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By Major Jon T. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps
must tailor our military power to deal "'ith the threats of the future, not such ghosts of the past as these Soviet strategic bombers, dismantled in 1989. Arms control telks can help us reduce our reliance on systems—inset, the Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) in drydock—targeted mainly on the Soviet Navy.
Our naval leaders universally scorn the idea of arms control at sea. Their view is based largely on two factors: the position of the United States as a mari- tinie power requires that it maintain unchallenged naval strength, and past efforts at naval arms control led to “disasters.” '
But a closer examination of these issues reveals two significant problems. The naval treaties of the 1920s and 1 ^30s were largely beneficial for the United States. And present naval force structure, designed to counter the S°viet Navy, is not equally useful against other potential security threats. A reappraisal of naval arms control is thus 111 order, since such agreements might actually increase jbe utility of the U.S. Navy in this era of shrinking defense budgets and shifting international tensions.
As a maritime nation the United States must maintain enough force to protect its interests around the world. According to some naval leaders, this means that even if *he Soviet threat is much reduced, we will still need just as rnany ships and planes. This view assumes that our current force structure is equally suited to any situation that we tfoght face. In many respects this is so, but in some critical aspects today’s Navy is not well prepared to fight against a non-Soviet opponent.
Although the U.S. and Soviet navies are not mirror images, each is designed to fight against the other. Much of °ur current force serves us well in Third World contingents, such as the one in the Persian Gulf. Carriers and sophisticated aircraft are needed to employ striking power. Aegis cruisers and antisubmarine warfare escorts are needed to protect against enemy air and submarine threats. Amphibious forces with modern equipment are necessary to project power ashore.
But nuclear submarines have only marginal utility. They carry a handful of land-attack cruise missiles, but their load hardly justifies their enormous acquisition and life-cycle costs. In addition, these submarine-launched missiles are much less flexible in terms of retargeting than are their surface-based counterparts. Submarines can also sink enemy warships or merchantmen, but there is no hostile nation that possesses enough of either to require a force of 100 nuclear-powered attack submarines. Land- based maritime patrol aircraft are equally ill suited to most contingencies. Few potential enemies possess submarines, and when they do it is only in small numbers. In addition, they tend to be located where our aircraft may be unable to deploy because of basing rights.
Large numbers of frigates would be needed to get convoys across the Atlantic in a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation, but there is a much lower requirement for them in the absence of a Soviet threat. We do not need dozens of escorts on hand to repeat the Kuwait convoys. Nuclear cruise missiles also would seem to be of little use in a future without a Soviet threat.
In each of the scenarios mentioned, U.S. requirements for certain weapons could be drastically cut back if an arms accord reduced the Soviet forces they are designed to counter. The huge Soviet submarine fleet drives much of our requirement for attack submarines. But each nation has little need for these vessels unless there is a superpower confrontation, which now seems highly unlikely. An agreement to scrap most of the attack submarines (coupled with a nuclear accord to reduce ballistic missile submarines) would free up immense resources that could be channeled to more useful areas. The Soviets might gladly cut back their submarine force to approximate parity with ours, since the money saved would make a significant difference in their economy without reducing their interna-
tional influence. A similar-size U.S. force, say 40 attack submarines, would provide a large enough deployment base for any conceivable Third World scenario. U.S. savings could contribute to deficit reduction, the retention of the current carrier force, the purchase of fast sealift ships, and other needs.
Building limitations would ensure a rough balance of quality, cut back future acquisition costs, and still maintain some shipyard capability. A much-reduced Soviet submarine threat would also decrease requirements for escort vessels and maritime patrol aircraft. There are many other possibilities.
A treaty of this nature would restrain U.S. sea power, but it would not alter U.S. ability to deal with the Soviet Navy, nor would it weaken U.S. readiness. The savings, properly used, could even enhance our capability to respond to Third World crises and increase international stability.
An unenforceable treaty, of course, is of no benefit to the United States. Given the current turmoil in the Soviet Union and the possibility of unexpected changes in leadership, the United States should be wary, for the moment, of new arms-control commitments. However, if moderate factions reassert control and put the Soviet Union back on the course that brought down the Berlin Wall, we must be prepared to act.
A reliable Soviet government can be expected to honor a naval agreement because it stands to gain a great deal from limitations on its defense establishment. Spending cuts will allow it to shore up a faltering economy in order to avoid domestic unrest, and reduced military manpower requirements will lessen nationalist tensions. A weakened Soviet military also will be less of a threat to civilian leadership. It is, obviously, in the security interests of the United States to do anything in its power to foster order in the Soviet Union.
A renewed Soviet commitment to international stability and harmony, coupled with modern intelligence-gathering technology and increasing Soviet acceptance of intrusive verification measures, would minimize the risk of treaty violations. Each superpower could thus eliminate arms that are otherwise maintained solely because of the potential threat from its former opponent. The naval treaties of the pre-World War II era provide an instructive example of the mutual benefits of arms control at sea.
Lessons of History
The first naval arms accord came out of the 1921 Washington Conference called by the United States to deal with an impending arms race at sea. The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty established a 5:3:1.75 tonnage ratio for capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers) and aircraft carriers. Britain and the United States occupied the strongest position, with Japan relegated to a 60% share and France and Italy bringing up the rear. The accord also placed limits on the size of individual ships: 35,000 tons for capital ships, 27,000 tons for carriers, and 10,000 tons for cruisers. A ten-year building holiday prevented the acquisition of new capital ships, and another clause re
stricted the fortification of naval bases in the Pacific (with exceptions for Japan proper, Hawaii, and Singapore). The tonnage limits forced the signatories to scrap 66 vessels, most outmoded or under construction. Supplemental treaties reduced tensions between the powers by guaranteeing the integrity of Pacific possessions and papering over disagreements on the status of China.
The failure to address smaller warships led to an immediate arms race in that field. Subsequent attempts to correct this resulted in the 1930 London Treaty, which granted Japan a 60% ratio in heavy cruisers, 70% in light cruisers and destroyers, and equality in submarines. It also extended the capital ship building holiday until 1936. Unlike the Washington Treaty, this accord did not bring about real reductions; rather it generally capped naval strength at existing levels.
Some analysts and naval writers believe that Japan's violation of the accords provided it with a significant advantage in World War II. An oft-cited example of cheating has been Japan’s 72,000-ton Yamato-class battleships- twice the size allowed by the Washington Treaty.
However, these ships were not “built in violation of agreements. 1 The Japanese began design work on the superships in 1934, the same year in which they gave the required two-year notice for abrogation of the treaties- They did not lay the keel of the first ship until 1937, after the treaties were no longer in force. By that time the United States was free to build similar vessels but chose to remain with a size that could fit through the Panama Canal. As it turned out, the Japanese completed only the Yamato and Musashi, and neither ever fired upon an Allied warship.
But there were instances of cheating—the Japanese understated the displacement of new cruisers by as much as 3,000 tons. This did not add to the number of vessels the treaty allowed, but the increased size provided potential benefits: more weapons, armor, fuel, or ammunition- But there is no indication that these advantages affected the outcome of battles. Early Japanese surface victories around Guadalcanal largely resulted from superior tactics, training, and weapons, none of which bore any relation to ship size. Most other engagements were decided by air power, but even those few fought out on the surface later in the war were almost universally won by the United States. The Japanese advantage was thus an illusory one- In addition, the United States was not above bending the treaties to its own benefit. The Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) were 3,000 tons above limit as well, and the Navy modernized its battleships to the point that Britain protested the practice. Treaty violations, real or imagined, simply played no significant role in the outcome of World War II.
Another myth about the treaties is that they unilaterally ceded a naval advantage that the United States would otherwise have maintained in the absence of any accords. The numbers do not agree. In 1922 the United States did scrap nearly twice as many capital ships as Japan. However, even without an agreement, Japan would have had a 55% ratio, a comparatively insignificant alteration in relative combat power. The United States maintained a sub-
sfantial advantage under the treaty, especially since Japan ^as the only capital ship threat throughout the treaty era. The likely allied combination of the United States, Britain> and France possessed an even more overwhelming suPeriority against possible opponents.
The 5:3 ratio also applied to carriers, but in 1922 the United States possessed only the 12,000-ton Langley (CV- with no other ships of that type under construction. The Japanese had the 7,500-ton Hosho. The United States surrendered no marked superiority in this category by s'gning the Washington Treaty, which authorized us to °utbuild Japan by 54,000 tons.
The failure to include smaller warships in the first treaty ^'d provide the Japanese with an opportunity. They soon Caught up with the United States in cruiser strength and Narrowed the gap in destroyers and submarines. The shift ln the balance was even more remarkable in terms of qual- 'ty. By 1927 the Imperial Navy had 214,000 tons of mod- err> cruisers in service or on the ways, whereas the United States compared unfavorably at just 155,000 tons. We had *2 postwar destroyers to Japan’s 72.
The disparity was not the fault of the treaty, however; it resulted, in fact, from the lack of an accord. By capping Japanese force levels, the 1930 London agreement served to prevent a further erosion of U.S. superiority.
One might argue that the treaties bred a complacency that allowed the United States to fritter away its lead in naval strength. Consequently, a true appreciation of the effect of the accords must look at the size the fleets might have been in the absence of such controls.
In 1914, the United States and Japan were newly rising naval powers, though both trailed far behind Britain and rapidly expanding Germany. Two years later, with all the other Beets enmeshed in war, President Woodrow Wilson launched an unprecedented construction program with a vow to build “the greatest Navy in the world.”2 If completed, this expansion would have brought us to parity with Great Britain. The onset of war in 1917 temporarily shifted the priority from battleships to escorts, but the program still existed on paper when the armistice came into effect a year later. In 1919, Wilson pressed Congress to authorize a doubling of the 1916 naval act, though he saw this second measure more as a bargaining chip to hold over Britain’s head at the Versailles negotiations. Exhausted both in financial and human terms, Britain could not compete with U.S. building initiatives.
It was the U.S. Congress, of course, that decided what would actually be built. The legislature rejected Wilson’s 1919 program and slowed the rate of building called for in the 1916 act. In a more telling action, it even cut personnel spending “to a figure far below that considered necessary to man the fleet” already in existence.3 The following year, Congress reduced the naval budget even further and voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling for a naval disarmament conference. Clearly, there was widespread political and public opposition to naval expansion at this time; traditional American frugality and isolationism reasserted themselves and were reinforced by a new sentiment of pacifism. Naval treaties were merely a symptom of national malaise, not the cause.
Most Americans remained unconcerned about naval matters for the next 12 years. In the aftermath of the Washington Treaty, naval spending fell even further, to
The Building Holiday
The establishment of a capital ship building holiday in the 1920s caused the three largest navies to devote more resources to carriers, which they were allowed to construct, than they otherwise would have. The budget requests of each navy clearly demonstrate the priorities they would have liked to pursue.
After 1922, the U.S. Navy consistently sought funds to build enough carriers to reach treaty limits, but Congress routinely denied the money. However, the Navy’s general board also placed the carrier request last in priority, while battleship modernization held first place! From 1934 onward, with the advent of freedom from treaty constraints, the Navy always requested larger numbers of battleships than carriers, and often by a substantial margin (seven battleships and just one carrier in the 1934 Vinson-Trammell Act, for example).
Britain and Japan established similar priorities. Although no relative advantage resulted, it is clear that the treaties forced the major navies to build fewer battleships than they would have liked. The capital ships eventually played an important role in World War II, but their utility paled in comparison with the carrier. The Lexington and Saratoga, forerunners of the big fleet carriers that won the war, existed only because of treaty imperatives.
—J. T. Hoffman
just one-sixth of the 1918 level. (It would hover near this point until the country undertook serious rearmament in 1934.)
Even those parts of the 1916 program the treaty did not cover suffered from the budget ax. From 1923 to 1932, Congress authorized fewer vessels than the treaties allowed (just 1 carrier, 22 surface ships, and 6 submarines), and consistently stretched out the completion of those few vessels it had approved. This was particularly true after the onset of the Depression. In 1931, Congress, at President Herbert Hoover’s behest, reduced construction funds for the fiscal year in progress and deleted them entirely during 1932 and 1933. Hoover did not ask for a single new ship during his tenure and the legislature approved. The Washington agreement allowed the United States to fortify its important base in Hawaii, but the government appropriated almost no funds for the project. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an ardent navalist, could begin building ships in 1933 only by resorting to a subterfuge using economic recovery funds.
Britain followed a similar course. In August 1919, the Cabinet decided to stop all ship construction in progress, reduce the number of ships in commission, and seek an arms-limitation treaty with the United States. Even Winston Churchill, later known as the quintessential British bulldog for his opposition to appeasement, was an ardent advocate of reduced naval spending during his term as Chancellor of the Exchequer, from 1924 to 1929. The United States and Britain were aware of the Japanese buildup in smaller warships during the 1920s, but economy and pacifism, rather than security, governed defense spending. The western navies would not have been bigger in the absence of treaties.
Instead of aiding our future enemy, the agreements served to restrain a Japanese building program that would have further outdistanced the lackadaisical efforts of its Pacific rivals. During the treaty era Japan built up to its carrier limit. In 1936, it had three flattops totaling 79,000 tons, and it had scrapped the old Hosho to stay under its allowance. The United States had three vessels as well, but was more than 50,000 tons under its much higher limit. The London Treaty likewise diminished Japanese construction of smaller warships. The Imperial Navy’s building programs fell to postwar lows in 1930-1931, as the liberal government then in power enforced a policy of treaty compliance and economic retrenchment. Japah completed no new battleships during the 15-year building holiday.
When the treaties ended, the Japanese possessed a lead over the United States in cruisers and parity in carriers. They did not have as many battleships, destroyers, and submarines, but had more modem vessels of the latter two types. The United States had surrendered a unilateral advantage, but this was not because of the treaties. Likewise, it was not the end of limitations, but the aggressive actions of Japan, Germany, and Italy that finally stimulated rearmament. Beginning in 1934, political leaders fashioned a consensus for naval expansion and embarked on a building program that would eventually dwarf even the 1916 effort. By 1939, the United States had more ships under construction than did Japan and was already well on the way to producing the overwhelming numbers that would contribute to victory in World War II.
As the Soviet conventional threat recedes, the United States needs to go back to the history of naval arms control in order to find its way to a future of maritime strength and national prosperity. If we want to be prepared for likely conflicts, such as the recent one in the Persian Gulf, we must redirect our efforts. The battleships, carriers, and fast sealift ships that won this war must also prevail in the budget wars to come. It is time for our naval leaders to reevaluate their position on arms control at sea and embrace the idea that naval limitations can further the security of the nation.
‘Col. W. Hays Park. USMCR, “Arms Control During the Pre-Nuclear Era," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1990, p. 123.
-Roger Dingman, Power in the Pacific, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976 p. 34.
^Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, London: Collins 1968 v I no.
Major Hoffman is a senior instructor in history at the Naval Academy. He has served tours with active and reserve infantry battalions and has a master’s degree in military history from Ohio State University.