The False Decline of the U.S. Navy

We live in strange times. While the United States is responsible for close to 50 percent of aggregate world military expenditure, and maintains close alliances with almost all of the other major military powers, a community of defense analysts continues to insist that we need to spend more. In the November issue of The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan asserts that United States hegemony is under the threat of “elegant decline,” and points to what conventional analysts might suggest is the most secure element of American power; the United States Navy. Despite the fact that the U.S. Navy remains several orders of magnitude more powerful than its nearest rival, Kaplan says that we must beware; if we allow the size of our Navy to further decline, we risk repeating the experience of the United Kingdom in the years before World War I. Unfortunately, since no actual evidence of U.S. naval decline exists, Kaplan is forced to rely on obfuscation, distortion, and tendentious historical analogies to make his case.

The centerpiece of Kaplan’s argument is a comparison of the current U.S. Navy to the British Royal Navy at the end of the 19th century. The decline of the Royal Navy heralded the collapse of British hegemony, and the decline of the U.S. Navy threatens a similar fate for the United States. The only problem with this argument is that similarities between the 21st century United States and the 19th century United Kingdom are more imagined than real. It’s true that the relative strength of the Royal Navy declined at the end of the 19th century, but this was due entirely the rise of the United States and Germany. But the absolute strength of the Royal Navy increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the United Kingdom strove to maintain naval dominance over two countries that possessed larger economies and larger industrial bases than that of Great Britain. In other words, the position of the Royal Navy declined because the position of the United Kingdom declined; in spite of this decline, the Royal Navy continued to dominate the seas against all comers until 1941. Britain’s relative economic decline preceded its naval decline, although the efforts to keep up with Germany, the United States, and later Japan did serious damage to the British economy. The United States faces a situation which is in no way similar.

Returning to the present, Kaplan takes note of the growth of several foreign navies, including the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. He points out that the Japanese Navy has a large number of destroyers and a growing number of submarines. He warns that India “may soon have the world’s third largest navy” without giving any indication of why that matters. Most serious of all, he describes the threat of a growing Chinese Navy and claims that, just as the Battle of Wounded Knee opened a new age for American imperialism, the conquest of Taiwan could transform China into an expansionist, imperial power. The curious historical analogies aside, Kaplan is careful to make no direct comparisons between the growing navies of foreign countries and the actual strength of the United States Navy. There’s a good reason for this oversight; there is no comparison between the U.S. Navy and any navy afloat today.

The United States Navy currently operates eleven aircraft carriers. The oldest and least capable is faster, one third larger, and carries three times the aircraft of Admiral Kuznetsov, the largest carrier in the Russian Navy. Unlike China’s only aircraft carrier, the former Russian Varyag, American carriers have engines and are capable of self-propulsion. The only carrier in Indian service is fifty years old and a quarter the size of its American counterparts. No navy besides the United States' has more than one aircraft carrier capable of flying modern fixed wing aircraft. The United States enjoys similar dominance in surface combat vessels and submarines, operating twenty-two cruisers, fifty destroyers, fifty-five nuclear attack submarines, and ten amphibious assault ships (vessels roughly equivalent to most foreign aircraft carriers). In every category the U.S. Navy combines presumptive numerical superiority with a significant ship-to-ship advantage over any foreign navy.

This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. The French Navy and the Royal Navy will each expand to two aircraft carriers over the next decade. The most ambitious plans ascribed to the People’s Liberation Army Navy call for no more than three aircraft carriers by 2020, and even that strains credulity, given China’s inexperience with carrier operations and the construction of large military vessels. While a crash construction program might conceivably give the Chinese the ability to achieve local dominance (at great cost and for a short time), the United States Navy will continue to dominate the world’s oceans and littorals for at least the next fifty years.

In order to try to show that the U.S. Navy is insufficient in the face of future threats, Kaplan argues that we on are our way to “a 150 ship navy” that will be overwhelmed by the demands of warfighting and global economic maintenance. He suggests that the “1,000 Ship Navy” proposal, an international plan to streamline cooperation between the world’s navies on maritime maintenance issues such as piracy, interdiction of drug and human smuggling, and disaster relief, is an effort at “elegant decline,” and declares that the dominance of the United States Navy cannot be maintained through collaboration with others.

It’s true that a 600 ship navy can do more than the current 250-plus ship force of the current U.S. Navy, but Kaplan’s playing a game of bait and switch. The Navy has fewer ships than it did two decades ago, but the ships it has are far more capable than those of the 1980s. Because of the collapse of its competitors, the Navy is relatively more capable of fighting and winning wars now than it was during the Reagan administration. Broadly speaking, navies have two missions; warfighting, and maritime maintenance. Kaplan wants to confuse the maritime maintenance mission (which can be done in collaboration with others) with the warfighting mission (which need not be). A navy can require the cooperation of others for the maintenance mission, while still possessing utter military superiority over any one navy or any plausible combination of navies on the high seas.

Indeed, this is the situation that the United States Navy currently enjoys. It cannot be everywhere all at once, and does require the cooperation of regional navies for fighting piracy and smuggling. At the same time, the U.S. Navy can destroy any (and probably all, at the same time) naval challengers. To conflate these two missions is equal parts silly and dishonest. The Navy has arrived at an ideal compromise between the two, keeping its fighting supremacy while leading and facilitating cooperation around the world on maritime issues.

This compromise has allowed the Navy to build positive relationships with the navies of the world, a fact that Kaplan ignores. While asserting the dangers posed by a variety of foreign navies, Kaplan makes a distortion depressingly common to those who warn of the decline of American hegemony; he forgets that the United States has allies. While Kaplan can plausibly argue that growth in Russian or Chinese naval strength threatens the United States, the same cannot reasonably be said of Japan, India, France, or the United Kingdom. With the exception of China and Russia, all of the most powerful navies in the world belong to American allies. United States cooperation with the navies of NATO, India, and Japan has tightened, rather than waned in the last ten years, and the United States also retains warm relations with third tier navies such as those of South Korea, Australia, and Malaysia. In any conceivable naval confrontation the United States will have friends, just as the Royal Navy had friends in 1914 and 1941.

Robert Kaplan wants to warn the American people of the dangers of impending naval decline. Unfortunately, he’s almost entirely wrong on the facts. While the reach of the United States Navy may have declined in an absolute sense, its capacity to fight and win naval wars has, if anything, increased since the end of the Cold War. That the United States continues to embed itself in a deep set of cooperative arrangements with other naval powers only reinforces the dominance of the U.S. Navy on the high seas. Analysts who want to argue for greater U.S. military spending are best advised to concentrate on the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan.