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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