The Buzz

A Response to the Naval Diplomat

In the latest edition of “Aircraft Carrier Wars” my friend Dr. James Holmes takes issue with my riposte to Tom Ricks’ Washington Post commentary last week. Jim is a crack mind on matters naval, as his regular columns and articles attests. He and I tend to agree on most things, which make our disagreements that much more fun. And I would like to say that we disagree here, but that would imply that we were talking about the same thing. As I read his piece in The Diplomat, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that he read something other than my work, or perhaps read it so quickly that it confirmed existing biases. In the interest of full disclosure, the gist of his argument has been repeated elsewhere, by others I respect greatly, and so perhaps my original work may not have been as clear as I thought it was.

Holmes focuses first on my having taken issue with Ricks’ assertion that somehow the carrier’s obsolescence was at least in part, because it looks like its ancestors did. He then walks us through a valuable discussion of radar basics. What he does not do is address my argument, which was that there are plenty of examples of platforms and capabilities in our arsenal that look much as their predecessors did decades ago, yet we still value their contributions. In the case of the land-based airfield, I submit that the threats to it have moved much faster and have been far more manifest than those that have faced the carrier. No one suggests doing away with land based air. While I agree with the Professor that the carrier is not exactly a stealthy platform, it never has been. It has relied on other attributes, namely speed, endurance, and a screen of ships for its protection. Oh, that’s right, this theory has never been tested. And this is where Dr. Holmes must have been reading something other than my work.

In my piece, I never suggested, hinted, intimated, whispered or postulated that the US Navy had either A) taken on the Soviets in combat or B) prevailed in such a contest. No jigs were danced, no huzzah’s were shouted. My entire (perhaps unclear—you be the judge) position was that the US Navy had responded to threats to the carrier through a number of counters, rather than just packing it in and agreeing that the carrier was obsolete, as some (not Professor Holmes) would have us believe (then, and now). That decision (pursuing counters, building more carriers)—in light of there having been no combat against the Soviets—resulted in decades of options for Presidents to deter, assure, punish, pre-empt, and aid in countless situations. “But did the U.S. Navy really beat the Soviet maritime threat, as Bryan and kindred navalists opine? How would we know?” Not only did Bryan not opine this, he didn’t think it. He doesn’t think it. Nor does he “…assume that whoever won must’ve gotten the tactics and hardware right.” I think nothing of the sort. What Bryan thinks and opines is that the business of finding and targeting carriers is more difficult than Ricks asserts, and that we remain capable of developing counters to emerging threats that will render the carrier of continuing utility for decades to come—just as we did decades ago in the face of those threats. If war comes, those counters and the risks they are designed to mitigate, will be put to the test. In the interim, we will reap the benefit of those platforms and the real service they provide.

Bryan McGrath is the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, and is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy.