David R. Henderson  

Roughead on Sea Power

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In Monday's Wall Street Journal, Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, has a review of Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy by Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy.

I would have thought that the main thing Roughead should have pointed out is how overstated Cropsey's book title is. In a literal sense, of course, U.S. naval power could decline and could even be declining. But the sense that Cropsey's title gives, amplified by the content that Roughead highlights, is that the decline will happen soon and will be large. Here's a quote from Roughead's review:

China, Mr. Cropsey argues, is on the path to overtake U.S. naval power, with little deliberation in this country about the consequences of such a development. As Mr. Cropsey warns, reducing the number of U.S. ships "accelerates the decline of American sea power, unintentionally adding strategic weight to Beijing's naval buildup, and more important, to China's rise to dominance in Asia. Politicians have not faced this basic question of strategy."

This fear mongering is fanned by the editor who wrote the book review's title. That anonymous writer titled the review "How We Lost the Seas." So the editor takes a prediction about the future and puts it in the present. That's, to put it mildly, inaccurate.

It is pretty clear that the Chinese government is becoming dominant in Asia, but, as I pointed out in an October 2010 speech on globalization that I gave at a "boot camp" for the 55 newly minted one-star Admirals, the threat that the Chinese government, including the Chinese navy, poses to the United States is tiny. We have a very important protection from the Chinese government: it's called the Pacific Ocean.

Interestingly, Roughead, perhaps sensing that Americans will not be sufficiently afraid of a government across the biggest ocean in the world, gives other reasons for a large Navy. Here's where it's his economics that's fishy (pun intended.)

Some highlights:

That lecturer, Theodore Roosevelt, would go on to be president and transform the U.S. Navy into the global force that has underpinned international security and prosperity for a century.

I'll put aside the issue of international security. I don't agree with him but that's too big an issue to tackle. But prosperity? How has the U.S. Navy underpinned prosperity? Roughead doesn't say.

Or maybe he does, because he goes on:

Sea power sets conditions for stable world trade, as some 90% of commerce moves on the oceans.

I doubt that 90% of commerce moves on the oceans. It's possible that Roughead meant that 90% of international trade moves on the oceans. That is at least plausible. But it doesn't follow that with a much smaller U.S. Navy, commerce across the ocean would decline substantially. Pirates just aren't that important in the grand scheme of things and it's not as if other governments are just waiting there trying in major ways to disrupt sea-going traffic.

Roughead ends with his claim about prosperity:

"Mayday" is extremely timely, reminding us that security and prosperity are inextricably linked to sea power.

Of course, Cropsey might have made a strong case that prosperity is inextricably linked to sea power. Roughead doesn't give that case, but there is only so much you can do in a short book review. But, having some familiarity with Cropsey's earlier work, I doubt that he did make such a case.


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CATEGORIES: International Trade



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Jardinero1 writes:

In the era of remotely guided precision munitions, the value of a large surface fleet becomes less and less significant. That's not to say that a navy is no longer an important force multiplier, but the qualitative aspect of the fleet is more important than the quantitative aspect. Much was made of the Chinese acquisition of an aircraft carrier without any consideration as to why the Russians would sell such a "potent" naval asset to their next door neighbor.

Tom West writes:

If I was to search for a link between "prosperity" and naval dominance, I'd be looking for the ability to intimidate weaker nations into playing by whatever rules the dominant nation would like to use rather than who would win direct conflicts with other major powers.

The US also 'suffers' under the difficulty of wanting to be the "good guy". In simulations of the cold war that I used to play, the Soviet Union could force policy changes upon its 'allies' because it could credibly threaten them (Finlandization, etc.) while the US could not (there's no Canadianization :-)).

Thus if one wants to monger some panic, one only need suggest that the leaders of the Chinese Communist party might believe it personally advantageous to use dominant naval power to intimidate smaller nations into altering trading policy. Note that doesn't require the CCP leaders to be either smart or correct.

Arthur_500 writes:

This topic has received many pages in recent years editions of naval Proceedings. The idea that China may utilize its naval power to intimidate its neighbors is real. The question is how much this will affect international trade.

We have always been a global trade society although at times in history our globe seemed larger. Today the economy of the US hurts as Europe continues its stagnation. As the US economy hurts our Chinese business partners suffer. China cannot afford a rebellion of its people.

Short term fixes are for the Chinese to pump money into its domestic economy but this has always been a failed policy (just look at the US - sorry Mr. Krugman). They could also be belligerent towards its neighbors. There is nothing like a few dead bodies to stir the nationalistic soul. But even this would be a failed policy in the long run. People would want to know why they are picking on Vietnam or Taiwan when they had no jobs or food.

China does not seem to want to fight with anyone. It is much easier to flood a country with its products and workers than to try to shoot it out with anyone.

Naval Power provides much for a country but it is very expensive. currently the US is the babysitter of the world's oceans and we get little from any other country. World stability?

We do need a smarter, leaner Navy. Many of the tactics of WWII are history in the age of missiles and airplanes. While we will always need to put bodies and bullets downrange the world has changed and we need to figure out how to fight tomorrow's conflicts.

I would expect the CNO to want a big mean Navy but how to change it will be always debatable. What is less debatable is the minimal threat of a Chinese Navy with one carrier.

Russ Wood writes:

If we could track commerce properly, I would suggest a majority of it moves over the airwaves, cell lines, and various internet transmissions. What is visible (on the seas) is dwarfed by what we don't see (via the spectrum).

MingoV writes:

There is a large difference between China having more naval ships than the USA and China having more naval power than the USA. I've read (and believe) that a single US Navy carrier task force could wipe out the entire Chinese navy without using nuclear weapons.

The Chinese do not have a separate group equivalent to our Coast Guard. Therefore, our Coast Guard ships should be included when comparing our naval forces to Chinese naval forces.

But it doesn't follow that with a much smaller U.S. Navy, commerce across the ocean would decline substantially. Pirates just aren't that important in the grand scheme of things....
They used to be. It was the British navy (mostly) that destroyed piracy as a threat to international travel and trade. They also destroyed the slave trade in the 19th century.

Now that the British navy is essentially just a memory, piracy has increased in African and Asian waters.

Harold Cockerill writes:

China is slowing down. Their system isn't tolerant of creative destruction and can't rebalance. They may need all their military just to hold power. Lot of that going around though.

MikeDC writes:

Given that you teach at the Naval Postgraduate school, don't you think that telling your students (especially if they're starred) that the Pacific Ocean is sufficient protection for America is a bit.... simplistic?

Seriously, I understand the notion that we should be staying out of avoidable wars, and I fundamentally don't think the United States should wage war on China under most any circumstance.

However, that is totally irrelevant to what the leaders of the US Navy have to deal with. They don't get to make that moral decision, they have to prepare to go to war based on what our civilian leadership decides.

It's pretty clear that the US would intervene in support of Japan (where we have formal treaty obligations) or Taiwan in the event of hostilities between either of those nations and China. At that point, whether we should or shouldn't is out the window. The question becomes whether we can, and what the risks are.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MikeDC,
Given that you teach at the Naval Postgraduate school, don't you think that telling your students (especially if they're starred) that the Pacific Ocean is sufficient protection for America is a bit.... simplistic?
Not compared to what they come up with, to the extent they think China's a threat (which many do not).
Seriously, I understand the notion that we should be staying out of avoidable wars, and I fundamentally don't think the United States should wage war on China under most any circumstance.
Good. We agree.
However, that is totally irrelevant to what the leaders of the US Navy have to deal with. They don't get to make that moral decision, they have to prepare to go to war based on what our civilian leadership decides.
True. But that's not what some of the 55 Admirals argued. Unless they were totally lying, the more outspoken of them saw China's government as a threat to the United States.

Finch writes:

Maybe you're using an unusual definition of the word "threat?"

China's government is a threat to the United States, by most reasonable definitions of the word. It's much more a threat than, say, Canada's government is. It's much less a threat than, say, the Soviet Union in 1978. Either way, this is very different from saying it's evil and must be destroyed.

I think war with China is extremely undesirable and somewhat unlikely (it's not in their interest either). But it's not something you can rule out with a high degree of likelihood, especially if the Chinese semi-tyranny collapses in a messy way.

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