What Happens if the U.S. Navy (Or Any Navy) Is Obsolete?
New threats loom large.
Key Point: Aircraft carriers and other surface combatants, long masters of the sea, now operate under the shadow of shore-based missiles and aircraft.
Are navies dying?
An outlandish question. Which is why it’s worth asking. Bottom line up front: I doubt it.
Strategy goes through cycles. Sometimes offense is dominant, other times defense is. Weapons, tactics, and operational techniques have their day and die out. Others replace them. Few armies field phalanxes or cavalry divisions nowadays; armies endure. Galleys and ships of the line with billowing sails are figments of the past; navies live on. Sopwith Camels flown by knights of the air would meet an ill fate in modern aerial combat; air forces still roam the sky. Recent events probably mark just one more turning of the cycle. Never in the annals of military history has an entire type of armed force gone extinct by dint of new technology or warmaking methods—no matter how revolutionary.
But. That could be one of those statements that’s true . . . until it’s not.
Physicist Thomas Kuhn would urge us to entertain the question of navies’ longevity whether we relish its implications or not. Forethought prepares us for the unexpected. Writing in the early 1960s, Kuhn contested the conceit that science advances in an orderly fashion whereby scientific researchers modify or discard old theories about how the physical world works and replace them with better theories as new information or insight comes in. Instead, he maintains, scientific progress is a political process. Progress is fitful and oftentimes painful—just as in any political process.
How so? Well, says Kuhn, it turns out that scientists are people rather than disembodied reason. Self-interest and biases animate them the same way they animate ordinary folk. Stakeholders in the dominant “paradigm,” or theory for explaining something about the universe, become invested in the paradigm for reasons of personal gain and status as well as dispassionate research. Promotions, academic appointments, grant money, and prestige flow to them so long as the paradigm remains the best thing going. These are things worth fighting to defend. And fight scientists do—sometimes waging a rearguard action long after the paradigm starts to falter.
Gatekeepers of the reigning paradigm, that is, adjust it to account for “anomalies,” disparities between what the model predicts and new observations that come to light. Aberrations accumulate over time, casting doubt on the orthodox view. For awhile it’s possible to explain faults away through tinkering around the paradigm’s margins. Ultimately, though, anomalies become so many and so glaring as to be irrefutable. Then the paradigm shatters—making way for a rival theory that explains reality better. The new paradigm stands, with defenders of its own, until a superior competitor comes along.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Kuhn lists a number of historical paradigm shifts. Most famously, the “Copernican Revolution,” whereby the geocentric gave way to a heliocentric understanding of the solar system, marked a quintessential “paradigm shift.” Or to go beyond the strictly scientific realm, recent years have witnessed a paradigm shift among China-watchers in the West, as the reality of a great Chinese navy falsified the entrenched view that China is a continental power with no special desire or aptitude to go to sea. Keepers of the paradigm mounted a fighting retreat, but in the end only a Baghdad Bob insists what is happening can’t happen.
Progress is messy and fractious, not orderly and dispassionate. Naval analysts and practitioners should refuse to be Baghdad Bob. We should ask ourselves frankly whether we’re guardians of an increasingly obsolescent paradigm of naval warfare. If so, we will find ourselves in jeopardy should we encounter an antagonist that espies a worthier naval-warfare paradigm. Best to think ahead now in case our cherished archetype splinters around us.
Anomalies abound in today’s marine paradigm. Aircraft carriers and other surface combatants, long masters of the sea, now operate under the shadow of shore-based missiles and aircraft that greatly outrange them—calling into question whether they can fight their way to the scene of a fight, let alone prevail. It’s hard to win command of the sea or project power ashore when you never close within weapons range to open fire. Increasingly lethal integrated air defenses imperil non-stealthy aircraft and perhaps stealthy ones as well. Reputable undersea-warfare mavens speculate that newfangled sensor and computer technology verges on rendering the oceans and seas transparent—stripping submarines of their chief advantage, stealth, and exposing them to being hunted down and sunk.
Any one of these anomalies would call into question whether fleets built around the same basic platforms that fought World War II—carriers, cruisers and destroyers, amphibious transports, subs—have a future in a world bristling with extended-reach missiles, unmanned vehicles of all types, and artificial intelligence. Combined, anomalies between the new normal and the old paradigm spell trouble.
For the sake of questioning the ruling paradigm and transcending it if necessary, let’s suppose these anomalies are real, significant, and enduring. Current trends are not mere momentary shifts of advantage in the eternal tug of war between fleets prowling the sea and forts that festoon shorelines. Land warfare has won, or stands poised to. What might possible futures hold? First, consider the trivial yet most baleful future. Great powers, and potentially lesser coastal states as well, might field precision weaponry capable of striking enemy craft on, above, or beneath the ocean’s surface many thousands of miles away. China got a head start assembling such a panoply with its DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, which can ostensibly strike major surface combatants as far as 2,400 miles offshore. But such technology is scarcely beyond American, Russian, or European ingenuity.
Suppose multiple contenders did field armaments with the reach to span the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian oceans. If they did a kind of conventional mutual assured destruction might come to blanket these waters. Fleets would be vulnerable while bobbing at their moorings in home port, never mind if they put to sea. Mutually assured destruction prevailed during the Cold War because few leaders countenanced an atomic holocaust. Few political stakes warranted gambling on Armageddon. Deterrence held, if shakily at times. Whether it will hold in a future when armed forces can pummel seagoing forces at vast distances with conventional rather than doomsday arms is a dicey question. A brave new world is at hand if the political and psychological barriers to ordering such an attack prove readily surmountable.
It’s worth asking, moreover, what would become of merchant fleets bereft of their naval protectors. Navies exist chiefly to guard seaborne commerce. Other functions are ancillary albeit important. If shore firepower can sweep navies from the sea, it can hold merchant marines hostage as well. Saltwater theorists talk of “close” and “distant” blockades, meaning a fleet can loiter close off enemy seaports or erect a cordon farther offshore to impede shipping. A post-naval future could be a future of hyper-distant blockades—with ominous implications for global trade and commerce. Again: it’s worth contemplating such an alternative future—regardless of how improbable it seems—to orient ourselves mentally should some black swan befall sea services.
Or developments might stop short of this doomsday scenario. The revolution in ultra-long-range anti-access defenses could unfold asymmetrically. Perhaps one armed force might hoist its anti-access umbrella over vast expanses, stifling competitors’ naval and mercantile pursuits while those competitors lagged in anti-access technology. In that case, the world would have a new oceangoing hegemon—or an old one, if the United States won the race to field such technology. Foreign commerce would proceed at the hegemon’s sufferance and on its terms. Meanwhile, rival seagoing states would redouble their efforts to match its access-denial prowess, or seek technology or methods for blunting or circumventing its nautical supremacy. “Sea denial” navies carved out relatively safe offshore zones during the late nineteenth century, even while the oceangoing Royal Navy ruled the waves. A similar enterprising spirit would enliven lesser contenders in the twenty-first century.
Seldom is martial primacy absolute or permanent.
Or seaborne competition could take on a seesaw character. A classic arms race would ensue as each coastal state pursued shore-based anti-ship weaponry to pound hostile fleets, along with shipboard defenses to protect its own. Contestants would labor to nullify their antagonists’ navies but would make only incremental progress toward that end—and would see their advances matched or one-upped by fellow competitors, only to discover new advances of their own. And on and on. The balance of advantage would swing back and forth. The uncertainty and mercurial character of an arms race would permit naval and commercial fleets to transact business as usual, more or less, until and unless one pugilist won out. Mariners would learn to live with the threat.
Lastly, it could be that navies as we currently know them stand at the cusp of obsolescence, but that necessity will squeeze navies into some radically different shape. The coming transformation could prove even more fundamental than the nineteenth-century changeover from sail to steam, wooden hulls to steel, and smoothbore cannon to naval rifles. A century-plus ago the Englishman Julian Corbett, arguably history’s foremost naval historian and theorist, professed bewilderment at the scope and pace of change during the fin de siècle years: “the whole naval art has suffered a revolution beyond all previous experience, and it is possible the old practice is no longer a safe guide.”