If America Could Rebuild the U.S. Navy from Scratch...

Lots of SSNs (maybe even a purchase of Japanese conventional subs)? Demote the Surface Fleet? Why a totally new U.S. Navy built from scratch could look very different.

Here's a thought experiment: would America build the U.S. Navy currently plying the seven seas if it were starting from scratch? Color me skeptical. If not, what kind of navy would it build, and how can we approximate that ideal in light of budgetary constraints, a slew of legacy platforms that can't simply be scrapped and replaced, and an organizational culture and history that frown on revolutionary change?

For the idea behind this exercise, a tip of the hat goes to Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security or CNAS, who ran an item over at Foreign Policy last May wondering how the United States would reboot the armed forces as a whole. Brimley and Scharre dangle their query out there with a few remarks about organizational wiring diagrams and personnel policy. They hint at answers without quite giving them. They want to start a rumble within officialdom. In a novus ordo seclorum, would we create, say, a separate U.S. Air Force, or institute recruitment and retention policies reminiscent of conscription? Such matters are worth pondering.

Last week, writing in a similar vein, Washington Post columnist and sometime naval enthusiast  George Will asked what kind of navy the nation needs, and wants. That sounds like a technical question. And it is -- in part. Is the U.S. Navy outfitted with the right types and numbers of ships, aircraft, and armaments?

Yet Will cuts to the heart of the matter. At bottom this is less a question about gadgetry or high-seas tactics than about national purposes and power. Nations, that is, amass military power to fulfill larger purposes. Martial strength helps advance their interests, ward off danger, and uphold their ideals. But does a listless American republic, "demoralized by squandered valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dismayed in dramatically different ways by two consecutive commanders in chief," even want to project power overseas?

If so, where, and to what ends? Today, maintains Will, "cascading dangers are compelling Americans to think afresh about something they prefer not to think about at all -- foreign policy. What they decide that they want will define the kind of nation they want the United States to be. This abstract question entails a concrete one: What kind of navy do Americans want?"

Good question. There's a canned quality to what-if exercises like this one. Two basic approaches come to mind. One, there's the tabula rasa. You could posit that the United States is only now rising to regional or world power, and thus is making itself a sea power for the first time. Such a scenario would be a throwback to 1883, when the nation started constructing its first steam-driven battle fleet. Americans could start from first principles, asking themselves what they wanted to accomplish in the world and what kind of naval might their republic needed to accomplish it.

Or, two, you could stipulate that the United States somehow made itself into the world power it is, blessed and burdened by its current array of foreign alliances and commitments, without ever having built an imposing navy to bind such arrangements together. The challenge in this unlikely scenario would be to field a fleet able to uphold commitments to Japan, Australia, NATO, and so forth. The demands of these two constructs are starkly different. For the fun of it, and to avoid a War and Peace-length discourse -- a zero-based look at U.S. foreign policy would consume page after page -- let's go with the latter. What kind of navy should Washington build to discharge today's commitments if starting afresh?

To further simplify the problem, let's accept the geopolitical assessment set forth in the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. In the strategy the chieftains of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard pronounce the Western Pacific and greater Indian Ocean the primary theaters for U.S. marine endeavor. They pledge to stage credible combat power in the Indo-Pacific for the foreseeable future, using forward-deployed forces to execute a variety of missions. Enforcing freedom of the seas and skies in peacetime, deterring war or winning it, and rendering humanitarian or disaster relief rank high on the sea services' to-do list.

How to proceed? When contemplating grand enterprises, you seldom go wrong starting with Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz urges statesmen and commanders to take a tour d'horizon before picking up the sword. To "discover" how many and what type of resources they need to marshal, they need to evaluate the adversary's and their own political aims. What does each belligerent want, and how much does it want it? Strategic overseers should survey the opponent's "strength and situation," appraising everything from geography to military potential to morale. They should "gauge the character and abilities" of the opponent's government and people, and of their own. And they should evaluate the "political sympathies" of third parties, estimating the likely impact of military action on these prospective allies, enemies, or bystanders.

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