Maritime Solutions to Continental Conundrums
Dr. Paine tells us that nations that are sea powers “can focus on national prosperity and oceanic trade.” This is a possibility. But, in the long run, a nation will be able to do so only if its economy derives benefits from being a sea power. This is not a given.
It was only after World War II that the current system of globalization and free trade came to dominate the world economy. This initially was driven by the ideological competition between communism and capitalism. The United States determined it would be less expensive to rebuild the economies of its wartime enemies and allies to form a bulwark against the further expansion of communism. With the only intact industrial base on the planet, the United States funded the restoration of war-ravaged countries. The recipients of Marshall Plan aid purchased U.S. products, which they used to rebuild their economies.
But simply reestablishing a manufacturing base would have been pointless unless the products of those factories could be sold. And since the United States was the only nation with the money to buy, the mission of the U.S. Navy became guaranteeing open seas so other countries could trade with the United States.
For a quarter-century, making the world’s oceans safe for trade actually worked as a national policy. The United States bought from and sold to other nations, with a slightly positive trade balance. But, as the U.S. merchant fleet withered and the United States ceased to be a net exporter, it no longer generated what Dr. Paine calls the “positive-sum trade and cumulative economic growth” of a sea power. Unfortunately for the United States, China now does. An examination of a graph comparing the U.S. and Chinese trade balances from 1960 to the present will tell you everything you need to know.
Anyone who has looked at labels while shopping knows that U.S. retailers have, for all practical purposes, simply become the distribution arm of foreign manufacturers. Many U.S. workers who used to have well-paid jobs in manufacturing no longer do. The effects can easily be seen throughout the Rust Belt.
So much of U.S. thinking remains trapped in the paradigm of a world that no longer exists. When a nation no longer derives the economic benefits of being a sea power but structures its navy as if it still is one, it has entered into the realm of wealth destruction. The United States has the resources to continue for a time with its current self-ruinous policies, but not indefinitely. Just ask anyone from the former Soviet Union what happens when a nation’s military reach exceeds its economic grasp.
I have no qualms with the essentiality of the Navy to our national defense, nor do I doubt its integral necessity to the success of our economy. However, Dr. Paine’s essay has several problems.
For example, she asserts: “Maritime powers can defend themselves primarily by sea, whereas continental powers cannot.” Much has changed in the 113 years since Vice Admiral Sato Tetsutaro, then the president of the Imperial Japanese Naval War College, published his 1908 tome of wishful thinking, The History of the Empire’s Defense, in which he identified the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan as the only nations that could primarily defend themselves with their navies.
In World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy was unable to defend its homeland because its defeat came not by naval power, but by a joint and combined-arms force that included amphibious, land, and air power. Certainly, U.S. Navy ships and aircraft contributed immensely, but they were not the sole cause of a complete and humiliating defeat. The contributions of the Army Air Forces were devastating, as were those of the Marine Corps and Army by land.
Dr. Paine offers the idea of sea powers gaining security from a moat. That notion is patently out of date. No moat is wide or deep enough to defend a nation from a foe armed with intercontinental missiles or bombers.
As for maritime powers generating wealth through commerce and especially nationally carried seaborne trade: Look at the United States. Most of its transoceanic trade comes on vessels belonging to or registered in other nations. Companies such as Walmart and Amazon generate wealth largely through commercial transportation assets owned by others that supply their distribution-based companies. The “ton-mile” costs delivered by transoceanic ships cannot be bested at present, with the possible exceptions of pipelines or barges.
(It also is true, and of concern, that some vessels on which we depend belong to China and other actors not of the highest ethical and moral caliber. Depending on a rival’s shipping capacity could lead to a severe diminution of commerce should that rival curtail that capacity’s availability. It would not require a single bullet, missile, or torpedo to imperil our international commerce. In recent years, for example, Russia has used natural gas deliveries to bully neighbors. But this simply highlights what evil regimes may do to neighbors.)
Dr. Paine oversimplifies the nature and advantages of internal lines of communication (LOCs). Internal and external lines may each be of significant value at times. Both also bring attendant risks. Internal lines are shorter and often safer conduits between a unit’s logistical base and its area of operations; a unit with good internal lines may reinforce itself more quickly than one depending on external LOCs. But this is no help to a unit that has been surrounded. External LOCs impose greater distances and risk for supply, reinforcement, or maneuver, but a force employing external LOCs can still operate successfully. Russia supported its army during the Russo-Japanese War via rail across the Eurasian landmass on mostly secure land-based internal LOCs. It likely wasn’t cheaper, but it was reliable. There are false economies; strategists really need to look at efficiency and reliability.
Dr. Paine’s historical examples come from times when transportation and combat technologies were less mature than today. And she ignores the overwhelming combat power wielded by the Air Force and Space Force. There are no longer two definitive currencies of combat power; there are at least four and probably five: land, air, space, maritime, and cyber. Strategists and historians must choose historical examples that address modern realities, not rely on historical examples constrained to the two-dimensional paradigm of sea power versus continental land power.
This article does not provide current strategic lessons to Proceedings readers. History has tremendous value, but its lessons need to be balanced against the realities and threats of the modern day. The Navy alone will not, in the end, win our nation’s wars. The Navy will contribute to victory in a joint effort. Defense spending need not be equal; all the armed services are a “priority.” No service is more important than the others.
—Col. Neal H. Bralley, USA (Ret.)