The U.S. Navy has a diplomatic problem. It’s a problem that stems from the most mundane of failings: neglect of vessels’ outward appearance. The amphibious assault ships USS Boxer and Fort McHenry put into the seaport of Kiel, Germany not long ago in a disreputable state. Rust streaked their sides for all to see. The destroyer USS Gravely, one of America’s frontline Aegis surface combatants, operated alongside allied ships in a likewise parlous condition.
U.S. Marines have a slogan: no better friend, no worse enemy. Slovenly appearances imply to influential audiences that the U.S. Navy is neither a friend worth courting nor a foe worth fearing. After all, navies that skimp on the basics in peacetime seldom triumph in wartime.
How much effort should go into keeping up appearances is a running debate for seafarers everywhere. Sailors hate scraping and painting. It feels like drudgery visited on them by officers bent on currying favor with higher-ups who visit the ship. Cynics suspect their superiors of trying to win promotions, plum job assignments, or medals from visitors favorably impressed by the look of the command. They mutter darkly, channeling Murphy’s Laws of Combat, that no combat-ready unit has ever passed a peacetime inspection.
Such wisecracks betray a conviction that there’s a zero-sum contest between keeping a vessel looking sharp and practicing seamanship, tactics, and kindred technical endeavors that are crucial to routine operations and battle effectiveness. In other words, every minute spent burnishing appearances is a minute not spent on what truly matters.
And for sure, it is possible to take the pursuit of spit-and-polish to excess. Just about any virtue degenerates into vice beyond a certain threshold. Bear in mind, though, that it is human nature to rally to a likely winner while spurning a likely loser. How do people distinguish between the two in peacetime? Combat is the arbiter between superiority and inferiority, yet no missiles or gunfire fly around in peacetime—supplying unequivocal proof of who outmatches whom.
That leaves appearances. Naval forces strive to impress audiences domestic and foreign, friendly, hostile, or indifferent. These observers have few indicators apart from a ship’s appearance to judge its crew’s seamanship, technical acumen, and battle proficiency. So scraping and painting is about more than routine upkeep, or maintenance budgets. The look of a ship has strategic if not political import. It is critical to the war of perceptions.
But outward appearances matter even more than it might seem. While holding forth on the dynamics of peacetime naval diplomacy, strategist Edward Luttwak maintains that whoever most observers believe would have prevailed in a wartime trial of arms tends to prevail in a peacetime showdown. Naval practitioners could render an informed judgment about each contender’s prospects in action. Spit-and-polish might be a secondary concern for them.
Most beholders, however, are not specialists in naval affairs. Yet their opinions count all the same. A tidy, rust-free appearance suggests to landlubbers that the crew knows and cares about its business. If a warship looks like a rusty old hulk, contrariwise, it’s reasonable for onlookers to conjecture that its internals—its propulsion plant, sensors, and armament—may likewise be objects of neglect. Its image for professionalism and battle competence suffers.
If the U.S. Navy projects a slovenly appearance while, say, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy shows up in a foreign harbor looking spick-and-span, guess who seems like the trustworthy friend and fearsome foe? Advantage: China. Diplomatic influence goes to mariners mindful of the fundamentals.
Nor, it bears saying, are the great unwashed altogether wrong to judge a fleet by its look. Corrosion is an antagonist that can be managed and subdued but never finally defeated. Journalist Jonathan Waldman reviews engineers’ perennial struggle against it in his book Rust, aptly subtitling it The Longest War. It nearly brought down the Statue of Liberty during the 1980s. Manufacturers make extravagant efforts to tame it when, say, canning soda. And it afflicts ships ceaselessly. After all, a hull is a ferrous metallic box floating in seawater. Put iron in contact with saltwater and corrosion soon follows unless sailors stay constantly on the attack.
One imagines Bradley Fiske would nod knowingly at the U.S. Navy’s diplomatic plight. A century ago Admiral Fiske wrote a treatise portraying The Navy as a Fighting Machine. Any piece of hardware, from a humble water pump or electrical generator to a stately fighting ship, has certain maximum performance characteristics. However, it may underperform its design parameters because of the human factor. “When thinking or speaking of the power of any instrument,” he writes, “we mean the power of which it is capable; that is, the result which it can produce, if used with 100 per cent of skill.”
Yet few human beings achieve perfection. Deficits in operator training or experience handicap equipment performance. Technicians may be overworked or apathetic. In any of these cases, materiel will produce only a fraction of its design output. Human frailty degrades combat excellence.
Luttwak notes that weapon systems are “black boxes” to outsiders until used in action. With scant direct evidence of which naval force boasts the best black boxes—with no verdict of arms that yields a definite result—friends and allies, prospective antagonists, and domestic constituents will render a verdict based on the evidence of their eyes. Rust and slipshod housekeeping are telltale indicators that something deeper is amiss.
The balance of appearances, then, could favor even a lesser but spiffy-looking competitor. So let’s get the U.S. Navy fleet looking shipshape again—and restore our standing in the eyes of friend, foe, and bystander alike. The mundane is important.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of the forthcoming Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.