From the War of Independence until today, America has depended on seapower for its prosperity and often for its survival. Any nation that is as dependent on the oceans for trade, food and energy as if the US cannot afford for a moment to lose control of its costal waters. For America, the ability to travel at will, on or below the world's oceans is the essence of what it means to be a superpower. The US Navy is the primary force that is supposed to ensure this, therefore when the Navy shows signs of becoming a failed institution, Americans should worry.
While the Army and the Marines have been learning to deal with foreign cultures to be able to defeat America's enemies, it sometimes seems as if the Navy's leaders have allowed their ideas and doctrines to be shaped by an international 'consensus' that is not always compatible with the US national interest. The support that many Naval leaders have given to the Law of the Sea Treaty, is a good example. The treaty would undermine US sovereignty by replacing current law and policy, with a International Tribunal whose fairness towards the United States will no doubt be on a par with other UN institutions.
Today the Navy has been doing, more or less, the same things it did in Korea, in Vietnam, in the first Gulf War, in the Balkans and in the Post 9/11 wars: projecting power ashore in support of the Army and Marines, or as part of an air campaign. This may be a useful activity, but it does not match the primary mission of the Navy: ruling the skies over Afghanistan is nice, but if doing so distracts the Navy from rulingthe oceans, then, as an organization devoted to seapower, it is sailing blind into dangerous waters.
The most serious problem, however, is not with the ships, but with the leadership.
For many years, the Navy's leaders have shown themselves to be brilliant insi de-the-beltway political operators. Yet the Navy's leaders have not been able to use their lobbying skills to accelerate fleet modernization.
The 2009 $787 billion stimulus bill did not contain a penny for shipbuilding.
In contrast, Franklin Roosevelt financed the building of a great fleet throughout the great depression, and was happy to brag about this in his 1944 campaign. "Every battleship in Halsey's fleet was authorized between 1933 and 1938. Construction had begun on all those battleships by September 1940 ... all the aircraft carriers in that fleet had been authorized by the present administration before Pearl Harbor, and half of them were actually under construction before Pearl Harbor."
It is not just the accidents, such as the January 2005 incident when the submarine USS San Francisco smashed into a undersea outcropping near Guam, or the failed procurement programs such as the Zumwalt class destroyer. What is far worse is the lack of attention paid to keeping the US Navy's supreme "Blue Water" capabilities up-to-date.
The Navy is the only active duty military organization explicitly sanctioned by the US Constitution. Article one, section eight, says that the Congress shall have the power "to provide and maintain a Navy." In contrast, the Army is treated as if it were simply something that may, from time to time, be needed. This distinction is due to both geography and to our founders Anglo-Saxon strategic culture. It was the existence of Britain's Royal Navy that gave London the power to prevent American independence for six long years and it was the failure of the Royal Navy to defeat the French Navy that lead to George Washington's decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781.
Since 1945 the navy has not had to face anything like an effective challenge to its ability to control the open oceans. The Soviet navy made a expensive attempt to build a force that could take on the US in the Arctic ocean and in parts of the Pacific. The US response, called The Maritime Strategy, effectively countered that threat and helped convince the leadership of the USSR to seek to end the Cold War.
The obsession with fighting in costal waters may be reasonable, based on the experience of the recent past. The Navy's renewed attention to mine warfare is probably a good sign. However if history teaches anything it is that the unexpected is what usually happens.
The enduring problems the sea service has with shipbuilding and with its other major procurement programs are real and are eating into the confidence that America's civilian leaders have in it. On May 3rd,Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "At the end of the day we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3[billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers."
To make matters worse, some of the new expensive warships have been suffering from shoddy workmanship that require an embarrassing amount of time and money to fix.
The Navy's long-term shipbuilding program has recently been criticized as "unexecutable" by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Even though it is always a good idea to take these reports with a few grains of salt, the report does identify an interesting discrepancy in the Navy's future plans and budgets. The navy's plan says it is building a 313 ship Navy, while the Watchdog agency says it is building a 321 ship Navy. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, "To lose track of one ship may be a misfortune, to lose track of eight ships is carelessness."
The Admirals seem far more comfortable with diplomatic and quasi-diplomatic role the Navy has traditionally played than they do with the grubby and tedious business of getting Congress to appropriate money for more ships and submarines. Before World War Two, while the Army was confined to remote bases in the midwest, or,if they were lucky, Hawaii or the Philippines, the Navy was conducting show-the-flag missions in ports from Lisbon to Yokohama. Compared to the Army, they were by far the more internationally sophisticated service.
After almost seventy years of World War, Cold War and Post Cold War operations, however, the other services have developed their own diplomatic skills. Since September 11th 2001 the Army has had to radically improve its knowledge of some of the less attractive parts of this planet.
America needs a battle ready Navy, lead by aggressive, fighting admirals. Today it does not have one. It has a technically competent and internationally sophisticated force whose ability to actually gain and maintain global maritime supremacy is increasing questionable.