Word Of US Naval Decline Is Premature

Robert Kaplan sounded the alarm of "America's Elegant Decline" in the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, warning that the relative decline of US naval power was already well under way, nibbled away by a shrinking budget, rising costs, and threatened by rising naval powers. A mixture of fact and alarmist fantasy, making the absurd claim that the US Naval officers name buildings after arch-theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan and merely pay him lip service, while the real Mahanian warriors are now to be found in China. The article reveals a profound misunderstanding of the true extent of modern American naval dominance, and a poor reading of history.

The British Example

As the sole great naval power in history, studying the role of naval power in the rise and fall of the British Empire is at the heart of any lessons history has to teach on naval affairs. The Royal Navy was the first blue water imperial navy in the modern sense of the phrase, and interestingly Kaplan draws no meaningful direct comparisons between it and the current US Navy's situation, limiting himself to general statements and pithy quotes about the decline of Pax Britannica.

The often imagined predominance of the Royal Navy is, in fact, a reality of its post-Napoleonic 19th Century period. It spent the 17th and 18th Centuries fighting to achieve that global supremacy, and was outnumbered at different points during its wars to overcome the navies of the Dutch, French, and Spanish. It very rarely was able to simply out-build its rivals in a straight arms race. More often, Whitehall had to rely on their rivals dividing their resources, and when that did not work the Royal Navy sank, burned, and captured its way to the top.

Typically, the British achieved their naval superiority by dividing the attention of the main rival, France. France was almost always waging a major continental war at the same time it was engaging Britain in a colonial war overseas. Britain, by contrast, focused primarily on the colonial war and limited its continental activities to providing financial subsidies to other European states at war with France, or conducting sea borne raids along France's periphery.

The one time France was not distracted by a European land war, and left free to concentrate on an overseas, colonial conflict was during the American Revolution. Although the Royal Navy was still larger than any single rival navy, France was joined by Spain. Combined, they overmatched Britain's fleet by 111 Ships of the Line to 90. This most famously resulted in the French Navy achieving local control over the waters off Yorktown, cutting off the British Army under Cornwallis and leading to its surrender. The Franco-Spanish alliance even briefly seized control of the Channel in 1779.

However, this story of numbers can be very misleading. The British, after all, often fought naval battles outnumbered. When Graves' fleet met de Grasse's off Yorktown, due to a mixture of timidity and squabbling in the high command, they did not actually fight. Graves merely sailed away. It is hard to imagine an admiral in the style of Nelson or St. Vincent doing the same. The truth is that Britain struggled for its naval dominance for almost a century and a half, and it did not win it until Trafalgar in 1805. That was the culmination of a string of victories in the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic period, which literally sank or captured one European navy after another out of existence. In 1790, France had 81 Ships of the Line, Spain 72, Holland 44, and Denmark 38. By 1815, the Dutch and Danish navies had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. The French had rebuilt after their disasters to a strength of 80 battleships, but these ships were undermanned and poorly trained. Spain could muster a mere 25 Ships of the Line. The Royal Navy began the period with 195 Ships of the Line, and ended it with 214. Many of these ships were captured from their rivals, not built in Portsmouth. They had fought, not built their rivals into eclipse.

After 1815, France's longtime naval partner Spain had ceased to be a Great Power, and it had been proven over and over again that the French could not be both a great land power in Europe and maintain a blue water navy capable to challenging Britain at the same time. Lacking any real rivals, the Royal Navy was undisputed master of the waves for much of the century, able to dominate the oceans of the world at a relatively low cost.

This changed between 1880 and 1910 by the introduction of three new powers into the equation: Germany, the United States, and Japan. The United States and Japan were both rising naval powers with no local, substantial threats to their immediate security. In the case of Germany, Britain found herself challenged by a new version of France. The irony is that while Germany was shackled by the same dilemma as the French a century before - they could not both pay for a powerful army and navy at the same time - the British actually joined them in sharing the very same problem by committing to directly supporting the French Army. When the First World War came, Britain had ceded de facto control of the Western Hemisphere to the United States, and East Asian waters to Japan, while seeking to maintain a wide margin of superiority over the Germany Navy and contribute a large army to fight on the Western Front at the same time. The relative sizes of the German and British fleets before the war merely reflected their relative priorities. If British priorities in 1915 were similar to those of 1815, it is easy being able to see them absorb any losses the Germany Navy could inflict upon them.

This raises the second matter of the First World War: the Royal Navy never truly sought decisive battle with its German rivals, despite a numerical preponderance. The Nelsonian spirit would have been to go for the jugular even if outnumbered, relying on superior training and lan to win the day. The only confrontation between the British and Germans in the North Sea, Jutland, was a confused and largely timid affair, with neither side particularly keen to risk coming to grips with the other. The Royal Navy of the 18th Century won its wars by destroying the enemy, following them into harbor if necessary. Even enjoying a comfortable numerical edge - one so large the German Navy was unwilling to openly challenge it - the First World War Royal Navy was unwilling to hazard any sort of defeat in order to have a chance at achieving decisive victory. That is not how great victories are won.

The rise of American and Japanese naval power between 1918 and 1939, coupled with their own economic difficulties, relegated the Royal Navy to company among equals. Britain was spent out by the First World War. Unable to win an arms race, the Royal Navy shrank in absolute terms as rivals grew up around it. This is one area where Kaplan is especially alarmist, stating that "history shows powerful competitor navies easily emerge out of nowhere in just a few decades, " as if 20 years or more were a short period of time! The British were not suddenly surprised by the might of the Japanese Combined Fleet in 1941, or by their inability to defend their interests in the Pacific without American or Japanese acquiescence/assistance. They were very much aware of their lack of means, and were largely unable to do anything about it. They had worldwide commitments and limited means; the Japanese were free to concentrate on the Pacific alone.

A study of British naval history reveals two flaws in Kaplan's article. First, the British did not merely build their way to naval predominance. Instead, they were the only country in Europe that did not need to maintain a large standing army to fight continental wars, and were therefore free to pursue a navy first defense policy. Second, even so they were challenged by formidable rivals, often in combination, and maintained their supremacy by out-fighting, not merely out-building their rivals. This was how the British achieved naval supremacy in the 18th Century, and the United States did the same in the 20th.

The Cold War

Another useful comparison is the recent past. While campaigning for President in 1980, Ronald Reagan set the target of a 600 ship navy as part of his strategy for heightened confrontation with the Soviet Union. Although Reagan's 600 ship navy was never achieved (another mistake Kaplan makes), by the height of the Cold War build-up in 1985, the US Navy mustered a force of 13 aircraft carriers, 2 re-fitted battleships, 100 nuclear attack submarines (SSN), 37 ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBN), 99 destroyers and cruisers, and 110 frigates. The Soviet Union's armada consisted of 83 SSBNs, 283 attack submarines of all types, 105 cruisers and destroyers, and 31 Frigates. The Soviet navy also fielded 5 "jump jet" light carriers, which were most comparable in terms of air power to the capabilities of the Navy's largest amphibious warfare ships (i.e. vessels that the US Navy does not consider proper aircraft carriers). Although of very mixed quality, the Soviet Navy did represent a very real rival, and the margin of American naval supremacy was filled out by our allies, especially the British, Japanese, and French. While the US Navy bestrode the world's oceans as an unchallenged colossus early in the Cold War, it certainly did not do so in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, the US Navy represents a staggering 50% of the world's combined naval combat power. America can go anywhere and annihilate any rival naval force in the world with only a portion of its total strength; it would take the rest of the world combined to match the US Navy's total striking power. Such a combination is unlikely, howeve, as the remaining 50% comes from the navies of the same three allies who did so much to fill out Allied naval strength during the Cold War: the British, French, and Japanese. The margin of American naval supremacy is once again quite wide, dramatically greater than it was merely 20 years ago, and not in any real danger of being eclipsed during the next 20 years.

While its overall ship numbers have declined, those numbers tell an interesting story. In 2005, the US Navy's strength was 12 aircraft carriers, 18 SSBNs, 54 SSNs, 81 destroyers and cruisers, and 35 frigates. Most of the decline in major combatants has come out of the smallest, least capable vessel in the Navy's inventory, and in the meantime the overall quality of the remainder of the fleet has increased as it has become more modern.

There are causes for concern. As in the 1880-1910 period, new powers with naval aspirations are entering the world stage: India and China. However, should these powers become future naval rivals, there will be plenty of warning and time to adjust. After all, it takes years to build a fleet of warships under peacetime conditions. Creating an effective navy is about more than having warships: crews must be well-trained, and this takes a sustained effort over a long period of time. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the United States will be unable to assemble local alliances to make up for any weaknesses, just as it did during the Cold War. At the very least, while it is plausible that other middleweight naval powers like the British or Japanese may not support us in a future blue water conflict, it is starkly implausible that they would align against us.

Cry Wolf

Kaplan's article is a classic example of crying wolf, and he employs numerous distortions to buttress his case. For example, he cites the Iraq War's siphoning of funds away from naval construction as a cause of supposed decline, as if that were going to continue to drain funding ten or even twenty years from now. The Vietnam War was not continuing to draw funding into the Army in 1983 or 1993; why should Iraq be a drain for up to 10 or 20 years after its conclusion?

The most revealing example of his very distorted point of view on the relative standing of the US Navy is when he describes the effort to build an anti-piracy coalition to patrol the Straits of Malacca as being indicative of a navy stretched thin. Clearly, according to Kaplan, we have to build the alliance because we cannot do this job ourselves.

What this ignores is that the US Navy has not had an opportunity to fulfill its main mission since the end of the Second World War: defeat an enemy navy and establish sea control. It has instead been carrying out air support missions for land operations, and providing nuclear deterrence through its force of SSBNs. Like all branches of the Armed Forces, the Navy looks around for jobs and seeks to justify its share of the Penatgon's budgetary pie. This is especially the case today: the Army and Marine Corps have their hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Navy is not as heavily involved. If the War on Terror is allowed to be painted as a "boots on the ground" affair, and not a "hulls in the water" business, the Navy's pet projects could come under threat in Congress.

The Straits of Malacca have been infested with pirates since time immemorial, and the menace has never been stamped out. The Navy's interest is relatively new, but also superficial. No Admiral is appearing before a Congressional Committee asking for funding to be diverted from a new SSN to buying a handful of Corvettes - small warships well-suited to the task - for a dedicated anti-piracy patrol, which is the sort of thing that would truly demonstrate a real commitment to a "war on piracy." The Navy needs a mission, but not if it has to divert funding from its preferred programs to pay for the forces needs to carry it out. It is much better to assemble a coalition of local allies, use their Corvettes and light warships, and dispatch an American Rear Admiral in an Arleigh Burke class destroyer to hoist his flag and lead them.

Likewise, his description of rising costs in naval construction is also misleading. While it is true that our Navy's acquisition process is slow and costly, this is because they insist upon "gold-plating" new vessels: any new technology or feature that can be added to a design, is added to it. That practice of continuous modification and improvement causes costs to spiral, even as they generally improve the final product. Reducing costs and speeding up the time from development to deployment could easily start with simply sticking to the original specifications and waiting for the next version to add improvements. Furthermore, while there are variances due to the relative cost of labor, navies are expensive for everybody.

While the numbers of the US Navy has declined since the end of the Cold War, in absolute terms it has not declined at all. Indeed, contrary to what Robert Kaplan implies, the relative combat power of the US Navy vis- -vis the rest of the world has risen dramatically, due to the implosion of the Soviet threat. The decline in numbers is due to that implosion: just what would we be doing with all those extra, expensive ships? When new naval rivals rise, all that is needed is a little prudence and foresight to compete with them. Unlike the British after the First World War, we are not economically exhausted by war and ought to be abe to pay for it. America is not in the midst of an elegant decline. Instead it continues to rule the waves, and is set to do so for the foreseeable future.


All modern naval statistics are drawn from All historical statistics come from Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

By Rich Thomas - A Kentuckian and longtime resident of Washington, DC with an MA in international affairs, Thomas splits his time between American and Portugal. He works as a freelance writer both in print and online, writin...