Can the US Navy fight and win a war?
Writing on The Hill last week, Steve Cohen asked, “Is the US Navy totally at sea? But a more worrying question is whether the US Navy is fit and prepared for conflict with an adversary who is at least as well equipped and armed as he is.
Of course, the same question can be asked of other services – the army, the air force and the navies. The difference is that these services have been at war several times since 1945 because these conflicts were fought on and over land and not the sea. The last major battle of the Navy was the invasion of Okinawa. in mid-1945.
The Navy has been engaged in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq twice. But the units at risk were largely Naval Aviation, SEALs, Seabees (shipbuilding battalions) and a few sailors like myself who fought in brown and green waters and not major naval battles reminiscent of Jutland and Midway. During the Cold War, American submarines played a potentially deadly cat-and-mouse game with their Soviet counterparts. But no admiral commanded fleets fighting other fleets.
Today, China and Russia are modernizing their forces. Trump’s national defense strategy was aimed at preventing a fait accompli – a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and Russia marching on the Baltic states. Currently, the media is abuzz over whether the US military could prevent a Chinese takeover of the island, even if the US goes to war with Taiwan, even if the likelihood of that eventuality happening. is weak.
The devastating fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard and the scathing investigation report that followed once again raises profound questions about naval competence. If the Navy is not ready to fight a fire in a major warship, is it fit to fight a major war? Many will dismiss this comparison as it was just one of some 290 fighters. Yet this possibility should not be dismissed without further consideration.
The readiness review, conducted for Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after the 2017 crashes, and its cyber study have been scathed in criticism. The former identified cultural issues, many of which have yet to be corrected. The second concluded that China posed “an existential threat” to the Navy and Marines. So what has happened since then?
Junior officers (lieutenant commanders and lower) across the Navy complain about declining leadership, readiness and morale. Much of this is anecdotal and understandable. But is anyone in the higher ranks listening?
Cyber vulnerability applies to everyone, and many are highly classified. But given the number of Department of Defense hacks and penetrations, despite claims that cyber is taken very seriously, it is not clear that the Navy (or other services) have done so.
In addition to these disturbing symptoms, there is another danger: the defense budget. As the United States spends more in real and relative terms than under Reagan’s build-up, the strength is waning. The Pentagon has not had an approved budget for years and operates on ongoing resolutions that hamper its ability to plan wisely or use resources effectively. Equally serious, annual defense costs increase in real terms by around 5-7%, meaning that unless they are kept under control, budgets have to increase by at least the same amount just to stay. stable.
What should be done? In the past, all naval combat units were subjected to rigorous operational readiness inspections, risk aversion was not entirely a must, and WWII veterans and, to some extent, Korea did passed on their war experiences to future generations.
Today none of these conditions exist. It is because of the way culture and society have changed; because micromanagement has been imposed on services for bureaucratic, political and regulatory reasons; and because the Navy has not fought a major war for eight decades.
Obviously, nothing can be done about the latter unless naval education is radically revised to focus more on tactical, operational and strategic issues in order to develop the critical thinking and analytical skills required. Just like smart people have annual physical exams, the Navy should have an annual exam.
On an unannounced basis, units, including fleets, should be tested to be ready for all combat operations and commands given the authority to build on strengths and correct weaknesses and flaws.
Hopefully the Navy won’t have to fight another war. But if so, is he fit and will he win? Without a top-down critical examination, this question remains unanswered.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the principal author of “Shock and Awe”. His latest book, slated for release in December, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Disruption Attacks Became the Imminent Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and this World at Large”.