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Mastery of the waves

As we head in to the final days of the US elections, an issue that has been aired has been the size of the US navy. The number of ships that the US navy has will, according to Mitt Romney, decline from its current number of below 300 towards the lower 200s if projected cuts are put in place. Some conservative parts of the blogsphere, such as Pajamas Media, are giving Mr Obama a hard time for his comments, and maybe his arrogance is annoying, but is he necessarily wrong? Does the US actually need more than 300 vessels to do its job? And if so, what sort of vessels? If you have, say, a carrier, it needs a large fleet of support vessels and frigates, not to mention other kinds of support, to operate effectively rather than be a burden.

As I noted some time ago, the world of military hardware is being dramatically changed by developments in science and technology, as recounted in this astonishing book, Wired for War. Romney and his advisors should not just blindly go along with the “we need a vast navy to do our job” mindset. The US is broke; frankly, if Republicans want to be taken seriously on the case for cutting spending, they need to recognise that the sheer scale of the US military at present is financially unsustainable and needs to be focused more on domestic defence, and defence of certain key trade routes of importance to the US (which is where a navy comes in) against the likes of pirates.

I know it is going to get me unpopular around here, but not everything that Obama says or does is necessarily wrong, or even done for malevolent reasons (cue reaction from Paul Marks!). And even so, there is a need for small-government conservatives and genuine liberals to think about the fundamentals of what a defence policy should look like, and what can be afforded. This article at Reason magazine by Nick Gillespie is a good starting point, in my view, as this Reason magazine piece also.

Talking of the US navy, let’s not forget that this is the 200th anniversary year of the War of 1812, in which the sailors of the US gave the Brits quite a licking.

45 comments to Mastery of the waves

  • You are correct. Neither party actually wants to reduce costs or limit the size of government. Instead they have different ideas of where the money should be spent. A whole bunch of extra ships looks like waste to Obama because there are so many other things he could be spending the money on. Romney, apparently, likes the Navy- undoubtedly there’s some social program he’d cut instead.

    This is the great lie of the so-called Republican Revolution in the 90s. They promised cuts, but they never delivered, and in my lifetime even the promises have dwindled to pathetic little gestures. The party deserves to wither away. The Democrats deserve worse, but then, I never believed them- not since was fifteen anyway, so their eviltry does not sting me as badly.

  • Laird

    I agree. I’ve argued for a long time (here and elsewhere) that the US needs to radically reduce its military and focus on what it actually should be doing: protecting our shores. There is no longer any need for our involvement with NATO (the Warsaw pact, its only foe, is no more); withdraw from it and bring home all the troops in Europe. Japan can defend itself. Korea will take a little longer but should be on the table. Extricate ourself from the middle east ASAP (frankly, I don’t care whether Syria collapses or not). We might need to keep a few warships protecting vital shipping lanes, but that’s it. The Rasmussen article in Reason to which Johnathan linked is right on the mark. The US cannot afford, and should not continue, being the world’s policeman. Stop all these foreign adventures and we could cut our military budget in half with no risk to our national security. We’d still be spending more than the next three largest countries combined. Our current military budget is, frankly, obscene.

    And while I don’t always agree with him, Nick Gillespie makes a very important point in that other linked article:

    “The predictable result is a foreign policy that is completely unpredictable and unprincipled. There are simply no clear rules governing when and how America will act militarily, what we stand for, and what we stand against. Or, as Obama’s bizarre phrasing of our relationship with non-enemy Egypt (which receives billions of dollars in aid from us), even who are allies are.”


  • Mose Jefferson

    It is a mistake to automatically apply standard minarchist reasoning to something so abstract as the number of ships in a nations navy. If we value common defense as one of the sole moral roles of government, it follows that some number of ships is ideal. The ideal number may not necessarily be less than the current real figure.

    The U.S. Navy is very busy – some would say too busy, but such a concern deserves more critical thought than a mere numbers argument. We currently need our big ass carrier battlegroups (which each number 10 or more ships – you can’t necessarily see all of the members of those groups, but they are there) in order to ensure that vital shipping lanes are not jeopardized by turds like Iran. We also need our silent missile subs, in order that nuclear equipped nations like North Korea and Russia never get too uppity and overconfident. Trade routes need protecting from smaller-than-State-actors: look at Somalia’s little pirate problem.

    On top of all of those “needs”, we have our own physical coastlines to patrol. And all those ships need supply ships.

    It adds up fast. At any rate, I’d take spending on the common defense to spending on social welfare programs any day of the week.

    Sorry that was so long. I was a sailor myself once. Call it sentimental, if you like.

  • Simon Jester

    the sailors of the US gave the Brits quite a licking.

    # Twas on the good ship Venus…

    [I’ll get me coat.]

  • Mose Jefferson

    Argh, smited again!

    The smite fairy deemed my comment much too tedious, so I will come back only to say that Mr. Obama’s comment about our oh so unnecessary navy makes a little more sense when you postulate what his response might be to worldly troubles suc(Link)h as, oh let’s say, the Faulklands…

    Suffice to say that I will not be visiting any U.S. protectorates whilst that man is in charge.

  • zimon

    “Don’t give up the ship[s]!”

    Of course they did do then as they probably will have to now.

  • A cowardly citizen

    the sailors of the US gave the Brits quite a licking.

    The White House wasn’t so pretty either…

  • Ben

    Carthago delenda est.

    The US needs a navy, and a strong one too. Liberty can only exist in a safe space created by violence or the overwhelming threat of it. The US could lose all of it’s social programs (say by converting the obligations into freely-managed individual accounts containding, initially, newly-issued, maturity matched, treasury bonds – or just abolishing them. Whatever).

    But it cannot do without a navy. The difference between a pirate and a king is that the king protects you from other pirates.

    Roman ploughs were driven from end to end, and salt was scattered there as a sign that Carthage should be no more.

  • Alisa


    Extricate ourself from the middle east ASAP.

    From where, exactly?

  • Laird

    Everywhere. Where would you have us stay?

  • chuck

    And this after the post extolling the virtues of civilization, which in my mind corresponds to empire. How does one maintain a civilization dependent on sea borne trade without a navy? Freedom of trade tends to disappear without enforcement, there is to much to be gained from control of trade in one’s bit of turf, see pirate, Somalia.

    The make up of the navy is another thing and has changed over time with changing technology and role. The navy is aware of that, they are experimenting with different ship types, but it is easy to get things wrong when trying to see into the future.

  • Richard Thomas

    Ben, granted. But what is the correct level of that strength and what form should it take? This whole “We need MOAR money!” is ridiculous whether it be for military, teachers or whatever.

  • chuck

    The army and navy are in the constitution, together with the control of piracy:

    To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

    To provide and maintain a Navy;

    The two year limit on the term of appropriations for the army is interesting. I may be missing some history, but it does seem to me that the Navy has had a more even level of support than the army. That may be because it takes time and a good deal of money to build and arm ships and they need to be maintained and exercised to be of any use. Note than control of piracy is also addressed in the same article (article 1, section 8).

  • Alisa

    Laird: my question was where are we actually present (in the ME, that is)?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Not to worry, Alisa, Israel’s got our six.

    [I trust my sarcasm is understood.]

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Isn’t Iran and Iraq in the Middle East?

  • Alisa

    And isn’t the US out of Iraq, and everyone here agrees that it should be present in key points (‘vital shipping points’, as Laird, to whose comment I was replying, put it), such as the Strait of Hormuz?

  • Alisa

    Sorry, Julie: went right over my head…:-(

  • the other rob

    It is traditional, in discussions along these lines, for somebody to assert that our excessive military spending and reckless foreign adventuring is the result of all the corporations in the field being happy to spend lives in order to boost profits.

    Like most black and white arguments, this one is flawed. It’s hard to believe that every company in a given field might be so maliciously cynical.

    However, if we learned anything from last year’s Senate vote over caps on debit card fees (where senators made no secret of the fact that their primary concern was that however they voted they’d piss off a campaign contributor, whether bank or supermarket, while conspicuously failing to mention any concern over what was the right thing to do for the people who they ostensibly represent) it’s that it only takes one or two bad actors to suborn an entire establishment.

    If, indeed, there are a small number of such corporations who are prepared to promote ruinous military spending in pursuit of short term profits, they will find no shortage of eager takers on Capitol Hill. The fault lies not with the rest of the industry, who can hardly be expected to waste shareholders’ money campaigning against increased custom, but with the corrupt establishment that prostitutes itself so readily to a minority of bad actors and, more fundamentally, with the fact that any political establishment can influence private profit to the extent that corrupting it becomes a sound, if immoral, strategy.

  • Julie near Chicago

    One of the entire main branches of the libertarian debate is dealt with speedily and concisely by Ben, above, to wit:

    Liberty can only exist in a safe space created by violence or the overwhelming threat of it.

    This applies to liberty both of and within a polity; to a group of reasonably like-minded polities which together constitute a civilization; to a smaller group, sometimes known as a town or a community or a neighborhood, or even as a mere settlement, an outpost.

    So much more is covered in that statement of Ben’s than just the necessity of a real navy.

    And Mose refers to some of the concretes that illustrate the point (no, Mose, if anything your remark was too short). He’s right, Chuck is right–“freedom of trade tends to disappear without enforcement,” absolutely right! Which is one reason why Paul the Elder is correctly judged such a doofus–one who cannot see why the Wonderworld for which he yearns is impossible if he can’t accept the requirements of its existence.

    Also, Mose reminds us: It’s not the cost of the Navy that’s sinking our former Republic!

    As to “the world’s policeman”…there are two schools of thought about that. One is that somebody has to take the garbage out, so the only question is who is it gonna be. The other is that there isn’t any garbage, or wouldn’t be if we ourselves weren’t at such pains to create it….

  • Julie near Chicago

    Not to worry, Alisa. I was making sarcastic reference to the fact that since obviously the Creature on the Potomac has, contrary to Its ongoing lying asseverations, no interest in having Israel’s back at all (nor indeed the back of the U.S.!!! *snarl*) (well, perhaps It would like the backsides of both, in a sling!) the situation is that if Israel doesn’t look after us, who will!!!!

  • Julie near Chicago

    Don’t worry, Israel, I’ve got your back!

    Anne Bayefsky begs to differ….

    Obama’s Real Record on Israel(Link)

  • Here is a plot of USA government spending since 1900: total and on defence. It is inflation adjusted to 2005 dollars and expressed as $ per head of population. Viewers can switch it to percentage of GDP if they think that helps.

    Whatever spending problems the USA has, this plot indicates (IMHO) that defence is not a primary cause.

    Best regards

  • Alisa

    Wow, Nigel – thanks.

    Julie: it’s the ‘six’ that still has me stumped…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ah! That’s because you haven’t got in enough time yet either flying with your fighter squadron or, alternatively, watching movies like Star Wars. Think when Luke is about to make the run at the Death Star*….

    “I’ve got your six” means “I’ve got your six o’clock position covered” which means [*blush, unladylike language*] ” I’m covering your ass.” Or, as the Creature said in Its latest lying attempt at macho-speak, “I’ve got Israel’s back.”

    *Star Wars, paraphrased: Go ahead, Red Leader, I’m right behind you and I’ll keep the bad guys off your tail.


  • Alisa

    Thanks Julie, I stan…er, sit reeducated:-)))

  • Rhukatah

    Either the US polices the world, or no one does. If no one does, then we return to the era of world wars. World wars disrupt trade. The US is a trading nation. Disruptions to world trade would draw the US into any Eurasian conflagration.

    So our choice is to spend a comparatively small percentage of our treasure maintaining a navy sufficient to smother incipient world wars, or to let Eurasia burn and then spend much more in blood and treasure putting the fire out.

    And then spending even more on reconstructing Eurasia when the horrors of that world war lead us to say “never again” again.

  • Paul Marks

    To answer J.P.s specific questions….

    Does new technology mean that the U.S. Navy can maintain its strength with dramatically fewer ships?

    No it is does not – Barack Obama was (to use a technical term) “LYING”.

    One can always tell when Barack is lying – his lips move. And one can tell he is telling a truly huge lie – when the media cheer (loud cheers in the Press Room when Barack came out with this lie during the debate).

    Are there dramatically fewer ships?

    Yes there are.

    And one does not need to go back to World War One.

    The 600 ship U.S. Navy that I remember (and I am not that old) is becomming a 300 ship Navy.

    And anyone who thinks that does not mean less strength (and less ability to operate around the world) is (again to use a technical term) “NUTS”.

    The Welfare State is doing the same thing to the U.S. Navy that it did to the Royal Navy – destroy it (by undermining the economy, the resouces, on which it depends).

    “It does not matter anyway – death to Yankee Imperialism!”.

    Yes hand the world over to China (and to Islamic pirates) – that will be so much more libertarian.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nigel, holy cow, what a treasure-trove! And sources for his data too. I’ve been beseeching the Great Frog hourly for data from sources better than “I read somewhere that according to some other guy, somebody else said that….”

    I see Mr. Chantrill has also done work on U.K. public spending; see


    Thanks very much. :>)

  • RainerK

    No, not everything Obama does is done maliciously, but I feel safe to say that if anything done by his administration is competent, it’s by accident.

    As for the size of the US Navy and its cost. Less US power creates vacuums. Do we trust that they will be filled by countries as committed to liberty as has been proven by the US? We’re not getting a lot of support around the world, but, let’s face it, the US has borne the cost of defending others’ liberty. How about if some started paying us for the protection or pay for their own? Either way would help our budget and their security.

  • Poosh

    There are plenty of serious arguments that the US navy should be larger in terms of ships. Plenty of arguments from military folks. It’s also an argument that this would lower costs. The current “put all your eggs in one basket at an extreme cost” is not a good idea according to some.

    So Romney was merely expressing what many military folks think. It’s not like Romney was going to build ships that no one asked him for. It really depends on what you think, it was not at all pulled out of think air.

  • Bill

    Speaking of the number of US Naval ships and the War of 1812: Navy To Deploy USS Constitution…(Link)

  • veryretired

    It’s going to be a very interesting world when the US decides it can’t, or won’t, maintain the global security umbrella that was one of the major legacies of WW2 and the cold war.

    Good luck to all those who thought the free ride would never end…

  • Laird

    “Either the US polices the world, or no one does. If no one does, then we return to the era of world wars.”

    Sorry, Rhukatah, but I disagree with most of your post. Most of the world (and all of the developed world) is “trading nations.” Everyone has the same interest in preventing disruptions to world trade that we do, and many are far more dependent on foreign trade than we are (the US can be completely self-sufficient if necessary; most countries can’t). And there are no large global hegemonies (other than the US, of course) capable of (let alone interested in) world wars. That’s just not happening. Yes, there will be local, and maybe even regional, conflicts, but that’s not new and, for the most part, is simply not our business. Let the people involved, or directly affected, deal with them.

    Alisa, when I said “Middle East” I was speaking (perhaps too) broadly, to include all of our current military activities in that corner of the world, including Afghanistan. We have troops on the ground in a number of countries in that region (including parts of Northern Africa, from what I hear), drones in the air over even more, as well as two large fleets in the area. I want them all gone as soon as possible. I recognize that can’t happen overnight. However, there is nothing preventing us from pulling all of our troops out of Europe tomorrow. That would be a fine place to start. Then get out of Asia: the Japanese can defend themselves (from whom, anyway?), and Korea needs to begin to take over all of its own defense. Again, it will take time, but we have to start the process.

    We do need to provide some defense of trade routes, I will grant. But we shouldn’t do it alone, and should only concern ourselves with routes used by American vessels. Let others (the UK, France, Germany, China, Japan, etc.) carry some of the burden. The only real reason for a navy is to defend against piracy, which is just about the only thing we’re not using it for today.

    Chuck, with regard to your post, you are missing some history. The reason for the two-year limitation on appropriations for the army is that the Founders were in great fear (rationally so) of standing armies. They saw how the great powers in Europe maintained huge armies and were constantly at war with each other, which is precisely what they wanted to prevent. They also saw how such armies could be used by kings against their own people. A navy posed no such risk, and was necessary to deal with piracy as well as depredations of our merchant fleet by other nations. Hence the different rules for both. (Note that the Marine Corps was, and is, a part of the Navy, and so is covered by that rule. They’re necessary when there is a need to project force, but not large enough to actually engage in a war. That’s an important distinction.)

    We post troops all over the world largely because we have them. A radically smaller military would force our rulers to be more circumspect in such deployments, to better define their missions, and to use their (reduced) resources more wisely. The Pentagon doesn’t merely need to go on a diet; it needs to undergo a gastroplasty.

  • Alisa

    Laird, I agree with your position in principle, for the most part. Still, I suggest that, if you have not done so yet, take a look at Nigel’s link.

  • Laird

    Oh, I have, Alisa (I’ve seen it before), and I agree it’s great data. I prefer to look at the data as a percentage of GDP (it’s more meaningful than gross dollars) and also to eliminate the state and local spending components (the inclusion of which is mixing apples and oranges when one is making comparisons to defense spending). Still, the end result is clear: non-defense spending has grown substantially more than defense spending in the last few decades. That’s unarguable, but I was never trying to say that radically reducing our defense spending would cure all our ills. It won’t. But it will cure some of them (not all of which are financial, by the way), and it will eliminate the spurious claim sometimes heard that since defense spending is some “sacred cow” no other types of spending should be cut either.

    In the end, whatever we as a society decide to spend on social programs and transfer payments is an entirely separate matter from what we decide to spend on “defense”.* I’m only looking at the latter here. And in my opinion, taking on all the burdens of the world, and spending more on “defense” than the next 15 largest nations combined, is totally unjustifiable, to the point of being obscene. But no one in any position of authority, or even influence, is willing to step up and say that.

    * Sneer quotes because there is a huge difference between “military spending” and spending that is truly for national defense. Much of the Pentagon’s budget bears no rational relationship to the defense of this country.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Totally wrong, Paul Mark.
    In today’s ‘The Australian’, (and if you can’t trust a newspaper owned and run by the Murdocks, who can you trust?) a reporter claims that Obama missed a chance to overturn a Romney claim, because it was Bush that had reduced the Navy to 278 ships, and the Navy now has 287! So there!

  • llamas

    What Laird says.

    No more ‘nation-building’, no more trying to pick winners and losers in other people’s conflicts, no more ‘ensuring stability’ or ‘providing security’ or playing global power games.

    The prime purpose of the navy should be to ensure domestic security, and these days, that means securing trade routes. By all means, have plenty of ships and drones and F15s and all the rest of it – but use them solely for providing maritime security for the national interests of the US. What that means, in simplest terms, is free passage, anyplace, anytime.

    Any global security or balance-of-power issues that you want to deal with, as a sort of hard diplomacy, are already overwhelmingly dealt-with by the boomer fleet and the assets already available domestically.

    I can well-believe that this restricted role could well require as many as 600 surface ships. But the US Navy has been busy repurposing its cold-war assets for 25 years now, and it’s not working well. Just like in times of past threats to trade, you don’t need a few 80-gun first-raters (= carrier battle groups) – you need lots and lots of sloops and frigates.

    The goal should be – no place on a major sea trade route within 1000 miles of land where there isn’t a major US warship within 200 miles. By major, I mean one that packs a couple of attack helicopters, multiple missile systems, several large rifles, lots of small-arms systems and the capacity for extensive small-boat operations, and some big radar and surveillance. Around hot spots like the Horn of Africa and the various Indonesian and Chines routes, a permanent and dense patrolling presence – the Royal Navy used to have the permanent ‘China Station’, and another one is needed now.

    Plus, of course, a President who is prepared to say ‘Any threat to peaceful, unarmed trading vessels will be met by immediate and overwhelming force. No exceptions.’ I wonder where we can find one of those?



  • Dale Amon

    I love aircraft carriers. When I was a kid I had models of about 20 of them, which included most of the then active ones plus the major ones from WWII.

    But there is a flaw in the logic of building the fleet entirely around them when we start facing near-peer or peer offensive capabilities. If someone comes up with a way to kill them, an entire fleet can get the heart cut out of it. Battle groups are built for interlocking defence. The other units defend the carriers; aircraft from the carrier intercept threats and defend the pickets… but lose the carrier and the rest of the group is in deep shit. Not defenceless, but at risk. Now who would do such a thing?

    Look at China. They see the US as the primary challenger to their long term goal of being the superpower in the world. The inherent threat of the US carrier group prevents rhetoric over Taiwan from going hot. So what is China doing about it? They have demonstrated anti-satellite capability and and talking about carrier killer missiles. They are developing their cyberwar capabilities. These two pieces could buy them a window long enough to invade and consolidate control over Taiwan. First they take out enough key satellites to at least partially blind or at least confuse the intel situation; the carrier killers keep the carriers farther away or possibly put the battle group out of action before the invasion; meanwhile they would at least attempt to sow chaos in the mainland US via cyberwar. Whether that would be anything more than annoyance is hard to say, but they would still try it.

    Carriers are a major force projector and can defend vast swaths of the sea lanes with a single ship. If there is no near peer threat, the carrier group is practically invulnerable… but I fear that in a near-peer threat environment, they may be approaching their Battleship moment, the time when the Admiral’s flag has to pass to something new because the old capital ship is no longer secure.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Hm. Thesis, Anti-thesis, Synthesis. What I get from this discussion is that we (never mind, for the nonce, who is “we”) need not to ditch either capability and rely solely on the other, but to have real strength in both areas.

    Gosh, next they’ll be telling us we need our meat AND our veggies!

  • Bogdan from Australia

    No Nuke Gray, one can NO LONGER trust The Australian.
    I’ve been it’s enthusiastic reader for twenty five years and from the very first day I arrived in Australia from Poland and could barely read English.

    Throughout all those years I’ve been watching The Aussie degrading from the noble newspaper that I regarded as one of the best in the world to the quasi centre-right rag unable to muster narrative courageous enough to match barbaric agressiveness of the Labor criminal regime.

    Appart from that, its take on the world affairs resembles more Yhe New York Lies than any American conservative magazine.

    It is not by accident that the most frequent quoted rags in The Aussie are NYT and Gaurdian.

    It is, perhaps, because the management of Australian branch of Murdochs empire has been trasferred onto his son Lachlan who takes virtually no interest in politics and that has allowed the left leaning elements to sneak into the positions of leadership even in The Australian.

    Two years ago I stoped bothering to keep spending a dollar and fifty on that rag.

    It is still incomparably better than The Age and Sydney Morning Herald though…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Bill Whittle comments on the relationship between a country’s economy and its ability to take care of itself militarily, starting at roughly four minutes into his video discussing Romney’s showing in the last presidential debate.

    U.S. policy, Mr. Whittle reminds us, used to be that we should be able to fight and win two wars simultaneously. Great Britain’s policy throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s, and into the 1900’s, was that she would spend whatever it took in order to be able to say that the Royal Navy would be able to defeat a combination of the next two navies combined.

    Bottom line: The “single great national security threat is the deficit [and the wasted trillions, and…and…]” because it prevents us from being able properly to protect ourselves.

    (Actually, I don’t agree with that, strictly speaking. The actual single greatest national security threat facing the U.S. is the ebbing of the national sense of moral self-confidence–the general understanding of the citizenry that their country is morally worthy. Nothing is easier than to destroy a person or a country, if only he or it can be convinced that he or it is despicable.)

    It’s a “members-only” video, but those who do have a PJTV membership can see it at


  • John K

    They have demonstrated anti-satellite capability and and talking about carrier killer missiles

    Yes, they are “talking about” so-called carrier killers. Yadda Yadda, talk is cheap. What China is actually doing is building their own carrier capability, because unless you want a glorified coast guard, you don’t have a navy without one, and China very much wants a navy.

  • Paul Marks

    The really big defence cuts are not due to start till next years – so neither Bush or Obama have yet destroyed the United States Navy.

    “But Obama does not plan to destroy the U.S. Navy – he wants to modernise it”.

    Of course – just as the Royal Navy was “modernised” some time ago.

    I believe the next Royal Navy review is being held on Wicky Park lake.