3 Myths about U.S. Sea Power Dominance America Should Fear

Americans stood accused of making their Soviet foes ten feet tall—and of wasting resources to meet the threat they oversold. Let’s not make a similar mistake during the new strategic competition—and make ourselves ten feet tall.

Tonnage—a ship’s displacement, a rough proxy for its size—does tell us some things. Larger men-of-war can carry more fuel, ammunition, embarked marines, what have you. These are essential attributes for navies that venture across the oceans to do battle on others’ turf. Fuel equips vessels for long voyages. Ammunition provides them some staying power should war break out. That’s a must considering how burdensome it is to rearm at sea.

So tonnage is necessary for a global fleet like the U.S. Navy, but it’s far from sufficient as a yardstick for combat prowess. If it were, merchantmen like the Maersk Line container vessel Emma Maersk would constitute the world’s strongest warships. After all, she displaces about five times as much as an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It’s clearly absurd to crown the unarmed Emma Maersk queen of the seas. But it’s the kind of absurdity you encounter if you use tonnage as shorthand for naval power.

Other indices of capability clearly count. There’s no substitute for comparing armaments, sensors, embarked aircraft, and the other attributes that give warships and fleets advantages over their rivals. Admittedly, this is messier and more ambiguous than reciting one-liners about tonnage or numbers of hulls. But it’s also a surer guide to designing forces, tactics, and operations.

3. Navies only fight navies:

The problem goes beyond mere bulk, though. Analyses of regional military balances often assume the whole of the U.S. Navy will face off against the whole of an enemy navy. Or that’s the sense you get when commentators count up inventories of ships and proclaim that the United States will be the victor should the balloon go up. So long as the U.S. Navy inventory boasts more vessels than likely competitors, it must be good to go. Right?

Well, not necessarily. In all likelihood a fraction of the U.S. Navy will go up against the combined might of the enemy’s navy, air force, and perhaps even army. For instance, the Japan-based Seventh Fleet, totaling 60-70 warships, may enter the lists against the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and PLA Air Force warplanes equipped to operate over water, and the PLA Second Artillery Corps, the ground-force contingent that deploys China’s force of anti-ship ballistic missiles.

And if Washington decides to concentrate strength in East Asia? U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements must steam westward across thousands of miles of potentially contested expanses just to get into a fight. Atlantic Fleet reinforcements must swing through the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean, or undertake the long journey through the Indian Ocean into the Far East. These are no easy tasks—especially when confronting an antagonist bent on thwarting America’s plans.

An opponent’s battle fleet, then, may not measure up to the U.S. naval contingent on a ship-for-ship basis. But it can offset its deficiencies. Missile-armed submarines and fast patrol boats can act as offshore pickets, punishing or deterring opponents—potentially without a battle fleet’s ever leaving port. Armies like China’s can strike out to sea with anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles. Air forces field missile-armed combat aircraft capable of venturing hundreds of miles seaward.

Best of all for a nuclear-armed defender, its land-based forces are largely off-limits to counterstrikes—unless Washington is prepared to risk escalation to a doomsday scenario. This is the crux of the debate over Air-Sea Battle, “offshore control,” and other operational concepts floating around in recent years. How can the United States deter or defeat a regional antagonist when a major part of that antagonist’s sea power enjoys a safe haven within the motherland?

In short, land-based sea power constitutes a great equalizer for a coastal state determined to fend off adversaries from nearby waters and skies. Cracking open that copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships and counting numbers of hulls, aggregate tonnage or other partial measures of naval efficacy is apt to lead navy-watchers—and, more importantly, those who decide what platforms to fund, how to configure them, and how many to order—astray.

This puts a different complexion on the naval balance, doesn’t it? Tallying up the maritime balance—factoring in not just fleets but shore-based sea power at likely scenes of impact—provides a truer picture of whether American forces are sufficient to their goals.

Americans stood accused of making their Soviet foes ten feet tall during the Cold War—and of wasting resources to meet the threat they oversold. Let’s not make a similar mistake during the new strategic competition—and make ourselves ten feet tall.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, named Essential Reading on the Navy Professional Reading List. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0