Gates Sets His Sights on Navy

In case you missed it, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently gave a speech to announce that he’s now set his sights on the Navy as next up for an overhaul to bring it into the 21st century. The question, though, is just what a 21st-century navy should look like.

Gates cited the U.S. Navy’s 11 carrier groups, at a time when no other country has more than one, as a particular area in need of rationalization. That prompted Robert Haddick, at SWJ, to question such straight-up comparisons as a criterion for judgment, while offering some thought-provoking reasons for concern over land-based tactical air power. The Atlanticist hosted a pro and con debate, with Bryan McGrath critically dissecting Gates’ speech, and Robert Farley offering qualified support. Finally, Galrahn at Information Dissemination suggests that although Gates has signaled in his usual ambiguous manner that change is coming, it’s still not clear just how that change will expressed.

This is a pretty major development, given the amount of observers who have declared that the 21st century will see a return to naval rivalry, especially in the Indian Ocean. I think McGrath makes a good point when he says, “Were we to be seen as diminishing our role, the shipbuilding competition wouldn‘tbe against us — it would pit China vs. Japan vs. South Korea vs. Russia vs. France vs. England . . . etc. Our dominant Navy is what keeps a lid on all this. That said, the lid is beginning to over-pressurize, and the source of that pressure is China . . . “

But Farley, too, makes a solid point when he reminds us that the reality is actually Japan + South Korea + France + England + the U.S. Navy. In other words, in any realistic conventional conflict scenario involving naval power, the U.S. has a solid base of force multipliers, known as our alliance network.

It seems to me that the key challenge for the U.S. Navy, in particular, and for the U.S. in general, is how to maintain the credibility of our global security guarantees, which currently serve as regional stabilizers, even as we manage the process of shifting that stabilization role to regional security arrangements that function effectively, independent of the U.S.

The idea that this will somehow result in an eclipsed America in decline — similar to what happened to Britain or France following the loss of their empires — overlooks the enormous natural advantages, in terms of size and resources, that the U.S. enjoys over both of those countries, and most others on the planet. In other words, our global security role is an outcome of our economic dominance (as well as of Europe having destroyed its economic and military base twice in 30 years), and not vice versa. The fact that Europe as a whole now maintains global trade advantages and a comparatively rich standard of living is proof that economic prosperity is not a function of a global security role. There’s no reason to believe that a post-hegemonic U.S. would be any different.

The real question is whether a global order made up of regional accomodations can substitute for a global hegemon. If the successor to the U.S. in that role is not a rival power, but an effective system, the doomsaying Cassandras are barking up the wrong tree. If not, maintaining an advantage in carrier groups is probably a good idea, for as long as it’s sustainably possible.