It’s beginning to feel like 1940 for the U.S. Navy. To a degree, anyway. Back then naval grandees, administration officials, and lawmakers discerned grave dangers gathering along the Western European and East Asian rimlands and resolved to rebuild American military might to manage them. Today naval grandees, administration officials, and lawmakers discern grave dangers gathering along the East Asian rimland and are saying the right things about rebuilding American maritime might to manage them. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, for example, wants to exceed his mandate to field a 355-ship navy—up from 293 at present—by adding a family of medium-sized and large unmanned vessels to the fleet.
Heartening words abound, as do ideas about strategy for employing the revised, diversified, more muscular sea service. Yet the differences between 1940 and 2020 are discomfiting. Good words notwithstanding, the fleet has not grown to any meaningful extent over the first three years of the Trump administration. Nor, for that matter, is it obvious that the unmanned contingent will be the difference-maker sea-power enthusiasts seem to think it will. The U.S. Navy was over a year into rebuilding when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Today’s navy may be denied that luxury should war break out.
Why? Think about the nature of the foe. Back then the emerging Axis powers went on the march, invading countries left and right. Their rampages posed a clear menace to North America by 1940, warranting a massive response manifest in new shipbuilding, aircraft production, and weapons development. Unlike militarist Japan and Nazi Germany, today’s strategic competitors—China and Russia chief among them—have restricted their endeavors. Beijing and Moscow subvert the liberal world order rather than attack it overtly. They speak loudly, burnishing their bona fides as powers on the make, while using the big stick with extreme restraint. Their self-restraint denies America an overbearing threat—a threat sufficient to prompt rearmament of 1940 proportions.
What Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration did eighty years ago was impressive by any standard. That summer lawmakers went all-in on naval construction, enacting the “Two-Ocean Navy Bill.” Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia, chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, spearheaded the charge for what amounted to a standalone U.S. Navy for each coast. He had support from the ranks. America’s top uniformed naval officer, Chief of Naval Operations Harold “Betty” Stark, appeared before the committee that June to argue for some 1,325,000 tons of new construction. Seven battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers, and 43 submarines made up Admiral Stark’s total. Twenty auxiliary ships—unsexy but indispensable vessels that resupply and repair fleets at war—were also part of the mix he put before Vinson & Co.
Those figures portended boosting the battle fleet’s combined tonnage by 70 percent beyond the existing inventory. Admiral Stark affirmed that an armada thus sized and configured could mount an effective defense in one ocean while prosecuting offensive operations in the other. In today’s parlance, Stark espoused a navy brawny enough to win in one ocean while holding in the second. Then enough warships would “swing” from the first theater to the second to permit the navy to go on offense and win there as well. The two-ocean navy was a “win-hold-win” force, in other words. Congress eased a dilemma for naval officialdom, which for decades had struggled with deciding how to parcel out assets between Atlantic and Pacific to best strategic effect.
The U.S. Navy would stand a reasonable chance of defeating all comers if sea-service overseers astutely managed the resources furnished to them under the Two-Ocean Navy Act. World War II ratified the law’s wisdom. That America should operate a two-ocean navy has been an axiom of U.S. maritime strategy ever since the days of Betty Stark and Carl Vinson.
These days administration officials and lawmakers are once again talking about bulking up the fleet. President Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on fielding a 355-ship fleet to cope with an ambitious China and Russia. His campaign slogan dovetailed with the navy’s own Force Structure Assessment, compiled around the same time, which espoused a 350-ship fleet. The rationale for a buildup seems compelling. By economic and military indices, China in particular promises to be a more formidable competitor than Germany or Japan ever was. And yet administration officials admit that the naval buildup has not fulfilled its promise. Heck, the navy leadership is talking about cutting shipbuilding to save money for overhauling hulls and replenishing stocks of ordnance.
Cutbacks in the face of gathering peril would be a head-scratcher for Vinson, Stark, and FDR. What gives?
Well, external circumstances had to converge with domestic leadership to generate political momentum to pass the Two-Ocean Navy Act. Circumstances and leadership have not yet aligned eight decades hence, spurring Washington into action anew. Politicking was easy by contrast back then. Think about the litany of menace that comprised the 1930s. Today’s world is not wracked by a Great Depression. History has witnessed no equivalent to Hitler’s coming to power (1933), dismantling of the Weimar Republic, rearmament in defiance of the World War I peace accord (1935), or armed aggression against Germany’s neighbors (1936 onward). It has seen no counterpart to Italian adventurism in Ethiopia (1935). It has seen no parallel to Japanese militarism, which precipitated invasions of Manchuria (1931) and China (1937).
Nor has world war convulsed the European rimland, as it did when Germany invaded Poland (1939). By 1940, in short, the dictators had set a pattern of aggression that was hard to refute. Representative Vinson pushed through bills in 1934 and 1938 to start rejuvenating the U.S. Navy after two decades of naval arms control and economic distress. The fall of France in mid-1940, which took place during the congressional debate over shipbuilding, administered the final jolt. The House Naval Affairs Committee reported out the Two-Ocean Navy Bill the day after CNO Stark testified, the full House approved it four days later, and the Senate approved it less than a month after that. The naval renaissance was on, and at helter-skelter speed by legislative standards.
China and Russia likewise intend to replace the liberal system with something more to their liking, but this time the vandals have kept their antics subdued. Purveyors of “gray-zone” operations exhibit relative restraint. They seek geopolitical gain without provoking blowback of 1940 magnitude. Ideally they hope to avoid a trial of arms altogether. They deliberately withhold the political catalyst for massive U.S. naval and military rearmament. For instance, China has made the fishing fleet and coast guard the vanguard of its strategy in the South and East China seas. It’s hard to justify aircraft carriers or stealth destroyers by pointing to pictures of trawlers. The Russian Navy makes mischief on occasion, while Moscow boasts about wonder weapons. There’s more flash than substance to its strategy.
Neither antagonist has staged a counterpart to the German and Japanese aggression of the 1930s. Neither has goaded the U.S. Congress into action, loosening American taxpayers’ purse strings.
That being the case, it’s unsurprising that no one of Carl Vinson’s stature has taken up the cause of fleet expansion. The times summon forth leadership. Winston Churchill spent the 1930s in the political wilderness until history caught up, vindicating his seemingly overwrought warnings about the danger posed by Nazism. Vinson may never have been “Carl Vinson,” the navalist of lasting renown, but for the dire circumstances of the 1930s. There are naval advocates in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. They hail from places like Connecticut, Maine, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi, major shipbuilding hubs. But recent history has not yet supplied the political propellant for a 355-ship navy. Beijing and Moscow will doubtless try to keep it that way—accomplishing their goals without fighting.
You can weaken a prospective foe by keeping him from bringing a larger military into being. Doing so only makes sense.
Today resembles and differs from 1940 in more concrete, operational ways. First, all spending set in train by the Two-Ocean Navy Act went to combat power—to traditional naval missions such as winning command of the sea, executing amphibious landings, and so forth. That’s not true today. This is the atomic age, after all, and the Cold War-era fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) needs replacing at the same time the navy is trying to preserve its supremacy in surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and aerial warfare. In fact, CNO Mike Gilday declares that replacing Ohio-class SSBNs with new Columbia-class boats constitutes his top shipbuilding priority.
And it’s gobsmackingly pricey. New SSBN construction is already consuming a quarter of the U.S. shipbuilding budget, and that figure may rise to one-third once construction hits full swing. Deduct one-quarter or one-third from the overall shipbuilding budget and there’s your budget for countering Chinese and Russian ambitions beneath the nuclear threshold—which is where Beijing and Moscow want to keep the competition. Traditional missions, it seems, must yield to undersea nuclear deterrence. And so will the sea service’s capacity to amass decisive conventional combat power at places and times it’s needed to deflate adversaries’ pretensions. It’s tough to gainsay the importance of nuclear deterrence—but it carries burdensome opportunity costs.