11 March 2015

Room for Debate: What Sort of Navy America Needs

Andrew S. Erickson, “Room for Debate: What Sort of Navy America Needs,” RealClearDefense, 10 March 2015.

Touchdown! Retired U.S. Navy officer, consultant, and well-established strategist Bryan McGrath has just tackled and scored a major hit on an article that required refutation to ensure that a major component of U.S. public policy is informed by sound facts and logic at a critical time. In case you haven’t see it in the usual naval discussion forums, I’m referring to the misinformed, naïve, politically partisan Op-Ed of 9 March by contributing editor to The Atlantic and American football expert Gregg Easterbrook. Easterbrook argues simplistically that the U.S. Navy does not require budget growth because it is bigger than other navies, and other navies will never dare to challenge it. From this faulty reasoning, he concludes: “there is no reason to increase the Navy’s budget, nor for Congress to fret about how many ships we have.” By my count, the initial scores are McGrath: 7, Easterbrook: 0. McGrath gets the extra point for reaching across the aisle and acknowledging that major Democrats support strong American seapower, too. Yet another fact that he deployed to good effect.

I remain perplexed as to why the New York Times considered Easterbrook’s polemic a substantive piece worth publishing—particularly when there are so many prominent, readily-reachable experts available on this and related topics. The Times opinion pages recently took another credibility hit in the Asia-Pacific zone when they gave voice to unsubstantiated claims by University of Connecticut Professor Alexis Dudden concerning “the Abe government’s expansionist view” and “territorial revisionism,” as well as her curious assertion that “One fraught issue is the United States’ dual obligation, under separate security arrangements, to defend both Japan and South Korea because one could attack the other over territory they both claim.” In the words of Bill Belichick, Do your job. Only by repaying readers’ trust with solid research and assessment can you contribute effectively to public policy debate. 

Here’s the one major thing that Easterbrook got absolutely right, to his credit: “Since Navy operations take place far from home, Americans may be unaware of their country’s nautical strength and of the progressive role the Navy plays in world affairs. Many Americans have never seen an active-duty United States warship; ships can’t march in Fourth of July parades or fly over football games. But arguably, naval hegemony is among the greatest American achievements, and one that makes all nations better off.” The line about parades and games is brilliant prose. It cuts to the heart of seapower’s reliance on the taxpayers that fund it—a major reason why the U.S. Navy has held “Conversations with the Country” in cities such as Denver and Phoenix not known for having sea ports. Unfortunately, Easterbrook seems to assume that this achievement can be taken for granted and is somehow self-perpetuating—regardless of how the geostrategic landscape evolves. Public policy is even more unforgiving than football. Easterbrook deserves credit for emphasizing the critical importance of public support, something that no advocate of robust, enduring seapower can afford to ignore. But he needs a touchdown of his own (in the form of a well-grounded argument) before he can score this field goal.

The only major point I would add to McGrath’s hard-hitting analysis is that for a navy (i.e., that of the U.S.) to ensure that it can conduct essential operations within the ranges of a potential adversary’s land-based ballistic and cruise missiles (i.e., those of China—which wields the world’s foremost regionally-focused missile forces) substantial investment in both quality and numbers may be required. Comparing side-by-side navies with very different missions will not elucidate this equation directly or sufficiently. The fact that Easterbrook never mentioned cruise missilesat all—suggests that he has not carefully considered China’s actual military capabilities, which include increasingly-potent systems in this and a panoply of other relevant areas. It’s on stubborn facts and inconvenient truths like these that realistic policy is made.

All aspects of U.S. policy, including the U.S. Navy’s size and composition, should be vigorously debated. Season after season. By coaches, players, and fans alike. That’s as American as any battle on the gridiron. But above all, let’s keep it real. Naval development is hardly a game; it merits serious consideration and long-term investment—all underwritten by relevant facts and sophisticated analysis. And treating naval development as a partisan political football is not productive; that sort of rhetoric is out of bounds for the constructive conversation we need with, and for, the Country. 

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008, he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is also an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. This piece first appeared on Dr. Erickson’s website here. The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.