A review of Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy, by Seth Cropsey

Most Americans do not wake up every morning thinking about the United States Navy. It is probably fair to say that many Americans never think about the United States Navy. The very success of the Navy over many years goes a great way toward explaining this state of affairs. In December 1941, it was largely the Navy’s failure to provide a credible deterrent to potential Japanese aggression that led to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had few illusions about achieving a decisive victory over a nation with the U.S.’s manpower and material resources, but they calculated that if they could cripple the Pacific Fleet in its home base, America would lack the stomach, if not eventually the ability, to sustain a major war. That they were wrong is obvious in hindsight, but it was by no means clear at the time. The United States remained in the grip of a prolonged depression; isolationist sentiment in Congress and the country was strong (in the previous year, conscription had been sustained in the House of Representatives by a single vote); and Nazi Germany seemed on the verge of decisively crushing Imperial Britain and the Soviet Union, and overrunning all of Europe.

Four years later, though, the United States had not only recovered from its losses at Pearl Harbor, but taken the war to Japan in an epic struggle that remains the greatest naval conflict in world history. At the same time, with America’s weight (and not least, its naval power) thrown in the scales of the struggle with the Axis in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, the allied powers were able to contain and eventually defeat the Nazis. In hindsight, the sweeping triumph of the allies in both main theaters of the war seems virtually preordained. This was far from the case, however, and it can certainly be argued that naval power (together with vital supporting capabilities such as superior intelligence and logistics) provided the deciding edge of victory. Following World War II, America’s uncontested command of the world’s oceans provided the essential preconditions for the creation of new alliance systems in Europe and Asia designed to resist further expansion of the Soviet Union and Communist power more generally. This naval supremacy, anchored in a network of overseas bases that enabled the U.S. Navy to maintain at least a semi-permanent forward presence in virtually every strategically relevant part of the globe, would last for some three decades. Even when the Soviets eventually mounted a serious challenge to this supremacy in the course of the 1970s, few doubted what the outcome would be of a hot war at sea between the two superpowers. In any event, the U.S. Navy, under the effective leadership of Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr., and a succession of capable Chiefs of Naval Operations, responded vigorously, both with a massive building program (the so-called “Six Hundred Ship Navy”) and an ambitious “Maritime Strategy” explicitly designed to take the naval fight to the enemy in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s brought with it in short order, among other things, the virtual disintegration of the Soviet fleet and hence a further consolidation of the global maritime hegemony of America and its alliance partners. During the two Gulf Wars, American naval power was the dog that didn’t bark: the United States was able to insert tens of thousands of troops and immense stores of equipment and supplies into the region by sea completely unmolested by the Iraqi military or anyone else. Since 9/11, the Navy has taken on a greatly enhanced role in protecting the global commons against potential threats by terrorists or other non-state actors, as well as in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. In 2007, this shift in its focus and missions was formalized in a new maritime strategy document, the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” This document—hardly noticed, it has to be said, not only by the public at large but even by much of the American national security establishment—has led to dramatic and indeed unprecedented improvements in maritime security cooperation with a large range of allied and other navies around the world.

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So much for the good news. the bad news, as Seth Cropsey tells us in his timely and compelling call to arms, Mayday, is that the U.S. Navy is badly adrift, and in increasingly troubled waters. The fiscal crisis currently facing this nation shows no signs of abating. The Defense Department as a whole has been hit particularly hard in this regard, but the Navy is facing a near-existential crisis in its long-term ship-building program. The Navy now has fewer warships than at any time since the outbreak of World War I. Although it is true that today’s capital ships are much more capable than those even of the 1980s, a continuing downward spiral in raw numbers must at some point compromise the Navy’s ability to sustain its current missions and its presence forward in the strategically relevant parts of the globe. As Cropsey points out, for example, the once mighty U.S. Sixth Fleet now consists of little more than a floating headquarters ship, with occasional rotations of other vessels; but the Mediterranean is now and for the foreseeable future likely to remain more volatile and menacing than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Then, there is the China factor. Cropsey makes amply clear that the massive buildup of Chinese military and especially maritime capabilities over the last five years has created a new and much more demanding strategic environment for the U.S. Navy—one, he believes, it has yet to grapple with effectively.

Cropsey is no newcomer to things naval. In the 1980s, he was Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy under John Lehman, and has served in the naval reserves. A former journalist, he fully understands the necessity of telling the Navy’s story in a way that is comprehensible to the casual reader and firmly situated in the broad sweep of American (and indeed world) history. Technical terms and acronyms (the bane of military writing) are kept to a minimum; the prose is graceful, fluent and engaging. As a committed navalist, Cropsey understands that he has a certain credibility problem. Though this is a work of unabashed advocacy, Cropsey makes his argument with relentless logic and illustration and—at least to this (also not impartial) reader—does so persuasively.

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Because Mayday is designed for a general audience, Cropsey for the most part avoids committing himself in detail on matters that remain controversial within the Navy, and doesn’t engage in criticism of the Navy’s senior leadership. He does make clear, however, that the Navy bears some of the blame for the situation it finds itself in today. He is particularly critical of what he perceives as the Navy’s slowness to address its China problem. He notes that the word “China” nowhere appears in the 2007 Navy strategy document; more generally, he seems to feel that the Navy has been and remains overly complacent about its ability to handle the Chinese in a shooting conflict. My own sense is that, while this may have been true to some extent in the recent past, it isn’t so today. The growing threat of China’s so-called “area denial/anti-access” capabilities, particularly its deployment of a potential carrier-killing long-range ballistic missile, is by now universally recognized by naval officers, and is currently being addressed in a joint Navy-Air Force enterprise known as “Air-Sea Battle.”

Toward the end of his book, Cropsey offers a variety of suggestions for fixing the Navy’s problems, mainly through an analysis of several recent fleet architecture studies done outside the Navy itself. The two he favors—the “Alternate Fleet Architecture Study” of the late Admiral Arthur Cebrowski and Stuart Johnson, and the “New Navy Fighting Machine” study by retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes and his colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School—have in common a commitment to a force structure more heavily weighted toward “low end” naval warfare than the present one and involving more and smaller vessels. Both of these studies call for a new, smaller class of aircraft carriers, an idea Cropsey seems to welcome; he also favors relying more heavily on submarines to maintain sea control in the Western Pacific, including a new class of non-nuclear diesel submarines with air-independent propulsion. These positions, it might be noted, are not as iconoclastic within the Navy today as they once would have been. There appears to be a growing recognition in the service that the role of aircraft carriers needs to be substantially rethought in the light of China’s putative ability to find them with land-based ballistic missiles at ranges up to a thousand miles.

As for the Navy’s fiscal cliff, Cropsey makes an impassioned plea that a proper understanding of American grand strategy simply requires that the Navy be granted a share of the defense budget that supports that strategy, rather than one dictated by a perceived need to observe the niceties of so-called “jointness.” Although this politically incorrect argument will likely be written off by many as special navalist pleading, that would be a mistake. Cropsey presents a well-reasoned argument for the Navy’s importance—indeed, centrality—to the United States as a great power, and we dismiss it at our peril.