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Opinion: American sea power in the 21st century

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The U.S. Navy is the indispensable guarantor of our nation's overseas interests, the branch of the armed forces most compatible with our individual liberties, and the clearest means of rapidly asserting our international strength and asynchronous military superiority. For these reasons, funding for the navy ships, systems and personnel should be considered "first among equals" in our military spending, especially under our current budgetary crisis.

As an Army Reservist, son of a Marine, and stepson of a career Air Force NCO, I have not arrived at this conclusion easily, but after deliberate consideration.

The primary tool of the U.S. Navy is the carrier strike group, a battle formation of surface warships, submarines, ship-based Marines, aircraft and logistics vessels, built around a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Stationed at key locations around the globe, these strike groups provide the United States with an ability to react immediately to threats from rogue nations, augment our existing deployments, deter piracy, conduct humanitarian operations, and otherwise show U.S. engagement in the world.

Unlike Army and Air Force units, both of which require local logistics support and bases, our Navy can replenish and resupply itself at sea, although friendly ports can extend the range and reduce the expense of these operations.

The U.S. has traditionally maintained 11 supercarriers -- the largest classes of these warships -- as the flagship vessels for these strike groups. Current defense planning includes introducing the newest version of these vessels, starting in 2015, until 10 are built and added to combatant forces.

This should be considered the absolute minimum level of carrier capabilities necessary to maintain our military superiority at sea. Given the necessity to maintain naval strength in the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean, as well as the western Pacific, Atlantic, and an ability to surge to two to three carriers during crises, fewer than 10 carriers would hinder the ability of the U.S. to react to threats, while maintaining its global obligations.

The Navy is also the branch of service most able to preserve our ability to trade freely, and least able to be misused as an impediment to our liberties.

One of the primary missions of the U.S. Navy is to ensure that international waters remain free for the commerce of all nations. While the Coast Guard shares some of this responsibility along our coasts, their many missions keep them overtasked and undermanned.

Free trade is the best expression of our belief in free markets, in our relations with other nations. Overseas trade, protected by our fleets, is therefore not just a necessity for the United States, but a manifestation of our conception of individual liberty.

While allied navies, such as those of the United Kingdom, Japan, France and South Korea, do contribute toward keeping sea lanes open, it is the United States alone that has the capability to interdict the pirates, smugglers of illegal goods, terrorists and other nefarious actors who attempt to conduct their activities at sea.

Our Founding Fathers, who learned from the experiences of continental Europe, knew that a large, home-based, standing army was a greater threat to liberty than a navy. The combat power of a navy, while devastating at sea and along littoral regions, does not lend itself well to the formation of an occupying force. It was not primarily sailors of the British crown that forced themselves into the homes of American colonists, seizing property without warrants and occupying houses without compensation. In the Bill of Rights, we can see clearly in the Second, Third and Fourth Amendments, as well as less directly in other elements of this document, the impact of excesses by an occupying army.

Of course, the U.S. Army is not the British Army of the 18th century. Every soldier swears an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, and is therefore bound to protect all enumerated liberties of American citizens. Nonetheless, it would be far easier for politicians, especially a president, to misuse the U.S. Army, given its greater capabilities for ground operations of all kinds.

Given the demonstrated competence of the military, it is easy for leaders to respond to crises for calling for its immediate deployment -- to help with natural disasters, illegal immigration, inner-city crime, even economic development. The U.S. Navy is less suited to these kinds of operations, whether at home or abroad, and so will tempt politicians less, as they mistakenly look for easy ways to solve problems that do not lend themselves to simple solutions.

Over the next decade, the U.S. will need to dramatically cut spending in order to reverse our unsustainable levels of deficit spending. While my hope would be that the military in general will be spared draconian cuts, I am doubtful that this will be possible.

When, not if, budget cuts do come to the armed forces and our broader national security structure, the navy should be given the highest priority. The U.S. Navy is not only the most versatile armed force, it will remain for the foreseeable future the service most necessary for our commerce and consistent with our liberties.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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As a Navy Lieutenant currently deployed in Afghanistan as a Global War on Terror Support Assignment, it is a pleasant surprise to read such a glowing and accurate portrayal of our current Navy capabilities from my hometown newspaper. I have deployed to the Arabian Gulf with two seperate Carrier Strike Groups (CSG 8 and CSG 10) while serving on Guided Missile Cruiser HUE CITY and have seen our abilities first hand. I have also seen our abilities to work in Counter Narcotic operations in the Eastern Pacific (on a 25 year old Frigate) in conjunction with the US Coast Guard and Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Panamanian Navies. Professor Bowen has hit the nail on the head with his argument for the value (past, present, and future) of Naval Sea Power and it has brightened my day. Thank you, Sir, for your support.

Very Respectfully,

LT Nicholas Watts-Fernandez, USN, Kabul Afghanistan

-- Posted by bnjwatts on Thu, Aug 23, 2012, at 4:01 AM

Dr Bowen has captured the strategic role of U.S. naval forces well and is correct about the aircraft carrier being a centerpiece of naval forces which are not tethered to foreign bases or other mobility constraints which hamper global force projection for other branches of service. As a naval cryptologist for over 25 years, I can also attest to the many other supporting forces which contribute to national objectives, force offense and defense around the world. Good job Professor.

-- Posted by IVAN DUNN on Thu, Aug 23, 2012, at 12:51 PM

I agree we need a strong Navy. I would, however, disagree that somehow, some way it is more important to preserve it than the Army.

In the Afghanistan war (the "good" war as president Obama calls it) the Navy would be able to do very little on it's own or with a much reduced Army. It's land locked and has no ports. Naval air support is important as *support*. It cannot win a war. Troop casualties in Afghanistan were 75% Army, 23% Marine, 1% Navy and 1% Air Force. Those numbers are a bit old but close enough to make the point.

With today's burgeoning WMD's an Army might be less effective in combat. Sending 10,000 men into a nuclear or chemical exchange would be a waste of American life. Having said that, no serious conflict between countries can be won with a stronger Navy and a weaker Army. I say keep them at levels we have and adjust them as needed but spare none from Obama's cuts to favor another. The US Army has been through a lot of hell and death in the past 15 years and needs the money and support to maintain it at a combat level. The Navy has been, by and large, in a support role for the past 15 years with some direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just my two cents.

-- Posted by Dug on Thu, Aug 23, 2012, at 5:33 PM


The Constitution limits the raising of armies to wartime. A Navy, however, is a constitutional mandate.

The Marine Corps exists, as a branch of the Navy, to provide land-based fighters even during peacetime.

The need for an Air Force did not exist at the time of the Constitution, so there is no mention thereof. I would contend that an Air Force as as necessary to maintain the 'sky lanes' as the Navy is for the Sea lanes, but the Constitution needs to be altered to permit that. Rather than tinker with the Constitution, however, the concept of Cold War was created after World War II ended, permitting the maintaining of armies sans a 'hot war'. The Air Force was created from the Army Air Force at this time, along with the Department of Defense (replacing the old War Department).

Since the 'Cold War' is now over, we should be rethinking our military composition, and it should be done with an eye towards constitutionality. If the Constitution needs to be amended, so be it.

President Bush, on whose watch the 'Cold War' ended, began paring back the Army, shifting those forces to reserve or National Guard service. President Clinton continued this process. When we returned to war if Afghanistan, we had to do so with a significantly reduced force than Mr. Bush I had at his disposal with the first stage of the war in Iraq.

So, debate needs to be had on the role of the various forces in times of intermittent peace and war, with an eye to constitutional limitation for the maintenance of an Army, the necessity to meet our treaty obligations, and the need for combat readiness.

A properly disciplined militia can meet the manpower requirements for a ready force without treading on the Constitutional limitations on standing armies, provided sufficient hardware is on hand or capable of being procured in short order, with a full-time force sufficient to maintain that hardware in effective fighting condition.

The Navy and the Marines can meet the obligations for immediate action overseas. The Air Force, that poor b*****d child of the Army, will have to find a home either within the Navy or through an amended Constitition.

When the current war ends, these issues should be taken up as budget negotiations and considerations on the maintenence of an effective readiness force take place. The future of our forces cannot be carried out without an eye to Constitutional constraints.

-- Posted by Shapley Hunter on Fri, Aug 24, 2012, at 4:52 PM

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Wayne Bowen
The Pen and the Sword
Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.