For more than six decades, the U.S. Navy has kept America safe, guarded our overseas interests, reassured allies, patrolled the global commons and assisted the victims of manmade and natural disasters. Under the rubric of forward deployed credible combat power, the Navy designed a force structure based on the close integration of space, air, surface and subsurface platforms and systems. This is the Navy that helped win the Cold War, made Operation Enduring Freedom possible and served as the core around which international task forces have been built to patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa. Historically, the case for a strong U.S. Navy was unassailable.
This is no longer the case. The U.S. faces no great maritime challengers. While China appears to be toying with the idea of building a serious Navy this is many years off. Right now it appears to be designing a military to keep others, including the United States, away, out of the Western Pacific and Asian littorals. But even if it were seeking to build a large Navy, many analysts argue that other than Taiwan it is difficult to see a reason why Washington and Beijing would ever come to blows. Our former adversary, Russia, would have a challenge fighting the U.S. Coast Guard, much less the U.S. Navy. After that, there are no other navies of consequence. Yes, there are some scenarios under which Iran might attempt to close the Persian Gulf to oil exports, but how much naval power would really be required to reopen the waterway? Actually, the U.S. Navy would probably need more mine countermeasures capabilities than it currently possesses.
More broadly, it appears that the nature of the security challenges confronting the U.S. has changed dramatically over the past several decades. There are only a few places where even large-scale conventional conflict can be considered possible. None of these would be primarily maritime in character although U.S. naval forces could make a significant contribution by employing its offensive and defensive capabilities over land. For example, the administration’s current plan is to rely on sea-based Aegis missile defenses to protect regional allies and U.S. forces until a land-based variant of that system can be developed and deployed. The sea ways, sometimes called the global commons, are predominantly free of dangers. The exception to this is the chronic but relatively low level of piracy in some parts of the world. So, the classic reasons for which nations build navies, to protect its own shores and its commerce or to place the shores and commerce of other states in jeopardy, seem relatively unimportant in today’s world.
The problem is not answering the question of what kinds of ships, planes and submarines should the Navy build but rather should there be a Navy at all. Can the case be made for investing in a large and powerful U.S. Navy in the future? I suppose one could always argue that the current period of relative security is an anomaly. Therefore, a large Navy is an insurance policy. Or there is the argument that naval forces can perform other missions such as building partnership capacity or addressing humanitarian crises. But that is not an argument for a large Navy based on forward deployed combat power.
No, a new argument is needed. It will be up to the Navy and its supporters to fashion the argument. The rest of DoD and the national security establishment will be too busy arguing about whether we need a military at all.