The Skeptics

Springtime for the Navy and Offshore Balancing?

The unpopularity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is an opportunity for the Navy. The national disinclination to occupy more countries encourages a more maritime approach to war; one where the U.S. military fights from the sea with missiles, fighter aircraft or Marines deployed from ships. That defense posture could allow the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marines, to gain budget share at the expense of the army and air force. Should defense spending decline, this might translate into treading water while the other services sink.

An op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal suggests that navalists may be thinking along these lines. The authors are Gordon England, a former Secretary of the Navy, James Jones, former Commandant of the Marines, and Vernon Clark, former Chief of Naval Operations. They write:

The future security environment underscores two broad security trends. First, international political realities and the internationally agreed-to sovereign rights of nations will increasingly limit the sustained involvement of American permanent land-based, heavy forces to the more extreme crises. This will make offshore options for deterrence and power projection ever more paramount in support of our national interests.

Second, the naval dimensions of American power will re-emerge as the primary means for assuring our allies and partners, ensuring prosperity in times of peace, and countering anti-access, area-denial efforts in times of crisis. We do not believe these trends will require the dismantling of land-based forces, as these forces will remain essential reservoirs of power…

Given these enduring qualities, tough choices must clearly be made, especially in light of expected tight defense budgets.

It’s fair to conclude that the tough choices the op-ed elliptically seeks would benefit the navy at the other services’ expense, especially the army. I say so because the ellipses above contain three paragraphs heralding the navy’s unique capabilities and because opposition to “dismantling” the land-based forces (translation: army) hardly means endorsing its current size.

The two trends that form the core of the op-ed closely reflect remarks made last fall by Gary Roughhead, the Chief of Naval Operations (video here). In both cases, the second trend—increased reliance on naval power—is a policy conclusion the reader is meant to form, not a supporting argument. In the Pentagon’s culture, where jointness is practically religion (the deities are Goldwater and Nichols) you have to shroud parochial advocacy as empirical observation. For the same reason, neither piece explicitly says that the navy should get the other services’ money. Publicly attacking other services is sacrilege.

Hopefully what we have here is a coordinated navy effort to gain preeminence in the Pentagon. That effort could have two payoffs for taxpayers. First, it could give us an offshore balancing strategy, keeping us out of needless trouble. Second, it could unleash productive competition among military services.

Offshore balancing is a strategy available to states separated from enemies by ocean(s). Offshore balancers deploy troops abroad only to prevent hostile states from unifying enough power abroad to threaten it and leave once the regional balance of power reforms. Arguably, offshore balancing was the rationale for U.S. military policy from the mid-nineteenth century, when power projection became possible, until the point in the Cold War where our allies could have paid for their own defense. Nowadays, the strategy cautions against occupational warfare and protecting rich allies with permanent bases. The strategy’s leading proponents have looser criteria for what justifies deploying U.S. forces abroad than me and the other Skeptics bloggers. But even a hawkish variant of offshore balancing would limit U.S. military commitments, allowing us to cut forces and save.

To be clear, what navalists are promoting is at best a bastardized version of offshore balancing. Roughead's speech uses the term but then suggests that naval forces can spread the rule of law in Africa and fight insurgents in Philippines, missions contrary to offshore balancing. Like England et al., he suggests that naval patrols are essential to global political stability and trade, a claim that is both dubious and unrelated to offshore balancing’s logic.

What we are being sold here is the notion that we can accomplish from ships almost everything we now do in the name of our defense, with the exception of Iraq-type wars. True offshore balancing means accepting that most violent struggles in foreign continents are irrelevant to our security, so we can intervene less often, for less time. Still, the politics that make the term useful PR might move policy toward the real deal.

The navy’s mere push to eat the other services’ lunch could create useful interservice rivalry. It would threaten the practice, in place since the Kennedy administration, where each military service gets about the same share of the defense budget each year, once you subtract the growing share going to defense-wide expenditures. If you include the supplemental war appropriations, current budget shares favor the ground forces, deviating from the historical split. But supplementals are temporary measures meant to preserve the bureaucratic status quo ante bellum.

Because jointness is helpful on the battlefield, military officers often assume it is great for defense planning. But service cooperation in the Pentagon can hamper efficiency and innovation. When service budgets rise and fall together, their leaders’ incentive is to grow the whole pie by pointing to general threats and avoid criticizing each other. If services are rewarded separately, their incentive is to look sexy and point out each other’s flaws, generating useful information for policy makers. They may innovate to gain relevance or publicly articulate alternative strategies that better employ their skills.

The last time we had real budgetary competition was the Eisenhower administration. The air force, whose bombers were the heart of the massive retaliation strategy, then got about half the defense budget. The army and navy fought over the remainder. Their scramble for relevance made them innovators in search of a place at the nuclear table and advocates of alternative strategies. The navy got into nuclear deterrence by inventing submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Needing conventional wars to fight, the army helped articulate Kennedy’s flexible response strategy.

The results of that strategy weren’t great, but bureaucratic competition at least provided strategic alternatives with real political support bases, something we lack today.