A Tale of Two Centuries
The old century had come to an end and the
United States, its armed services triumphant from victory in a splendid
little war over a technologically inferior adversary, was ready to
take its rightful place among the major military and economic powers
of the world. A former assistant secretary of the Navy, who became a
national hero in that war, was soon to become president and use his bully
pulpit for, among other things, the building of a Great White Fleet that
was the first step in making the United States a naval power "second
That former assistant secretary, later president, Theodore Roosevelt,
was a shrewd judge of human nature and a lifelong student of American
history. He knew that most of his fellow Americans had little if any
interest in foreign affairs, or in national-security issues in general.
Roosevelt himself was a staunch advocate of the seapower principles postulated
by Alfred Thayer Mahan, whom he greatly admired. So to remedy the situation
he helped found the Navy League of the United States in 1902, contributing
significant financial as well as moral support.
There were many, of course, in the Congress and in the media—indeed,
in Roosevelt’s own cabinet—who were not sure that the Great
White Fleet was needed. It cost too much and, despite its fine appearance,
would have little if any practical value for a nation unchallenged in
its own hemisphere and unlikely ever to send its sons to fight in Europe’s
wars, much less Asia’s. Besides, there might be an occasional colonial
war here and there, but the possibility of a direct war between the major
powers of Europe was becoming more and more remote with each passing
Within less than five years the vision of a lasting peace throughout
the world was demolished when the Japanese Navy shocked the world by
defeating the Russian Navy in the Battle of Tsushima (27-28 May 1905),
sinking eight Russian battleships and seven Russian cruisers. The Japanese
fleet, which started the war a year earlier with a surprise attack on
Russian ships anchored in Port Arthur, lost three torpedo boats at Tsushima.
Less than a decade later The Great War—"the war to end all
wars," it was called—started in Europe. The United States
remained a nonparticipant until April 1917, but then entered the war
in force. U.S. seapower contributed significantly to the eventual Allied
success. The joyous Armistice of 11 November 1918, however, was followed
by the debacle at Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II.
Again, America and its allies were not prepared. The United States once
again stayed on the sidelines until jolted out of its lethargy by the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That put 15 million American men and
women in uniform, led to total mobilization of the U.S. economy—and
of the mighty U.S. industrial base—and resulted millions of deaths
later in the unconditional surrender of both Nazi Germany and Imperial
Japan. The century was less than half over, but it was already the most
violent in all human history.
This time around, some lessons were learned—but not very well,
and they were not remembered very long. When North Korea invaded South
Korea the United States again was unprepared—as it was a generation
later in Vietnam. The Cold War cast a nuclear shadow over the entire
world for more than four decades, though, and forced the much-needed
rebuilding, modernization, and upgrading of America’s armed forces.
As the world enters a new century, and new millennium, those forces
are the most powerful, most mobile, and most versatile in the world.
Moreover, the young Americans in service today are the best-led, best-trained,
and best-equipped in this nation’s history. But that does not mean
that they are capable of carrying out all of the numerous difficult and
exceedingly complex missions they have been assigned. The victories of
the past are no guarantee of success in future conflicts. And it is not
foreordained that the so-called "American century" that has
now ended will be extended by another uninterrupted period of U.S. economic
and military dominance.
Operation Allied Force, the U.S./NATO air war over Kosovo, is a helpful
case in point. The precision strikes against Serbian forces, and against
the civilian infrastructure of the former Yugoslavia, eventually led
to the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo and the occupation of
that battered province by U.S./NATO and Russian peacekeepers. The one-sided "war" lasted
much longer than originally estimated, though. It did not "stop
the killings" (of ethnic Albanians), the original purpose of the
war. And it left Slobodan Milosevic still in power in Belgrade.
It is perhaps inevitable that political leaders will focus almost exclusively
on the "victories"—however fleeting and however gossamer—that
can be claimed. The prudent military commander, though, will focus on
the problem areas, the near-defeats and potential disasters, the "What-ifs" and
the close calls. There were an abundance of all of these in Kosovo last
year—just as there were in the war with Iraq in 1990-91.
Logistics is the first and perhaps most important of those problem areas—and
the biggest "What if" as well. In both conflicts. In the war
with Iraq the question was "What if Saddam Hussein had not stopped
with Kuwait but continued into Saudi Arabia and all the way to Riyadh?" The
answer—on this, virtually all military analysts agree—is
that the war would have lasted much longer and would have cost much more
in both lives and money. As it was, it took the greatest sealift in history
before the vastly superior U.S./coalition forces could defeat the previously
overrated Iraqi army. That massive sealift—more than 10 million
tons of supplies carried halfway around the world—would have been
impossible, though, were it not for the fact that, on the receiving end,
Saudi Arabia had built a large, modern, and well-protected port infrastructure.
Logistics was not a problem in Kosovo, either—but only because
the U.S./NATO air forces accomplished their mission (belatedly), and
ground forces did not have to be brought in. It was a close call, though—more
so than is generally realized—and the end result was due more to
good fortune than to careful planning. The ports in the area that might
have been available to U.S./NATO shipping are few in number, inefficient,
extremely limited in their throughput capacity, and vulnerable both to
sabotage and to attack by ground forces. Which is exactly why U.S. sealift
planners say that a ground war in Kosovo would have been "a logistics
Nightmares aside, there are other problems, of much greater magnitude,
affecting all of the nation’s armed forces. All are underfunded.
All are overcommitted—usually, in recent years, to humanitarian
and peacekeeping missions that, however worthwhile in themselves, detract
from operational readiness and from the training required for actual
There is more: The U.S. defense structure is the leanest it has been
in the post-WWII era. Funding for the acquisition and procurement of
ships, aircraft, weapons, and avionics/electronics systems has been cut
precipitously in recent years and the result has been a steady decline
in the size—and, therefore, responsiveness—of the vital U.S.
defense industrial base.
Except for the Marine Corps, all of the services also are suffering
from prolonged recruiting and retention problems that, if not resolved,
will lead to a "hollow force" of the early 21st century similar
to that of the late 1970s. There is increasing evidence, anecdotal but
mounting, that combat readiness has declined.
Following are some particulars about how the various problem areas enumerated
above have affected the nation’s sea services—balanced by
a report on the current strengths and capabilities, as well as needs,
of each service.
Since the end of the Cold War the Navy’s active fleet has been
cut almost in half, and is now just over 300 ships, the lowest level
since the early 1930s. What makes the situation worse is that the administration’s
future-years defense plan (FYDP) calls for construction of only 6-7 ships
per year for the foreseeable future, whereas a building rate of 9–10
ships is needed to meet the minimum requirement of 305 ships postulated
by the Quadrennial Defense Review. Independent defense analysts say that
a more realistic estimate of Navy fleet requirements would be anywhere
from 350 to 400 ships, depending on the scenarios postulated. To maintain
a fleet of that size would require a building rate of 10–12 ships
Exacerbating the ship-numbers problem is the fact that, because hundreds
of Cold War U.S. air and ground bases overseas have now been closed,
and hundreds of thousands of troops have returned to CONUS (the Continental
United States), a much heavier share of the collective defense burden
is now borne by the Navy’s forward-deployed carrier battle groups
(CVBGs) and Navy/Marine Corps amphibious ready groups (ARGs). In many
areas of the world the CVBGs and ARGs are now the only combat-ready forces
immediately available to the national command authorities.
The difficulties imposed on Navy carriers are particularly heavy. The
Joint Chiefs of Staff have told Congress that a minimum of 15 active-fleet
carriers are needed to maintain a continuous presence in the most likely
areas of international crisis—i.e., the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean,
and the Western Pacific (particularly the waters off the Korean Peninsula
and, more recently, in the Taiwan Strait between the People’s Republic
of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan). With only
12 carriers now available—11 in the active fleet and one reserve
carrier used primarily for training purposes—the Navy has had to
adopt a "gapping" strategy that leaves one or more of these "hot
spots" without a carrier for several weeks, or sometimes months,
at a time. In today’s fast-paced era of naval warfare, the Navy
League said last year, the gapping strategy is "not a prudent risk,
as it is sometimes described, but an invitation to conflict."
The Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) is
the best in the world, but also undersized to meet all current as well
as projected commitments. According to force requirements provided to
the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the regional commanders in chief, more than
70 SSNs are needed to meet all of the Navy’s worldwide commitments—but
there will be only 50 available unless the QDR levels are revised upward.
This could pose major risks in areas where land-based enemy aircraft
and missiles make it difficult for carriers and other surface ships to
operate close to the littorals.
The Navy’s SSBN (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine)
force continues to be the dominant and most survivable leg of the U.S.
strategic-deterrent "triad" of SSBNs, manned bombers, and intercontinental
ballistic missiles. There are now 18 Trident SSBNs in the active fleet,
but only 14 are likely to be needed in the future. The proposed conversion
into an SSGN (nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine) configuration
of the four SSBNs now slated for deactivation would add significantly
to the Navy’s overall power-projection capabilities and compensate
to some extent for current deficiencies in surface combatants.
Perhaps the brightest stars in the current fleet inventory are the Aegis
guided-missile cruisers and destroyers that played such a key role in
the Gulf War and in several lower-scale combat actions since then. The
combat-proven effectiveness of the Aegis fleet has made it a strong candidate
to serve as the principal building block for the national-missile-defense
system favored by Congress and likely to be built in the first decade
of the new century.
Navy aircraft and weapon systems also are the best and most technologically
sophisticated in the world. Because of the continued underfunding in
procurement and acquisition, however, all of these fleet assets have
been considerably overworked, a spare parts shortage has developed, and
the maintenance workload has increased significantly.
The U.S. Marine Corps has changed commandants, but continues the march—and
its proud tradition of always being "the most ready when the nation
is least ready."
That mandate from Congress is more daunting on the eve of the 21st century
than it has been at any previous time since the dark days preceding World
War II and the Korean War. In both of those conflicts the Marines suffered
a disproportionate number of casualties, particularly in the early months
of fighting—primarily because forward-deployed Marine units had
to hold the line until the nation (and the other armed forces) could
catch up to the Marines in readiness.
Today, all of the nation’s armed services are in a reasonable
state of readiness. But the operating tempo is the highest it has ever
been in peacetime, and most deployments in the past several years have
been for humanitarian and peacekeeping assignments rather than for combat
missions. Training has suffered, therefore, and there has been a slow
but steady degradation of combat readiness—well-documented in hearings
before the House Armed Services Committee.
Under former commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak the USMC’s senior
leaders developed a cogent and forward-looking plan to field a 21st-century
Marine Corps that will be fully combat-ready to meet the assymetric challenges
likely in the foreseeable future. It will be up to Gen. James L. Jones
Jr., who succeeded Krulak on 1 July 1999, to implement that plan. But
significant additional funding will be needed for, among other things:
• Maintaining the Corps at its current authorized strength of approximately
172,000 Marines on active duty and in the Reserves;
• Modernizing the Corps’ Total Force with the aircraft, weapons,
rolling stock, electronics and avionics systems, and other supplies and
equipment needed to maintain combat superiority on the littoral and inland
battlefields of the future;
• Building, upgrading, and maintaining a self-sustaining expeditionary
tactical aviation force, including the revolutionary V-22 Osprey tiltrotor
aircraft, which can operate from aircraft carriers, amphibious assault
ships, and/or expeditionary airfields ashore.
• Expediting the early development and procurement of: (a) the
joint strike fighter, which USMC leaders have told Congress is urgently
needed both to maintain a modern tactical aviation force and to replace
the obsolescent aircraft now in the Corps’ inventory; and (b) advanced
amphibious assault vehicles capable of safely and swiftly carrying Marines
and their equipment to and over the beaches to positions that in some
combat scenarios will be far inland; and
• Implementing Corps-sponsored initiatives to develop and field
the advanced-capability shallow-water mine countermeasures systems needed
to allow future Marine assault forces to maneuver safely through the
Alone of all the services, the Marine Corps has consistently met its
recruiting and retention goals in recent years. Several studies suggest
that this is because the Marine Corps keeps a clear focus on its highest
priorities—"Making Marines and Winning Battles"—and
that young men and women respond more readily to that inspiring challenge
than they do to the less lofty appeal of material benefits.
Today’s Coast Guard remains Semper Paratus—but just barely,
and at a very high price. The U.S. Coast Guard is perhaps the most overworked
and underfunded agency in government today, but it carries out—efficiently
and at minimum cost to the taxpayer—a multitude of missions that
increase almost annually. Several studies suggest that the Coast Guard
returns a minimum of four dollars in services for every tax dollar provided
to the multimission service in appropriations.
The Coast Guard is also the world’s premier lifesaving organization,
and in recent years has saved an annual average of more than 5,000 lives—and
has assisted many more thousands of people in distress on the seas, on
the Great Lakes, and in the nation’s inland and coastal waterways.
But lifesaving is only one of the many "services to taxpayers" in
the USCG portfolio. In recent years the Coast Guard has also, on average:
conducted 44,000 law-enforcement boardings, identifying 24,000 violations;
seized 76,000 pounds of marijuana and 62,000 pounds of cocaine; investigated
6,200 marine accidents; inspected 23,000 commercial vessels; responded
to 12,400 spills of oil or hazardous materials; serviced 55,000 aids
to navigation; and interdicted 10,000 illegal migrants.
To carry out all of those missions in the future, however—and
several others likely to be added—the Coast Guard needs a major
recapitalization of virtually its entire physical plant: ships, aircraft,
electronic and sensor systems, and shore facilities. To its credit, the
Coast Guard itself has taken the initiative by developing a so-called
IDS (Integrated Deepwater System) plan that, if fully funded, would permit
an orderly and cost-effective replacement of cutters, aircraft, and other
assets over a period of years. Failure of the executive and legislative
branches of government to support and fully fund that plan would cripple
the Coast Guard’s continued effectiveness—and would cost
the American people in numerous ways.
Even today, very few Americans realize how dependent the United States
is on the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine for national defense and its continued
economic well-being. In times of war or international crises that might
lead to war 95 percent or more of the weapons, supplies, and equipment
needed by U.S. forces overseas must be carried by ship—usually
over thousands of miles of ocean. It would be military folly to rely
on foreign-flag shipping to carry that cargo.
Most innovations in the maritime industries in the post-WWII era—e.g.,
containerization, LASH (lighter aboard ship) vessels, and RO/ROs (roll-on/roll-off
ships)—have been of American origin, and the United States is by
far the greatest trading nation in the entire world. Literally millions
of U.S. jobs, and billions of tax dollars, are generated by the import
and export of raw materials and finished products into and out of U.S.
The port infrastructure itself is badly in need of renovation and remodernization,
however. Because of short-sighted laissez-faire economic policies, U.S.-flag
ships today carry only a minor fraction of America’s two-way foreign
trade. The result is the loss of thousands of seafaring jobs, significantly
reduced U.S. sealift capacity, and a Merchant Marine that is now in extremis.
The creation of the Maritime Security Program was a helpful first step
toward recovery, but it will take many years, perhaps decades, before
the U.S.-flag fleet can regain its traditional title as "the vital
Fourth Arm" of national defense.
Additional funding, and a larger force structure, will resolve or at
least ameliorate some of the most difficult problems now facing the nation’s
armed services, not only in procurement and RDT&E (research, development,
test, and evaluation) but also in readiness. More and better equipment,
combined with a lower operating tempo and higher pay, would in turn have
a salutary effect on both recruiting and retention.
There are more intractable problems, though, that all the money in the
world will not resolve—and that should be of major concern not
only to the nation’s armed services and defense decision makers,
but to all Americans. The most difficult and most obvious of these problems
is the proliferation in recent years of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs),
and the means to deliver them. There already are a dozen or more nations—several
of them extremely hostile to the United States—that already possess
(or are close to acquiring) more destructive power than was unleashed
by all the armies and navies in the world during World II.
It can be taken for granted that WMDs soon will be available to terrorist
groups as well. But what is even more alarming is the near certainty
that neither the United States nor the so-called "global community" at
large will take the probably draconian steps that would be needed to
counter this unprecedented threat. Not, that is, until weapons of mass
destruction are actually used by terrorists. The only real question here
is not "if," but "when."
There are other dangers, other problems, other defense issues of transcendent
importance that must be attended to at the start of this new century
and new millennium. The succession in Russia, for example. In China as
well. The mentally unbalanced military adventurism of the leaders of
North Korea. The list could go on and on.
Quite possibly the greatest threats to world peace, though, are American
complacency and American lethargy. The history of the 20th century shows
that, once aroused to action, the American people can and will unite
to defeat any enemy, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.
That history also shows, though, that it takes more than education and
persuasion to unite the American people. It takes sudden and painful
The problem here is that, in the past, the nation always had time to
recuperate from its initial losses, and even from a Pearl Harbor. That
may no longer be the case. There is now a bipartisan consensus that the
United States should build and deploy a national-missile-defense (NMD)
system as soon as "practicable." If that consensus had existed
several years ago the need today might not be so urgent. As it is, relatively
few Americans realize that the United States is still absolutely vulnerable
to enemy missile attacks. Another way of saying it is that not one U.S.
missile-defense system has yet been deployed that could shoot down even
one incoming enemy missile. That is a sobering thought.
The old axiom says that leadership "begins at the top." But
in a democracy that is not entirely true. If the American people demand
a certain course of action loud enough and long enough, the elected "leaders" in
the executive and legislative branches of government almost always will
follow. In the field of national defense the American people have demanded
very little in recent years, and, with a few notable exceptions, that
is exactly what they have been provided.
In his prescient "Prize Essay" (The Foundation of Naval Policy)
in the April 1934 Naval Institute Proceedings Lt. Wilfred J. Holmes argued
persuasively that the size of the fleet (and, by implication, the size
and composition of all naval/military forces) should always be consistent
with national policy. "Failure to adjust the size of navies to the
needs of external [i.e., national] policy—or, conversely, to adjust
external national policy to the strength of the military fleet—has,
in the past, frequently led to disaster," Holmes said. At the 1922
Limitation of Armaments Conference, he noted, the United States "relinquished
naval primacy in the interests of worldwide limitations of armaments." Unfortunately,
though, "the retrenchment in [U.S.] naval strength was not followed
by retrenchment in the field of national policy."
The circumstances are not exactly the same today—but they are
close enough. The current operating tempo, for all of the nation’s
armed services, is the highest it has ever been in peacetime. Commitments
have been increasing annually, without commensurate increases in funding.
Ships, aircraft, and weapon systems are wearing out—and so are
our military people. The "gapping" of aircraft carriers in
areas of potential crisis is an invitation to disaster—and, therefore,
represents culpable negligence on the part of America’s defense
Eventually, a very high price will have to be paid for these many long
years of national lethargy, for the massive underfunding of the nation’s
armed forces, and for the continued mismatch between commitments and
resources. When that time comes—sooner is much more likely than
later—it may well be the darkest day in this nation’s history.
Is there still time to reverse course? Perhaps. But not much time. And
the leadership may well have to come not from those who hold high office
in Washington, but from the American people themselves.
If they do provide that leadership, there will indeed be another American
century. It will not be another century of violence, but of peace.
Peace on earth, for all mankind.