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The average American rarely if ever thinks about the United States Navy. Relatively few Americans today work in jobs or live in communities in which they directly and regularly encounter the Navy or its personnel. Moreover, the United States’ uncontested military dominance of the seas over the past quarter century, not to mention its general maritime superiority throughout the Cold War’s four and a half decades, has meant that neither the goods and information we transport via ships and undersea cables to our overseas markets, nor the foreign goods and services we bring to our shores to fuel our industries, have been seriously threatened since the height of Germany’s Second World War U-boat campaign. The fact that this superiority is not an inherently permanent condition is simply not contemplated by Americans beyond a relatively small community of navalists. Nor is there any evidence that traditional navalist talking points, such as how much of the world’s surface is covered by water or how much international trade is carried by ships, “move the needle” of American public opinion. The “demand signal” for seapower is simply not self-evident to Americans.

And so, while the Navy’s newly released Force Structure Assessment outlines a requirement for an increase of 47 ships from the 2014 assessment’s objective fleet size—and perhaps more importantly, an increase of 82 ships from the deployable fleet’s actual current size—it is reasonable to wonder how widely the call for so many additional ships will resonate on its own. It is true that President Trump called for a 350 ship Navy and the lifting of the 2011 Budget Control Act’s defense budget ceilings during the campaign. It is also true that, as Senator Lindsay Graham put it at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2016, achieving these and other defense investment increases will be politically “harder than it looks.”

The process of increasing the Navy’s size such that it approaches or attains the 355 ship objective if the nation pursues it, will take decades to complete under even optimistic conditions. Maintaining the national resolve to achieve this endeavor over such a length of time will take considerable effort. The fleet’s quantitative decline from its Second World War peak, after all, only enjoyed a handful of brief pauses throughout the Cold War’s duration. 

Represents the number of U.S. Navy ships in the active fleet as reported on the final day of each fiscal year (30 June in FY47-77, 30 September in FY78-Present)

The decline in fleet size from 1970 onward is particularly dramatic. Its initial sharpness during the 1970s stems in part from the mass aging-out of ships constructed during the Second World War. Even so, the deepness and steadiness of the decline through the present, notwithstanding the brief Reagan-era buildup, stands in stark contrast to the fact that the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in real terms has increased by roughly 3.4 times since 1970.

Conversions to 2010 constant dollars conducted using “Joint Inflation Calculator February 2016,” available at Naval Center for Cost Analysis
Budget totals for 1970-1984 reflect annual Total Obligational Authority, or a total Navy program value during a fiscal year regardless of financing source.
Budget totals for 1985-2014 reflect annual Budget Authority (BA), or rather the total value of funds authorized by Congress during a fiscal year for Navy programs.


Conversions to 2010 constant dollars conducted using “Joint Inflation Calculator February 2016,” available at Naval Center for Cost Analysis


By comparison, the Navy’s post-1970 budgets have remained flat in real terms, even as ever-increasing budgetary proportions across the entire U.S. military are being consumed by accounts other than research and development, procurement, or maintenance. The takeaway is incontestable: the Navy’s budget has not been a dominant contributor to the nation’s fiscal situation over the past four decades, and the fleet’s numerical decline has represented a tacit choice made by the American people.

We have reached the point where the strategic tasks asked of the Navy by the nation consistently outstrip the supply of ships to such an extent that the fleet has become dangerously worn down. If the Navy is to restore a fleet sized, composed, maintained, and equipped such that it can sustainably fulfill its many roles, it will need to continuously explain to the nation in easily understandable terms what those roles are and why they are strategically essential to American security and prosperity. This need not be a difficult task, however, as the key themes can be readily identified from an analysis of America’s historical national interests and the emerging international environment.

The Sea and American Security

The United States’ oceanic separation from Europe granted the country a considerable but not absolute degree of security to support its early political and economic development. Americans often forget that the event celebrated in our national anthem, Fort McHenry’s successful 1814 defense of Baltimore from a British naval force, occurred after the troops embarked in that force had already burned Washington D.C. and pillaged Chesapeake Bay communities during the preceding months. The Royal Navy was able to wage these attacks—and also blockade American commerce in port throughout the war—because the United States lacked a Navy of sufficient capability and capacity to stand in the way.

But the United States’ maritime eye was never solely focused on its own shores. Congress’ impetus in the 1790s for developing the Navy was to protect America’s ability to sell the nation’s products and buy desirable goods on overseas markets. Principal causes of the 1798-1800 “Quasi-War” with France, the 1801-05 and 1815 Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean, and the War of 1812 were in defense of American trade at sea. The combined strategic requirements of defending our coasts, our commerce, and our overseas market access led even “continentalist” presidents such as Andrew Jackson to build up fleet size and maintain forward naval presences in prioritized regions of the world.

The colonial expansionism of Europe’s powers during the 19th century, which accelerated with the advent of steam power, confronted America with a more complex threat to its security. Coastal defense would no longer suffice; hemispheric defense would be necessary to shield our shores and our interests in the Caribbean and Central America from highly-mobile foreign battlefleets. The nation’s political leaders accordingly committed beginning in the 1880s to building a larger and more modern Navy. And even though the German naval threat to America’s freedom of the seas during the First World War was a proximate cause of our entry to that fight, the full rationale of the “second to none” Naval Act of 1916 was to ensure that America could permanently protect itself and its overseas interests against any combination of great powers in an uncertain world.  

For as American leaders began to realize in the midst of the Second World War, our security in the modern era depends upon ensuring that no hostile powers come to dominate or seize the material, industrial, and financial resources of Europe and Eastern Asia or the petroleum resources of Southwest Asia. If adversaries were to combine these resources with their own and then wield them against the United States, American strength and security would be in grave jeopardy. Moreover, as demonstrated in the two World Wars, if the need ever again arose to surge and sustain heavy ground forces overseas, American superiority along trans-oceanic sea lanes would be essential. This geostrategic logic formed the basis of America’s commitment to waging the Cold War and its corresponding requirement for a cutting-edge global Navy.

All this remains relevant in the 21st century. Our potential great and regional power adversaries can credibly threaten the sea lanes that enable us to trade with and, if necessary, flow and sustain our military power within Europe, East Asia, and Southwest Asia. Russia, in particular, is reestablishing the credible ability to strike our critical military, economic, and civil infrastructure from under or above Western Hemisphere waters, and as the supporting technologies proliferate, other rising powers are likely to gain similar capabilities. Similarly, the undersea cables that enable our telecommunications with the world and that serve as the backbone of Western finance are threatened now and will be more so in the future.

Our economy likewise remains heavily reliant on overseas trade. Using 2014 as a baseline, roughly 30% of the American economy and an estimated one out of every five American workers’ jobs trace directly to foreign trade. Those workers’ savings, investments, and expenditures almost certainly affect the jobs and well-being of many millions of additional American workers. 67% of our exports and 70% of our imports in 2014 were with countries outside North America, meaning that those goods and services had to cross the sea to reach their destinations. 23% of our nation’s total 2014 exports and imports were with Asian countries other than China. 22% of our nation’s exports and just over 19% of our imports in 2014 were with European countries other than Russia. An incalculable amount of this trade is deliberately structured for the sake of efficiency to deliver products “just in time”; Americans have never experienced and have rarely contemplated deep and protracted shocks to this model. There is no question that a competing power could inflict painful disruptions to the American economy, with corresponding losses in American jobs, if it chose to throttle our access to major overseas markets.

The Strategic Purpose of the Navy in the New Era of Great Power Competition

Our overseas market access will hardly be self-sustaining in a world in which shared embraces of mutually-beneficial norms and rules appear on the decline. While this access could decline abruptly in a major war, it already is declining incrementally as great power competitors strategically maneuver against us. China is using its growing clout to press for an alternative set of global trading norms that in some cases sharply differ from those traditionally sought by the U.S. Others in Europe pursue regional pipeline consortiums with Russia even at a time when U.S. natural gas production is booming. Marginal changes in market access can mean gains or losses in American competitive export advantages—with implications for American jobs. And while these trends appear driven primarily by economic considerations, security considerations lie just beneath the surface. As longstanding American allies and partners come to question our capabilities, capacities, and will to stand by them if they are imperiled, they may hedge their bets by seeking the “protection” of further economic integration with our competitors. In turn, this may lead to some of them shifting to more neutral foreign policy stances or, as we presently see in the Philippines, contribute to dramatic changes in their political and strategic alignments. A given American may not particularly care about other countries’ security and prosperity in and of itself, but he or she is likely to come to care greatly about how overseas demand for American products and parallel American access to needed or desired foreign products affects his or her economic livelihood.

But the majority of Americans are not cold calculators who press for policies based primarily on their perceived material interests. For over two centuries, Americans have sought to perfect the implementation of our founding political values of representative government by the consent of the governed. Americans are innately morally hostile to forms of government that trod on the liberties, freedoms, and dignity of the individual. We come to politically recoil when our elected leaders do not uphold our values-based standards. Our moral revulsion to the unchecked suffering of others overseas drives our charitability, and we have often pressured our leaders to “do something” when calamity, whether natural or man-made, strikes fellow human beings.

A U.S. Navy designed and operated for strategic competition in prioritized regions can be in or close to the right places at the right times to create “facts at sea” and shape adversaries,’ allies,’ and partners’ perceptions of the local balance of military forces, thereby helping to suppress conflicts and deter the outbreak of war. This kind of Navy’s latent combat-credible presence can help America signal abiding interests in those regions and thus assist with maintaining secure access, both physical and political, to important overseas markets. In turn, it can help convert partners into allies as well as sustain existing alliances. Most significantly, this kind of Navy’s size and composition would offer our political leaders maximal strategic flexibility as the international environment evolves.

A global U.S. Navy is one that can use the oceans to project all forms of national power ashore anytime, anywhere. It can take the form of humanitarian assistance provided to those afflicted by tragedies, thereby meeting our moral urge to help and creating a visible contrast with our strategic competitors’ lack of charitability. It can take the form of diplomatic engagements, which through visits and exercises amass goodwill and trust American strategy can tap. It can take the form of information operations that impair competitors’ abilities to misinform, coerce, or control populations or that degrade their abilities to wield cyberweapons and networked military systems against us. It can take the form of trans-oceanic deployment, sustainment, and withdrawal of ground forces—whether heavy Army forces, Marine amphibious forces, or special operations forces—in peacetime and war. And of course, it can take the form of actual or latently threatened air and missile strikes from the sea, with the threat of assured retaliatory nuclear strikes from highly survivable submarines being a foundational guarantor of American national security.

Most notably, a global U.S. Navy is one that is not dependent upon other countries allowing us transit through their airspace or territory. U.S. warships are sovereign U.S. territory: they can legally operate where they please in international waters. They can carry and concentrate persistent American power overseas at will, and if they are forward deployed, they can do so very quickly.

Talking About the Navy We Need

It is unwise to overwhelmingly rest advocacy for U.S. naval strength on a particular fleet size; particular numbers of types of ships and submarines and aircraft; or particular numbers of Sailors. It is true that a nice round number can be a selling point. It is also true that merely saying “we need 355 ships in order to be strong” begs the question of why not 356, or 350, or 320. A commonly-heard argument is that modern warships are vastly more capable than their ancestors, and therefore fewer warships are needed. The fatal counterarguments that a single warship can only be in a single place at a given time, and that the globe has not changed size nor have potential adversaries’ capabilities held static, are rarely made within the public debate.

Similarly, it is sometimes suggested that because our fleet numerically overawes our potential adversaries’ fleets either in total or in specific types of warships, further naval growth is unnecessary. Rarely is the counterargument made that the U.S. Navy’s size is dictated by the strategic imperative to simultaneously provide persistent combat-credible forces in multiple geographically separate regions of the world. This is a critical and often-missed point: our potential adversaries can achieve their strategic objectives using forces concentrated at home, whereas we cannot. The realities of geography combined with our consistent interests over the past two centuries compel us to play “away games.” Rarely is it explained that most individual U.S. Navy ships deployed forward from an American homeport to protect our interests in peacetime require at least three additional ships of the same type in the force structure: one in post-deployment surge readiness, one undergoing maintenance, and one training for the next deployment. Nor is it explained that our competitors can employ land-based aircraft and missiles against our naval forces hundreds of miles out at sea, that this kind of capability is hardly new, and that any analysis that overlooks these realities is fundamentally flawed. Nor is it outlined that even if we build our Navy up to the new FSA’s objective number, each of our potential adversaries’ maritime forces will still outnumber ours day-to-day in the key overseas regions—and are approaching what may be an enduring military technological parity with us.

This is why the FSA’s language on risk is essential to explaining the need for a larger and more capable Navy:

“The number and mix of ships in the objective force…includes a level of operational risk that we are willing to assume based on the resource limitations under which the Navy must operate. While the force levels articulated in this FSA are adjudged to be successful in the scenarios defined for Navy combat, that success will likely also include additional loss of forces and longer times to achieve desired objectives, in each of the combat scenarios against which we plan to use these forces…”

Translated, this means that the number of American warships and Sailors lost in a major war, not to mention the war’s duration and the damage it might inflict on our country and its interests, will in part trace from the fleet’s size and capabilities as peace fades. If such a war is to be deterred, America must present its competitors with standing balances of power in the prioritized overseas regions that convince them no opportune window exists to gamble on aggression against American interests.

If Not Us, Then Who?

American security and prosperity during the century between the War of 1812 and the First World War ironically benefitted from tacit British naval support. Britain and America shared a common interest in barring continental European powers from establishing new colonies or powerful military presences in the Western Hemisphere. The early U.S. Navy could only pay lip service to the Monroe Doctrine; it was practically enforced by the Royal Navy. Likewise, the early U.S. Navy could not take on world-class navies far from home in defense of American trade. It was the Royal Navy that saw to the freedom of the seas that enriched the American economy. Ultimately, British and American interests meshed because their basic values meshed.

As British power declined following the Second World War, American economic and military power was ready to take on the burden of serving as the free world’s preeminent protector at and from the sea. We did so because our interests dictated as much.

If we opted to walk away from this role, then which other country or countries could rapidly and indefinitely stand up in our place? None of our allies’ long-term demographic and macroeconomic situations are nearly as strong as ours, whereas our autocratic competitors can—and in some cases do—dedicate far larger portions of their economies to their militaries than is enduringly possible in a democracy. The numbers don’t lie: we and like-minded countries must stand together. Each of our allies and partners can and should take on increased shares of the collective security load. There is no evidence; however, that suggests they could credibly take on the entire load or even a majority of it in the face of our potential adversaries’ rapidly improving military capabilities and capacities.

And so we cannot walk away, at least not without incurring grave risks to our economic strength and the defense of our homeland. Since the earliest days of our republic, our commerce has required us to maintain persistent military presences overseas, and the march of technology has driven us to defend our homeland at increasing distances from our shores. Neither is possible absent a U.S. Navy that possesses sufficient strength relative to its competitors to deter—and if necessary fight and win—wars. The Navy and its proponents successfully explained these facts to the American people throughout critical periods of our nation’s proud history. The return of great power competition signals that another critical period has arrived: it is time for the Navy to tell its story once again.  


Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, U. S. Navy (Ret) is the former Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. He served as Chief Operating Officer, President and CEO of Systems Planning Analysis, Inc. from 2013-2015 and remains engaged in national security matters as a consultant and corporate board member.

Jonathan Altman and Jonathan Solomon are Senior Analysts with Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis Inc., and to their knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.


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