So the navy exists to blow stuff up, right? To clear the seas of our dastardly enemies and smite them with a righteous baptism of fire? To dominate and decimate those who would oppose us?
Well, no. That’s a part of it – an important part! – but it doesn’t really get to the core of what navies historically spend their time doing. The U.S. Navy has gotten by without fighting a major sea battle since 1945, and yet for some reason it has managed to hold onto generous[i] funding through these relatively peaceful decades. Why keep around a huge and expensive navy when there is no one for it to fight?
What people often miss is that that last 70+ years have been relatively peaceful because a global maritime power maintained a worldwide navy.
Sure, the postwar U.S. Navy wasn’t fighting any epic battles for sea control, but it provided a very valuable service in simply reminding people that it existed. It seems somewhat circular (“I deploy, therefore I am”), but is really quite critical. This forward presence serves two critical purposes, one geared toward averting all-out global war, and another for ensuring free access to the global commons.
For that first purpose, presence implies a credible threat of force that can act quickly, and credible threats provide deterrence that act to avert major conflict. That’s pretty straightforward. But additionally, it establishes the precedent that a U.S. presence in a given location is normal, legal and non-threatening. Legality has come up lately in the context of the South China Sea – the U.S. and other powers aim to demonstrate that China’s claims to certain waters are invalid by sailing through them. A non-threatening posture is relevant in the Arabian (neé Persian) Gulf, in which dozens of U.S. ships have been continually present just outside Iranian waters for 25 years without once invading Iran. Thus, Iran tacitly accepts the precedent of the U.S. Navy’s lawful presence and knows that just because a new Amphibious Ready Group is headed to the Gulf doesn’t mean that the regime is about to be toppled. This allows the U.S. to conduct routine operations without causing undue alarm.
Think of a simple counterfactual[ii] – if there was no U.S. presence
in the Gulf, but we still decided we wanted to send a Carrier Strike Group to bomb ISIS, Iran would probably mine the Strait of Hormuz and get ready to defend their turf, not wanting to cede their lake to the Americans. And that would be bad.
But that is the high-end war-and-peace kind of stuff. Much more mundane is the day-to-day task of securing the “global commons,” upon which about ninety percent of global commerce moves (we’ll pull this thread further in a future post). That pencil on your desk might have been made in your home country, but the raw material all had to come from somewhere. Did you see “Captain Phillips”? Good movie. No sequel was ever made because nowadays an international naval flotilla constantly patrols the Gulf of Aden and Somali basin and has had great success curtailing the level of Somali piracy. Similar efforts are replicated around the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Guinea and other well-trafficked but loosely-governed areas around the world. Now and then they capture pirates, but it’s the brigands that never go to sea in the first place who provide the real victories. These are the mundane victories that permit pencil manufacturers to go about their mundane business.
Bottom line: These efforts keep maritime commerce affordable, and, by maintaining something resembling order, enable the world economy.
All that said, do navies also have to project power and be able to fight a war? Yes, but ultimately they have to be able to do that and maintain a constant low-end presence in their areas of interest. Some ships (“platforms”) will be optimized for one or the other, but the greater fleet must be able to do presence in order to prevent or minimize the need for projection.
The Army used to say you could Be All That You Can Be. The Navy’s motto could be shorter: simply “Be.”
Stand by for the next post, with a different take on the subject.
[i] Yeah, not always so generous, but we’re talking big picture here – the topline sum is always pretty big.
[ii] Please don’t complain that it’s more complicated than that. This is for beginners, so we’ll keep it simple.
(Public domain photos from U.S. Navy and Wikipedia)