presence

In the absence of power projection, navies default to lesser tasks. "Presence" is an age-old naval mission, better known as "showing the flag." More colorfully, it was called "gunboat diplomacy," with the duty gunboat or (in especially touchy situations) a naval squadron appearing offshore to quell restless natives or opponents with a show of force.

The U.S. Navy's Cold War mission of deterrence largely vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. The reason is disturbingly simple: there is no peer opponent to be deterred. That leaves the service with a reduced menu of options for justifying its enormous expense.

Moreover, if you get Sailors and Marines aside and ask them about their military experience, many express dissatisfaction. They allude to disaster relief as "pizza delivery"—not the reason they enlisted.

What, then, is the purpose of "this people's Navy," and how should it be employed? Moreover, how has the use of a navy been perceived throughout history?

In his 1987 treatise, The Western Way of War, Victor Davis Hanson described Greek hoplite influence on Western military thought, emphasizing the concept of the decisive battle. The Hellenic states of the 4th century BC regarded decisive battle as necessary, avoiding prolonged attrition and adverse agricultural-economic effects. No less was true of Western naval thought, epitomized in the early 20th-century doctrine of a decisive battle, whether in the North Sea or mid-Pacific. The world's leading navies accepted the idea, building ships, fleets, strategy, tactics, and doctrine around it. For Imperial Japan, it led to disaster at Midway in June 1942.

Whatever the doctrine, institutional knowledge of war at sea is a precious commodity, increasingly rare: the junior officers who fought at Leyte Gulf retired between the 1960s and the early 1980s. The average American World War II veteran was born in 1919, making the median age 90 at this writing while the teenaged Sailors of VJ-Day now are in their early 80s. Therefore, personal knowledge of such events is vanishing at an accelerated rate and will be gone in a decade. While few would claim that the specifics of the Leyte Gulf battle apply in the 21st century, Navy supporters should realize that as "the greatest" officers and Sailors depart the scene, so does much of the population disposed to support the service politically. (Only about one-third of Naval Institute members were alive in 1944.)

The China Scenario

In attempting to justify a Cold War force structure, many military pundits cling to the military stature of China as proof of a possible large conventional-war scenario against a pseudo-peer rival. Since only China possesses anything remotely approaching the prospect of challenging American hegemony—and only in Asian waters—Beijing ergo becomes the "threat" that justifies maintaining the Cold War force structure.

China's development of the DF-21 long-range antiship ballistic missile, presumably intended for American carriers, has drawn much attention. Yet even granting the perfection of such a weapon, the most obvious question goes begging: why would China use it? Why would Beijing start a war with its number-two trading partner—a war that would ruin both economies? 10

Furthermore, the U.S. Navy owns nearly as many major combatants as Russia and China combined. In tonnage, we hold a 2.6 to 1 advantage over them. No other coalition—actual or imagined—even comes close. But we need to ask ourselves: does that matter? In today's world the most urgent naval threat consists not of ships, subs, or aircraft, but of mines-and pirates. 11

While nobody is saying that the world's navies should stress their 18th-century antipiracy roles, we might consider where we are today in light of where we have been—and possibly learn some lessons. 

The Ghosts of Tsushima

Where will the greatest learning opportunity arise in 21st-century warfare?

Perhaps at sea.

Today, as then, a new generation of ships, weapons, tactics, and doctrine remain untried in combat. In fact, entire generations of naval hardware have come and gone with not one drop of blood shed. We never know how well we have prepared until we have to sink and perhaps be sunk.

A prediction: if it happens, we will be surprised and frustrated. History shows that peacetime expectations almost never are realized in combat. Even more troubling, Americans traditionally drift toward isolationism, seeking a perennial "peace dividend" after every conflict from World War I onward, including (even especially) the Cold War.

We are now in much the same position as a century ago: the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. When the Emperor's and the Tsar's fleets clashed in Tsushima Strait, neither side had experience in modern naval combat on that scale. Actually, nobody did. True, the Yankees had drubbed the Spanish in Cuban and Philippine waters only seven years before, but the number and quality of the combatants paled in comparison to Tsushima. Santiago Bay involved nine armored warships; Manila Bay merely six. At Tsushima the scale on both sides dwarfed the combined American and Spanish forces. Japan fielded 31 battleships and cruisers; Russia 19. Both fleets possessed new combatants of 12,000 to 13,000 tons with 12-inch rifles. The difference was that Japan had spent the interim period far better than Russia had. The results showed in combat: Admiral Togo Heihachiro's practiced gunners sank more than 20 Russian ships while his force lost three torpedo boats.

The results were eye-openers for the global naval community. Seen in context, prior to 1898 there had been no real naval battles since the American Civil War, and those were small. The main events had been Turko-Greek feuding and occasional South American posturing, often with no ship losses. Nobody really knew what to expect of early 20th-century combat until it actually occurred. In fact, Tsushima set the standard for much that followed. At Jutland in 1916, in the definitive dreadnought clash, the Royal Navy scored about 3 percent hits and steamed home licking its wounds, having lost 14 ships to Germany's 11. Prewar gunnery exercises had generated much higher expectations when in fact 5 percent hits would have been exceptional. But the British did not know that.

The U.S. Navy learned much the same lessons in World War II, belatedly realizing that the gamesmanship that won peacetime gunnery pennants rarely produced ship-killing results in combat.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Counting from 1967 we are 40-plus years into the missile age of naval warfare, but there have been only a handful of small engagements since then. As of this writing, most likely the first missile-era naval battle will involve nations other than the United States. China still looms large in the Pentagon's menu of scenarios, but where blue-water combat might occur between the Americans and the Chinese remains extremely dubious. More than ever, China versus Taiwan appears unlikely, considering their much-improved relations. However, China versus other players is conceivable, as is the perennial prospect of India-Pakistan. But if history is any indicator, a genuine war at sea may come out of port field, with unlikely antagonists (witness Britain-Argentina).

It stands to reason that after more than 60 years, another noteworthy clash at sea is likely. History indicates that it will just as likely be a small, isolated event as part of a larger campaign in a strategic location. But whenever or wherever it occurs, stand by to be surprised.

Sea Blindness?

In an interdependent global economy, world trade flourishes with largely unrestricted access to the oceans. Seafaring nations have enjoyed such benefits for generations now - so much so that the world's population takes maritime trade entirely for granted.

And yet Americans might take note of a private British Web site, savetheroyalnavy.org. The avowed purpose is "to provide a major increase in funding to redress decades of cuts and neglect." In part, the orgainization's site says, "We think Britain can avoid future conflict by maintaining peace and stability through armed deterrence. We reject the arguments . . . advocating unilateral disarmament as dangerous and unrealistic. Unless we attain the utopian fantasy of worldwide multilateral disarmament we must retain forces to protect ourselves." 12

Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, First Sea Lord, recently referred to "sea blindness" being endemic in the UK and across the western world. He notes that 95 percent of global trade passes through nine vulnerable chokepoints. That geopolitical fact goes hand in glove with the Save the Royal Navy site, "Aiming to educate the public about Britain's need for strong naval forces and to raise awareness of the dangers of allowing the navy to decline." 13

Unfortunately, it's a hard sell. After all, what are the dangers? Loss of sea control? To whom? By what naval power or alliance of powers? Interdiction of seaborne commerce? By whom? To what naval power or alliance? Deterrence? Against whom? What naval power or alliance?

While the U.S. Navy's current status is nowhere as grim as the Royal Navy's, the likelihood of serious cutbacks exists in the current and future political atmosphere.

Whatever the details, whatever the numbers, the service's future rests with those of us who support the idea as well as the institution of the U.S. Navy. We need to be able to answer the question: "Why do we still have such a big navy when we hardly ever use it?"

We ignore that query at our peril. So let the discussion begin.


1. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/organization/org-top.asp accessed 12 April 2009.

2. Fiscal Year 2008/2009 Department of the Navy Budget Materials. http://www.finance.hq.navy.mil/fmb/08pres/books.htm accessed 23 February 2009.

3. The Nation, 11 February 2009, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090302/frank .

4. "Rebuild the military for 21st century tasks." http://www.barackobama.com/issues/defense/ , http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/defense/ , Both sites accessed 23 February 2009.

5. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/dod/qdr-2006-repor... p. 19.

6. "U.S. Navy Year in Pictures 2008." http://www.navy.mil/media/OtherMedia/YearInReview/yir08/start_here.html .

7. For a detailed list of naval battles and engagements, see http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/List-of-naval-battles

8. The Hook, Summer 1988, p. 72.

9. "Problems Stall Pentagon's New Fighting Vehicle." Washington Post , 7 February 2007.

10. "New Concern Over Chinese 'Carrier Killer'" http://blog.usni.org/?p=1964 , http://www.military.com/news/article/April-2009/new-concerns-over-chines...

11. Robert Work. Strategy for the Long Haul. The U.S. Navy: Plotting a Course for Tomorrow's Fleet. http://www.csbaonline.org/4Publications/PubLibrary/S.20090217.Charting_A...

12. http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/index.html , accessed 23 February 2009.

13. "The Commanders Respond." Proceedings , March 2009, p. 33.

Mr. Tillman is a professional writer, speaker, and award-winning historian who has written nearly 50 books and hundreds of articles. His next book is Whirlwind: Bombing Japan 1942-1945 , due from Simon & Schuster in 2010. He is also a commentator on The History Channel and National Geographic Channel.



Mr. Tillman is the author of numerous books and articles on military aviation topics, including Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II

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