The US Navy is Big Enough: A Zombie Idea That Won't Die

The US Navy is Big Enough: A Zombie Idea That Won't Die
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I feel like the Rick Grimes of naval affairs: the undead bad ideas keep coming no matter how many head shots you fire into the zombie herd. The Walking Dead fans among you will get that familiar feeling from reading the latest commentary on sea power, which appeared over at the New York Times yesterday. Read it and hurry back. And gather some extra clips along your way.

It comes from renowned football commentator Gregg Easterbrook. Easterbrook has some tart words for those of you who fret about the state of American sea power, and in particular about the number of ships in the U.S. Navy inventory: you’re “fearmongering” about rival navies, most likely to bilk the taxpayers to fund a needless naval buildup. Our navy, the intrepid pundit assures us, “is more powerful than all other navies of the world combined.”

That’s a mighty rosy picture to paint, yet unwarranted by the facts. Let’s take his points out of turn. He ends by recounting a wondrous visit to the Naval War College some years ago. One lesson foreign officers learn in Newport, he opines, “is that there is zero chance they will ever defeat the United States in battle—so why even try?” 

Now, I’ve been around the Naval War College since 1992, first as a student and then during two stints on the faculty—most recently since 2007. International officers constitute about one-sixth of the student body, so I can’t speak for all of them. But I have yet to hear anyone, foreign or American, voice the views about U.S. invincibility that Easterbrook claims to have gleaned in the hallowed halls of Newport. 

More to the point, so what? Guess who sends no students to Newport: China, Russia, and Iran. No prospective foe of any consequence does. If someone in Newport is sending a message about American supremacy, there’s no one to deliver the message to Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran.

Next, let’s vault up to the strategic level. Easterbrook contends that sea power is all about “contesting the ‘blue water,’ or deep open oceans.” No open-ocean challenge, nothing to worry about, it seems.

Trouble is, this is a gigantic straw man. No one argues that the U.S. Navy would lose a struggle for command of the open sea. What non-sports commentators—such as yours truly—contend is that both the United States and regional coastal states like China and Iran care about the waters just off East, Southeast, and South Asian shores, along with the Persian Gulf. Don’t believe me? Take it from the officers and officials who make strategy for the sea services.

Blue-water combat isn’t at issue; near-shore combat is. And the picture is far murkier than Easterbrook allows in Asia’s marginal seas. For example, the Chinese warships Easterbrook derides carry armaments that gave the U.S. Navy fits during the Cold War. Nor has weapons development remained stagnant since then. Indeed, Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles now outrange their American counterparts, in many cases by large margins. That means PLA tacticians can take potshots at U.S. naval forces long before American defenders can reply. Some of those will get through.

To continue with China, the fight for command of vital waters could pit a U.S. Navy detachment—the Japan-based Seventh Fleet—against the whole of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). The PLA Navy is spread throughout the China seas; the U.S. Navy is spread throughout the seven seas. That lets the former concentrate strength against the latter with relative ease.

A fraction of a superior force against the whole of an inferior force that outnumbers it—if Easterbrook is confident about how the mathematics of sea combat will work out under such circumstances, that makes one of us.

But in any event, reducing the strategic problem to navy-on-navy comparisons oversimplifies radically. In any likely East Asian conflict, the Seventh Fleet will go up against not just the PLA Navy but against shore-based air power and anti-ship missiles—armaments scattered around the Chinese mainland and thus, presumably, off-limits to counterstrikes. That is, it will face off against contingents from the PLA Air Force.

Moreover, the Second Artillery Corps, the army contingent that operates China’s ballistic-missile force, could even get into the act. Easterbrook pooh-poohs the Second Artillery’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which is reportedly able to strike at moving ships at sea hundreds of miles offshore. And indeed, PLA rocketeers appear not to have tested the ASBM under realistic conditions.

But it’s also true that Admiral Robert Willard, who headed up the U.S. Pacific Command—that is, all American forces in the Pacific—announced four-plus years ago that the ASBM had reached “initial operational capability.” That means it’s been deployed with PLA missile units while engineers continue to work out the kinks, making the bird fully ready for action. The Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power, furthermore, spotlight this threat to U.S. expeditionary forces regularly. 

Are uniformed naval officers and Obama administration officials hyping phantom threats? Maybe, but Occam’s Razor suggests otherwise. Foreign observers may as well claim that the U.S. Navy and Marines will never field stealth fighter/attack aircraft because the F-35C Lightning II jet has yet to reach initial operational capability or have all of its kinks worked out. Possible, but doubtful.

Easterbrook also bestrides shaky ground when drawing comparisons between China’s posture in the South China Sea and the U.S. posture in the Caribbean Sea. Yes, disputes should be “resolved by negotiation,” as he insists. I’m sure Manila or Hanoi would agree. Has Beijing made any such overtures, or accepted overtures from its Southeast Asian neighbors? Nope. Wishing for others to negotiate is nice, but it’s not a strategy. 

But his comparison between the United States and China gets even more farfetched. This is not a simple matter of China’s “projecting power” in nearby seas and skies, as Easterbrook avers. That’s a rather anodyne phrase for trying to poach neighbors’ land or sea territories—rather like portraying Russia as “projecting power” into Crimea last year.

Think about it. The United States hasn’t sketched a “nine-dashed line” around the periphery of the Caribbean and Gulf, marking out a zone of “indisputable sovereignty” where American domestic law—upheld by physical force—rules. Beijing has flouted its neighbors’ claims to territorial seas and exclusive economic zones under the law of the sea while also seeking to abridge freedom of the seas for all seagoing states.

When Washington starts trying to dictate what others do in international waters or skies, evicts Latin American fishermen from waters near their home shores, or auctions off Caribbean states’ offshore seas to foreign firms for oil or gas exploration, then this analogy may gain credence. Not until then.

And lastly, some technical points. Yes, the U.S. Navy is constructing a destroyer class dubbed the Zumwalt class, a.k.a. DDG-1000. And yes, Zumwalt boasts some golly-gee technology. But its “huge arsenal” of guided missiles is smaller than that of current navy cruisers and destroyers (80 vertical-launch cells for Zumwalt, to 90 for DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers and 122 for CG-47 Ticonderoga-class cruisers).

Zumwalt’s “advanced cannon,” as Easterbrook terms it, is a 155-mm gun that delivers precision-guided but modest-sized projectiles at impressive range—and only against shore targets for now, not enemy fleets. This is not Victory at Sea. We’re not talking USS Iowa blazing away at enemy men-of-war with 16-inch guns.

Worst of all for Easterbrook’s rah-rah boosterism, the U.S. Navy will procure all of three Zumwalts owing to their hefty cost. Three. But that paltry number doesn’t tell the full story either. The navy’s cycle of workups, overseas deployment, and post-deployment upkeep being what it is, that means commanders can count on having one DDG-1000 fully combat-ready at any given time. Another will be in overhaul and completely unavailable. A third will be undergoing training and partially ready at best. 

One hull—no matter how much high-tech wizardry designers stuff into it—is not a world-beater.

Easterbrook fares little better when assessing carrier aviation. “No other nation is even contemplating anything like the advanced nuclear supercarriers like the United States has under construction,” he tells us. Really? Well, France has deployed a nuclear-powered carrier of modest size and armament, Charles de Gaulle, for over two decades now. So much for the nuclear aspect. 

Nor is nuclear power fated to remain a Western thing. Both China and India have flirted with naval nuclear propulsion for indigenously built flattops. U.S. and Indian officials have discussed working together to incorporate electromagnetic catapult technology—part of USS Gerald R. Ford, the advanced nuclear supercarrier to which Easterbrook presumably alludes—into Indian-built vessels. Assistance with nuclear propulsion could also constitute part of any U.S.-Indian deal.

Asians, then, are on the move in naval warfare—and they do indeed contemplate acquiring carriers on par with ours. Saying they will never succeed is rather like assuming, as many Americans did on the brink of World War II, that the Imperial Japanese Navy could never construct the Long Lance torpedo—the shallow-running torpedo used to such devastating effect during the Solomons naval battles of 1942-1943. You know what they say about assumptions! 

What about current naval-aviation programs? Easterbrook mocks Liaoning, the PLA Navy’s refitted Soviet-built aircraft carrier, as an “outdated, conventionally powered carrier.” How does he know China’s first carrier is outdated? Is it because of chronological age? No. Liaoning, nee Varyag, was laid down in 1985. Old, eh? 

But USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the ten supercarriers Easterbrook touts, started construction in 1981 and was commissioned in 1984. Three of her Nimitz-class sisters are even older. USS Enterprise, the U.S. Navy’s first nuke, served over half a century before retirement. Naval leaders hope to get the same life expectancy out of subsequent craft. It’s worth noting, furthermore, that TR now rates as the U.S. Navy’s most modern carrier after undergoing a massive overhaul that equipped her with the latest in fire-control technology and other improvements.

Age, then, does not spell obsolescence. At its most basic, a carrier hull is a container for whatever sensors or weaponry engineers install in it, and an airstrip for whatever aircraft it’s equipped to operate. Unless someone shows that Chinese shipwrights installed shoddy hardware in Liaoning, there’s little reason to think the vessel is technologically backward. Liaoning, in short, is probably China’s first training carrier—and is probably around the middle of her service life.

Nor does being conventionally powered invalidate that verdict. Liaoning is steam-powered, sure. So are quite a few U.S. Navy ships, even in this age of gas turbines, diesel engines, and electric drive (Zumwalt’s mode of propulsion, which seems to impress Easterbrook but isn’t a new idea either). For instance, the first seven ships of the navy’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ships—light aircraft carriers in all but name—use boilers to generate steam to spin their massive turbines. Are they outdated?

Heck, even nuclear-powered ships are steam-powered. The only difference is that a different box generates the heat to make the steam: namely a nuclear reactor rather than a boiler. In short, conventional power does not an obsolescent ship make. 

Naval warfare, like military competition of all types, is a realm ruled by chaos and complexity, where opponents try constantly to frustrate and outdo one another—both in tactics and weapons design. Seldom does it lend itself to glib judgments.

Zombie killers of the world: lock and load.

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