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.

Merchant shipping has always been a risky business, and for much of history mariner merchants could not depend on states for protection. The widespread adoption of shipboard guns in Europe in the sixteenth century gave state navies a new rationale. In the era of mercantilism, commercial protection meant the protection of one’s own ships, and, especially in England, there was an almost symbiotic relationship between commercial policy and naval policy -- what one might call a naval-commercial complex -- that was unique to the period. 

Early advocates for a U.S. Navy considered protection of the nation’s foreign trade as the primary rationale for such a force, and so do their modern counterparts. Yet today, this close identification of naval strategy with maritime trade has changed beyond all recognition. Foreign-flag ships carry 98 percent of U.S. imports and exports. Moreover, the U.S. merchant marine -- the nation’s commercial shipping fleet -- usually fares poorly in major wars, in large part because protecting the nation’s trade is not foremost in the navy’s thinking. This was evident most recently in the desultory response to Somali piracy, but historically the navy has been strangely unresponsive to the needs of commercial shippers.

When the Civil War began, the United States merchant marine comprised 5,300 ships, about 39 percent of the world’s registered merchant fleet. The U.S. Navy had only 42 ships, a dozen that it kept at home and the remainder dispersed to protect American interests abroad and to suppress the transatlantic slave trade. During the war, the navy’s primary strategy was to blockade southern ports, which it did with considerable success but at the expense of protecting its own merchants. The Confederate navy’s offensive capability depended on nine commerce raiders that between them captured more than 250 Union merchantmen. These losses caused a tenfold increase in the cost of insurance on American ships, and led to the transfer of more than a thousand vessels to the protection of neutral foreign ownership. The American merchant marine never fully recovered.

Things did not improve much in World War I, when the United States lost 197 merchant ships but only 97 warships, a bleak accounting considering that one of the country’s chief complaints was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Worst of all, however, was the horrendous loss of merchant ships during World War II. The United States lost more than 1,500 freighters and passenger ships, but less than half as many warships.

Prewar planners had stubbornly failed to anticipate either the need for commerce protection or the potential of the newest additions to the navy’s arsenal, the submarine and the aircraft carrier, which had a profound impact on the ways in which commercial shipping was attacked and protected. After the war, these new ships would have an even greater impact on the navy’s strategic role.


Although the stated mission of the Department of Defense is “to deter war and to protect the security of our country,” today naval strategy increasingly emphasizes power projection. More than once, this has tipped the balance in favor of prosecuting wars that might otherwise have been avoided had the navy been designed more for defense than offense. In 2007, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard published a strategy paper stating that American “seapower will be globally postured to secure our homeland and citizens from direct attack and to advance our interests around the world.” They also maintained that the most persistent problems the United States was likely to face would arise from failed states or stateless powers, including pirates and terrorists. As the authors caution in unsettlingly Orwellian terms, “the United States and its partners find themselves competing for global influence in an era in which they are unlikely to be fully at war or fully at peace.”

What is most striking about the joint strategy paper is its emphasis on the navy’s role in providing relief in humanitarian crises, whether natural or manmade. Although this is a long-standing commitment (the U.S. naval regulations of 1865 state that “in all cases of real distress, gratuitous assistance is to be offered to the fullest extent possible”) the navy’s modern program of “proactive humanitarian assistance” and “medical diplomacy” began after the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004. There is little doubt that the navy is often well positioned to assist littoral states facing emergencies, and that its organizational skills enable the rapid deployment of precious resources in difficult situations. This humanitarian role is considered good for the morale of active duty personnel and, to the extent that they are aware of it, the general public. Supporters of the program cite practical benefits such as improved operational preparedness, a heightened appreciation of U.S. intentions among foreign nationals, and the opportunity to work with military counterparts in other countries. Critics point to the episodic nature of the navy’s engagement, poor integration with nongovernmental organizations doing comparable work, the use of ships not intended for the work at hand, and “a lack of clarity on the relative priority of various goals and objectives.”

But an obvious question has gone unasked: If the United States wants a forward-deployed humanitarian assistance program, why doesn’t it develop one under civilian control and with disaster relief and humanitarian assistance as its actual priorities? Blurring the lines between military preparedness, “soft-power” diplomacy, and humanitarianism may “improve foreign opinion of the United States” on the ground, but it is unlikely to influence a government’s policy objectives. On the domestic side, this mission creep is indicative of a growing tendency to militarize and centralize U.S. foreign policy. 

That question, however, is likely to remain unanswered, for the navy is as much an instrument of domestic political power as a means of projecting influence abroad. The military is the largest direct employer in the country, a fact that skews the voting records of senators and representatives across the political spectrum. Doves and hawks alike find it difficult to vote against military programs with a significant economic impact on their constituents, even when the Pentagon actively opposes the programs in question. Moreover, legislators are particularly sensitive to the need for warships because the American shipbuilding industry is essentially on life support. Were the navy to significantly scale back its fleet, the argument goes, American shipbuilding know-how would evaporate.

At the same time, there are still plenty of opportunities to cut the navy’s gargantuan budget. The only way to do that rationally, rather than by way of political juvenilia like sequestration, is for the United States to decide what its navy is actually for. Does it need a navy to protect foreign trade, regardless of who carries it, or to fulfill the country’s role as the world’s “indispensible nation”? Can it function both as a war-fighting institution and also as a vehicle for national compassion? Is the navy an instrument of industrial protectionism, an engine of economic growth, or an electoral asset?

At present, the answer to all these questions is yes. But no institution can shoulder such an unwieldy load of responsibilities. And if the navy suffers from such a glaring lack of clarity about its goals and priorities, what does that say about the nation it serves?

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