Seapower is competitive. There are winners and losers. Controlling the sea is central to preserving global security and liberal democratic values. Peacetime competition is as important as warfighting at sea. Navies that during peacetime keep up with technology, innovate the way they fight, and keep up and maintain numbers of ships, aircraft, equipment and people are far more likely to win.
Americans hate losers, so the fact that we are losing the seapower competition to China should mean something to the man on the street. We have fought great sea control campaigns against peer competitors. Those campaigns rested on the proposition that the United States and our allies were going to control seas around the globe, deny the oceans to our enemies and exploit that control.
On the basis of this rationale, the U.S. Navy and our allies emerged from World War II having not just defeated, but destroyed, the German and Japanese navies. The totality of that victory had never been seen before in any war, and is a gauge of the seapower stakes prevailing today.
The American naval strategy was to envision the fundamental value of seapower; to muster the political will and the industrial resources necessary to defeat opposing navies; and to ruthlessly exploit control of those seas to bring the war to the enemy. The strategy depended upon a broad public understanding of the value of American seapower, an adroit political willingness to use it and a supremely professional Navy that could not only wield the fleet built for it, but in so doing invent entirely new operational approaches to naval warfare.
American industry and technological prowess were indispensable, but even more important was the human element, personified by the great commanders no more than by the sailors, seaman, airmen and Marines who were the lifeblood of the greatest fleet ever launched.
These were titanic struggles because the seapower stakes were so high. The United States in World War II built a “Two-Ocean Navy” that by August of 1945 boasted more than 930 surface warships, 230 submarines and a total active fleet of more than 6,700 vessels. These are breathtaking numbers compared to the fewer than 300 ships of today’s U.S. fleet.
The U.S. Navy transformed into something entirely new by the start of the Cold War, what Professor Sam Huntington dubbed the “Transoceanic Navy” in his famous 1954 article. Exploiting the oceans as the basis for American national security, the U.S. Navy claimed the Eurasian coastlines as its own.
The Cold War was decided on the basis of the Navy’s ability to make the claim stick, first to keep open the sea lanes between the United States and our allies, and second to project American industrial, military and political power ashore. No one had ever done this before, and it worked superbly. Forcing the Soviet Navy onto the defensive essentially precluded a Cold War “Battle of the Atlantic.”
The Cold War forward-based strategy was accepted so completely as to almost not bear mentioning. To control the seas was to put our opponents on the back foot, to enable and leverage alliances, and to force the global struggle on our own political and military terms. Seapower became such an intrinsic element of American national strategy that it came to both represent and drive America’s strategic posture.
The end of the Cold War put paid to this great success. Seapower became not intrinsic, but taken for granted. In the aftermath of great-power competition the overarching question for political and Navy leaders 30 years ago became how deeply to reduce the fleet, and how little we needed to maintain the supposed bare minimum. With no clear naval competitor, there appeared to be little reason for debate, let alone a declarative strategy for seapower.
Beijing understands the lessons of American seapower: Control the seas and you will control your opponents and set the terms for military and political competition. China is in the midst of a great naval buildup paralleling our own historic efforts of the past. Between 2016 and 2020, the Chinese navy has added to its fleet essentially the equivalent of Japan’s entire current surface fleet. This is a page from the U.S. Navy’s own playbook.
The Chinese navy is building larger and more formidable surface combatants far faster than anyone else, with at least eight hulls already launched of a brand-new class of large surface warships. It is starting to deploy its new carrier force in ways reflecting our own practice. Its growing amphibious force is a tangible threat to its neighbors. The PLA Navy is on track to have nearly twice as many surface ships as the U.S. Navy before the end of this decade. In the meantime, our own fleet has been arguing for decades over its own ways and means, yet so far neither have been forthcoming to any effective degree.
The influence of seapower on history is quite clear, and Americans have written much of that history. These strategic naval concepts are not particularly high-minded ideas, but the idea itself of seapower has to be actively preserved in support of its physical maintenance and implementation.
American seapower has always depended upon conscious public support. It takes a concerted effort to preserve in the public’s consciousness the tangible benefits and strategic importance of seapower — in the classroom, the press and Congress. The stakes are vital. Restoring the conceptual and physical basis for American seapower will require time, money and great effort. This is a simple formula for success, but at sea even the simplest things are difficult.
In the meantime, China is out to beat us at our own game at sea. Americans hate to lose. But we are.
• Paul Giarra is a retired Navy officer, strategic planner, and Asian security analyst who uses history as a planning tool. These views are his own.
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