What's a Navy For?

How the Navy Lost Its Way Without an Anchor

Sailors run across the flight deck at the commissioning ceremony for the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, 2009. (Chad J. McNeeley / U.S. Navy)

There is nothing like a changing geopolitical scene coupled with fiscal uncertainty to send shudders through a nation’s military establishment, especially when that nation is, like the United States, a global power. Institutional soul-searching usually takes the form of devising new strategies that seek to redefine the military’s mission and to justify its reason for being. This is a difficult exercise for all of the services, but especially so for the navy, which operates the most complex and expensive weapon-delivery systems in the world. The navy is uniquely suited to projecting American power overseas, but its very mobility makes its mission difficult to define. In a time of austerity, its $155.8 billion FY2014 budget (larger than that of China’s entire military) is ripe for the picking. But because so many policymakers are unsure of what the navy is actually for, they struggle to pick which programs to keep and which to eliminate.

The roots of the problem are ancient. The first military use of ships in antiquity was to move soldiers from one place to another, and that remains a cornerstone of the navy’s mission today. Ship-to-ship conflicts probably began as efforts to prevent enemy ships from landing their troops, and were essentially seaborne infantry engagements. Ever since, people have sought to increase the distance at which ships could fight one another -- first with bows and arrows, spears, and catapults, and later with cannon fire.

By the twentieth century, shipboard guns were powerful and effective enough to shell shore targets in tactical support of amphibious operations. Following World War II, the development of rockets and nuclear weapons gave surface ships and submarines a previously inconceivable offensive capability that enabled them to serve as sea-based adjuncts to the army and air force. Ballistic submarines were at the forefront of the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States, while aircraft carriers and guided-missile cruisers enabled warships to strike far inland. When the United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001, for instance, the lack of available airbases within striking distance of the landlocked country led the army to use aircraft carriers as forward bases for its helicopters.

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