Was the U.S. Navy really better in 1917?

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

During a Republican presidential debate in January, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney claimed that the U.S. Navy is now "smaller than any time since 1917." And so it is, in raw numerical terms. The fleet stood at 245 vessels just before Congress passed the Naval Act of 1916, launching a major expansion in case the nation entered World War I. The navy upped its total to 342 ships by 1917. The Naval Act signified a strategic decision of considerable gravity – it marked the moment when the United States resolved to transform its regional navy into a global navy without peer.

If the fleet expanded in 1916, it contracted after 1991. After approaching 600 ships during the 1980s defense buildup, the post-Cold War fleet has dwindled to about half that total. The fleet bottomed out at 278 vessels in 2007, and has hovered just over the 280 mark since. The Naval Register lists 286 ships at present. Navy leaders favor an inventory of "about 300" vessels, leaving the navy well shy of the 1917 figure.

So Governor Romney was right on the facts, if perhaps a trifle casual with them. But was his implication — that the navy is getting too small to perform its missions — equally correct? That’s the more interesting and relevant question for anyone interested in American victory at sea. Alas, there’s no pat way to answer it.

Which 300 Ships?

Despite its heavy scientific-technical character, calculating sea power is an inexact science. There is no consensus method by which to measure naval might. Counting numbers of hulls can mislead, while factoring in the operational, strategic, and even political context surrounding seafaring endeavors is paramount. Let’s start with an obvious question: which 300-odd ships comprise the U.S. Navy at any instant?

Think about it. A fleet made up of 300 Coast Guard-like combatants suitable for policing the waters off North America would clearly be a less formidable, more defensive-minded creature than a 300-ship fleet heavy on aircraft carriers, guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, and other high-end vessels carrying enough offensive punch to wrest command of the sea from adversaries and project power onto distant shores.

The mix of ships and capabilities determines the navy’s aggregate combat strength. And that mix is changing. For example, multi-mission frigates commissioned during the Cold War are being retired and replaced by single-mission Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs). While the LCS has its virtues, it is no frigate.

Changing out highly versatile ships for lightly armed successors will attenuate the fleet’s battle capacity over time, even as fielding these relatively inexpensive platforms boosts the number of hulls in the water. That may delight those using Romney’s measurement standard – brute numbers – but the fact remains the navy is substituting part of its combat power for quantity. Let’s not succumb to bean-counting: Tracking trends in the makeup of the fleet, not just raw numbers of ships, is a must.

A Ship’s a Fool to Fight a Fort…But the U.S. Navy Has No Choice

War is a political act in which the combatants deploy forces to uphold their goals. The winner prevails by defeating his adversary outright, convincing the loser the costs of victory are too high, or showing him he cannot win. So when the United States fights a regional adversary, it pits its available combat strength against that adversary’s power to resist Washington’s demands.

Accordingly, a prospective opponent’s fighting strength constitutes another key determinant of U.S. maritime success. Military power is a relative — not an absolute — thing.

But aren’t our ships far more capable than their predecessors from 1916? Sure. They have gee-whiz sensors, longer reach, and precision striking power. But this observation, though true, borders on trivial. American ships have improved. So has adversaries’ capacity to oppose them. Consequently, it is far from clear that the tactical environment is more benign today than it was in 1916.

Strategists must evaluate the military balance by a sliding standard, judging not just the U.S. Navy’s capacity to amass power but an adversary’s capacity to mount resistance at the scene of combat. And if the United States is fighting along remote shores — as it will be — an opponent can hurl an array of land-based assets into the fray. Comparing fleets while disregarding shore-based implements of sea power paints a false picture of how a contest could unfold.

Ship for ship, the U.S. Navy remains "a navy second to none," to use a phrase popular a century ago. But it must expect adversaries to oppose U.S. operations with every tool in their toolkits, not just their high-end fleets. Foreign militaries can increasingly project power from land out to sea. Consequently, our navy has to measure itself not just against opponents’ inventories of ships, ship-borne aircraft, and weaponry, but against their armies and air forces.

Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar — the 1805 battle where a British fleet overcame a superior Franco-Spanish fleet, winning command of European waters — once quipped that "a ship’s a fool to fight a fort." But in his day, the seaward reach of a fort’s artillery was measured in hundreds of yards, not hundreds of miles. Guns could deny access only to small sea areas. That left naval commanders plenty of room for maneuver, allowing them to detour beyond gunnery range. The age of Nelson, however, had nothing on today’s long-range, precision-guided anti-ship weapons.

Think of an adversary’s land territory as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and missile firing platform, and you have the right perspective on the problem. Regional powers can dish out punishment from land. One high-profile system is the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a weapon operated by China’s Second Artillery Corps – the army’s missile force. The ASBM is part of a family of land-based weapons that can strike at moving ships up to 2,000 kilometers offshore, according to Pentagon estimates (see page 31). The U.S. Navy has to cope with such threats — or cede crucial offshore waters and skies to its rivals.

Home-Field Advantage

Take a sports metaphor — the NCAA and NFL seasons are underway, after all. The U.S. fleet outclasses potential opponents on a ship-for-ship basis, just as Alabama outclassed Michigan on a neutral field last Saturday. But all games are away games for the U.S. Navy. It operates off other nations’ coasts, at the end of long resupply lines. And the home-field advantage can decide the outcome, just as surely in naval warfare as in football.

Local defenders in the Western Pacific or Persian Gulf boast land-based weaponry such as missile-toting fighter jets, diesel submarines, and stealth patrol craft, not to mention anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. When it comes to the latter, some can strike hundreds of miles away. Within their effective firing range from shore, these systems — many of them wielded not by navies but by ground or air forces — comprise a major component of sea power. That’s what Chinese strategists call "using the land to control the sea."

To continue with the football analogy, venturing into a coastal state’s nearby seas and skies is something like arming 100,000 bloodthirsty home-team fans with big rocks and letting them pelt the visiting team when its buses arrive in the parking lot, during pregame warm-ups, and throughout the game — including timeouts and halftime. The home team, of course, wouldn’t deign to provide the visitors with a locker room to take refuge in this scenario.

You’d have to like the Wolverines’ chances under such auspicious conditions, regardless of whether they put the biggest, most skilled, or best-coached team on the field. Land forces with seaward reach are regional defenders’ Twelfth Man — and then some.

TR or Wilson?

We can use two long-ago presidents to put a face on the strategic options confronting Americans. Theodore Roosevelt is justly renowned as a supporter of naval power, but Roosevelt and kindred naval boosters such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge favored a one-ocean fleet. They wanted a navy able to defend the greater Caribbean Sea against all comers, while also protecting the United States’ maritime lifeline to the Philippine Islands.

TR, Mahan, and Lodge were content to field a "fleet second to none but that of Great Britain," or, as historian George T. Davis puts it, "a navy of second rank." They feared what would happen if the battle fleet were divided between the East and West coasts. Each detachment would be too weak to overcome rivals like Imperial Japan or Germany. On his last day as president, in fact, TR beseeched successor William Howard Taft not to partition the fleet. A one-ocean navy could be stationed on either coast as circumstances warranted, and could (with some delay and risk) shift to the other coast should unforeseen threats materialize.

It fell to Woodrow Wilson to push through a shipbuilding program designed to make the U.S. Navy, in his words, "incomparably the greatest navy in the world." After early skepticism about U.S. involvement in Europe’s Great War, Wilson was stung by the sinking of the Lusitania and other affronts. He became an overnight convert to the cause of naval preparedness, vowing to vanquish not just German militarism on land but British militarism on the high seas. Indeed, in late 1918 he threatened British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with a naval arms race "to see who will have the larger navy, you or we?"

Wilson entertained political aims of breathtaking sweep – namely, transforming the world order –and knew he might have to back his policies with overwhelming, not just regional, force. The postwar naval arms accords limited the U.S. Navy to the same size as Britain’s Royal Navy. All the same, the agreements certified that it would be a navy second to none.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, carried the "navy second to none" principle to its logical conclusion by helping push through a "two-ocean navy" in 1940. In effect, Congress ordered a second complete navy built to wage war against Germany and Japan. That navy has ruled the waves ever since.

Will it keep doing so? Admiral J.C. Wylie observes that funding decisions are strategic decisions. Whether they realize it or not, that is, lawmakers shape and sometimes constrain strategy by the weaponry, platforms, and manpower to which they allocate taxpayer dollars. One suspects this is what Romney was getting at — the notion that inadequate navy budgets will unacceptably drive down the fleet’s size — when he cited 1917 as a break point in American maritime history.

On that point, Romney is on to something. Sparse shipbuilding funds could translate into a smaller fleet over time, fettering policymakers’ options in future crises. If so, faraway opponents’ Twelfth Man could keep a diminished U.S. Navy off the field, or drive up the costs of taking the field to unbearable heights, deterring U.S. involvement altogether. So which will it be — the one-ocean navy of TR, or the navy second to none of Wilson and FDR? It’s an election year: let the maritime-strategy debate begin.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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