‘Wherever a [U.S.] military base is located, [the United States] is tied up by a noose.” This is how Chairman Mao Zedong described America’s strategic challenge with Taiwan amid the 1958 Quemoy-Matsu crisis.
Since World War II, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on military bases around the world. Much of this has gone to facilities that served U.S. interests for a few years, then, through the vagaries of geopolitical changes, ended up lost to our forces. We built Wheelus Air Base in Libya to then bomb it during the regime of former prime minister Moammar Gadhafi. The United States funded billions’ worth of United Nations construction in Mogadishu, only to see Somalis looting the buildings even as our Navy ships evacuated UN forces. At the same time, we have spent tens of billions to build and operate aircraft carriers that we have used in one operation after another to the end of their service lives.
Amid the complex dynamics of national security, fixed facilities create vulnerabilities that adversaries exploit on strategic and military levels. They are political targets, tangible symbols of “American imperialism.” They are the objectives of physical attack, whether by terrorists or conventional forces. They create anchors that can drive policy and military activity, forcing us to bend planning to meet physical realities rather than maintaining the flexibility to adapt to changing technical, strategic, and military realities. These anchors demand continuing investments and may complicate U.S. national-security challenges.
In 1958, as we conducted operations in Lebanon, the People’s Republic of China commenced military attacks on Taiwanese islands (with serious artillery barrages and other mounting tension) that led to significant U.S. military deployments, notably the movement of six aircraft carriers to the area, including one moved from Lebanon.
For American leadership, these crises were not directly linked. But the Chinese saw them in a different light. As he sought to influence global events, Mao Zedong viewed developments such as the establishment of U.S. military bases in Taiwan and elsewhere through the lens of strategy. As he put it, fixed overseas facilities are indeed “nooses” that often hamper more than they help.
But investing in ships creates a different dynamic than building bases on foreign soil. Sea-based forces are immune to the political noose. Naval forces enable U.S. national-security flexibility in the face of dynamic geopolitical and technical change. The Fleet can be shifted around the globe—rapidly in crisis or methodically during strategic developments. Operating on the high seas, the President doesn’t have to ask permission of another country before ordering naval forces to take action. Ships have proved adaptable to technical and operational requirements that change over time. Aircraft carriers, the preeminent Navy capital investment, are true mobile bases. Their flexibility allows them to slip the noose while supporting multiple generations of aircraft and adapting to a wide range of missions throughout their 50-year lifetime.
Additionally, unlike pouring concrete overseas, building ships creates economic and technical dynamism within our nation. According to the Department of Commerce, every $1 million spent on shipbuilding creates 18 direct and indirect years of employment. Putting our capital-investment resources into ships for the Navy rather than temporary bases overseas could employ tens of thousands of Americans. This would strengthen the shipbuilding industrial base, which remains one of largest manufacturing chains in the nation that has not been outsourced to China. Investing in ships strengthens this industry and allows shipbuilders to flexibly support other arenas, such as key engineering requirements for energy infrastructure.
Perhaps pouring concrete was appropriate during the Cold War, but today, we must be able to adapt to rapid changes. The nation is at an inflection point where reassessing paths of doing business is not only possible, it is necessary. Our national requirements drive the simple conclusion that we must loosen the noose. The United States should be very judicious in pouring concrete overseas and focus on building reusable U.S. Navy platforms in our shipyards.