Introductory Navy history courses typically begin with lectures on traditions and progress in the service’s purpose: to fight and win our nation’s wars. We then normally learn that the Navy accomplishes this through sea control and power projection, with a long history of accomplishing both. Many quotes from Alfred Thayer Mahan are read, and the Pacific theater in World War II is touted as being a near-perfect example of having to fight your way to the fight by first achieving sea control as a means to power projection.
During the Cold War, because the Soviet Union’s naval capabilities were somewhat comparable to ours, our Fleet was trained and equipped to take on theirs at sea should the need arise. This possibility was taken seriously at all echelons. Since the end of that war, we have arguably had undisputed control of the sea, so naturally we evolved as a force and placed more focus on projecting power. But this was done at the cost of letting our sea-control capabilities atrophy and even eliminating them from the arsenal, in cases such as removing from service the Tomahawk antiship missile while maintaining its land-attack version and removing the Harpoon missile from frigates. We take great pride in our ability to precisely strike inland targets with cruise missiles and carrier-launched aircraft. We send our most important combat system and precious asset, the U.S. sailor, to support land campaigns against terrorism as individual augmentees. Can there be any greater example of projecting Navy power ashore than sending a highly trained sailor to support inland operations?
At some of the most basic levels, the Navy has culturally changed. If you ask junior sailors today what we do, what our mission is, most will respond with something like, “We put warheads on foreheads,” referring to strike warfare. In many cases, junior sailors more closely identify with striking inland targets than sinking ships. Arguably, we have abandoned important sea-control capabilities in favor of power projection. Have we assumed, if only subconsciously, that we will always have maritime superiority—and, if so, have we made policy, training, and acquisition decisions that have compromised our ability to maintain or regain control of the seas if necessary?
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt made some interesting observations along these lines in his Vietnam War memoir, On Watch:
In the war in Southeast Asia, as in the Korean War, the enemy could not dispute U.S. control of the seas and so the Navy’s main business became projection: amphibious landings, air strikes, and occasional episodes of naval shore bombardment. Not only did the Navy’s share of the budget shrink during those wars . . . but under the circumstances the Navy had to put a disproportionate share of the money it did receive into maintaining its capability for projection. . . . Sea-control forces . . . were allowed to obsolesce and, finally, retire without replacements. More damaging yet, work on future sea-control requirements . . . was postponed for many years. The one exception was nuclear-powered attack submarines, which through Admiral Hyman Rickover’s special influence on Capitol Hill got built in ample numbers.
If we were challenged by the full force of a peer or near-peer navy, could we protect our shipping and win an extended sea-control fight as we did in the Atlantic in 1943 and 1944? In 1942, before the United States mandated convoys and revitalized such capabilities, we had cargo ships sunk within sight of the U.S. shoreline. Could this happen again?
The decisions about the design of the America-class amphibious-assault ship indicate that we assume we will always have a safe place to land helicopters to get Marines ashore. And indeed, preparing to land Marines on a hostile beach with amphibious craft while providing support fire from the sea could be as outdated a notion as using muskets, cannon, and wooden sailing ships. But this judgment must not be made lightly.
Throughout history, militaries have held on to technologies and tactics far beyond their usefulness; in many cases, this was the difference between success and defeat. Maybe the previous core-mission area of sea control is unnecessary. As global economic and political systems continually become more interconnected and interdependent, this may act as such a powerful deterrent that large-scale conflict between major powers is no longer an option. Thus, the only real concern for the Navy would be projecting power in regional conflicts. This is a possibility. But are the consequences of making this assumption and removing sea control from our arsenal worth the risk of being wrong?