Best Defense

A view from the high seas: The Navy is now more important than other services because it provides unfettered presence

By Lieutenant Doug Robb, U.S. Navy Best Defense guest columnist The shifting strategic focus of the United States, alternately referred to as a "pivot" or "rebalance," has crystalized a debate among our national leadership about how the military can and should achieve its security goals in the coming years. At the operational and tactical levels, ...

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

By Lieutenant Doug Robb, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist

The shifting strategic focus of the United States, alternately referred to as a "pivot" or "rebalance," has crystalized a debate among our national leadership about how the military can and should achieve its security goals in the coming years. At the operational and tactical levels, it is irrefutable that we must have an adequate number of highly-capable warships — and a sophisticated logistics system to support them — operating forward and ready for tasking to maintain the timely, efficient, and metered response to which we have become accustomed.

Ships and their capabilities are tools ("means" in military parlance) used to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives ("ends"). However, they differ from other military hardware because a constant naval presence — simply "being there" — has characteristics of both ends and means. As a result, the "one-third, one-third, one-third" budget allocations traditionally apportioned among the service branches simply will not achieve current or future security goals. Policymakers should recognize not only the immense payoff that naval forces provide, but how they can strengthen America’s security prospects in the years to come.

However, the debate about the size and capability of the U.S. Navy must not narrowly view ships as "means" to a tactical "end." Rather, it should acknowledge that the routine non-wartime presence Navy ships maintain is an end itself — one that delivers tangible benefit to American security, influence, and responsiveness unmatched by any other service or platform.

Unique to the Navy’s routine presence mission is the ability to provide these security requirements in near real-time without the requirement of a host country. Naval forces are inherently different from Army garrisoned forces because, while long-term land occupations risk undermining security objectives, a strong naval presence can reinforce them. Maritime forces require no diplomatic approval to operate in international waters; they do not force domestic or foreign leaders to expend political capital in order to place troops within striking distance of hot spots; they do not put allies in awkward positions by asking them to house U.S. forces when the local population may be averse to such presence.

Conversely, large garrisoned forces require policymakers in both the United States and in the forward-deployed country to make decisions that could weaken broader security goals. For example, an augmented American ground presence in Germany or Poland would surely increase regional tensions already stoked by the crisis in Crimea. Moreover, it would be difficult for military strategists to argue that placing such forces in Europe would help the outlook in the Pacific, where our security focus will be for the foreseeable future.

The ship on which I serve, the USS Kidd (DDG 100), illustrates the value routine naval presence provides. Kidd recently concluded its 10-day search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; this journey took the ship from the Gulf of Thailand to the Java Sea, through the Singapore Strait and Strait of Malacca, past the Andaman Sea and on to the Bay of Bengal at the northern edge of the Indian Ocean. In total, Kidd transited more than 3,500 nautical miles conducting visual and radar searches; its two MH-60R helicopters used state-of-the-art sensors to comb nearly 15,000 square nautical miles during round-the-clock sorties.

While some may claim it was "luck" that Kidd and Pinckney (DDG 91), which also participated in the operation, were able to respond to this tragedy so quickly, this timely reaction was made possible only by the U.S. Navy’s continued and persistent presence in the Indo-Asian region. Kidd was conducting routine operations in the South China Sea — only a one-day transit from the initial search location. "Luck," said Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson, "is the residue of design."

The U.S. Navy’s presence in neighboring waters permitted a rapid response to the search effort for the missing jetliner without the cost that would result from deploying a San Diego or Pearl Harbor-based ship. Conversely, a deployment announced specifically for the Flight 370 search might have sent a potentially negative signal to the Malaysians that the U.S. distrusted their search process.

Moreover, the transit time (no less than three weeks) would have limited the value of the U.S. contribution. This same logic applies to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or any other situation in which tensions rise and threaten free access to waterways essential to U.S. economic and security interests. Deploying to these areas after an event occurs or tensions flare — especially when American naval presence has historically not been routine — can limit the efficacy of response and might well raise the very apprehensions the Navy’s presence was meant to quell.

The Navy is omnipresent in every major geographic area around the world. The very presence of naval ships simultaneously deters military aggression and assures our allies, safeguards the sea lanes and the commerce that flows through them, preserves territorial waterway boundaries and the right to resources contained therein, and facilitates a response to natural disasters and other catastrophes — like the disappearance of MH370. In this case, showing up is well more than half the battle.

The U.S. Navy’s resilience can only endure with the understanding that a firm commitment to building and maintaining a first-rate Navy — capable of being present where our national interests lie — is not only desirable, it is necessary. This commitment is a policy prerequisite if the United States — a maritime nation whose interests have been safeguarded by the Navy since the country’s founding — wants to retain the ability to influence outcomes, create additional windows of diplomacy, and control escalation.

Lieutenant Robb holds graduate degrees in security studies from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and the U.S. Naval War College. He currently serves as the operations officer of the USS Kidd (DDG 100) on deployment in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are his alone.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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