Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is our Navy Too Small?

Not a Ship, But Can Sink One


 Victim of  Land-Based Bombers

Over at the "Monkey Cage," Political Scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva have published a guest post evaluating Governor Romney's claim, made during the third and final Presidential debate, that projected defense cuts will leave America with a dangerously small navy of fewer than 300 ships, smaller than any time since 1916.  (Some will recall that Congressman Ryan made a similar claim during the Vice Presidential debate.)  Crisher and Souva invoke a paper they have co-authored, which measures the relative strength of various national navies during the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries.  As they put it:

"In 1916, the US controlled roughly 11% of the world’s naval power. This is an impressive number that ranks the US third in naval strength behind the UK (34%) and Germany (19%), and just ahead of France (10%). What about the US navy in 2011? In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world’s naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%).

The US Navy has decreased in absolute size as Governor Romney argues (although this decline has been ongoing since the end of Cold War). U.S. warships are more powerful now than in the past, as President Obama implied. However, neither the number of warships nor the power of our ships is what is most important for understanding military and political influence. It is relative military power that matters most. In this respect, the U.S. navy is far stronger now than in 1916."

In so arguing, Crisher and Souva echo similar but less scholarly arguments to the effect that the modern U.S. Navy could defeat the U.S. Navy of 1917, with the result that the size of the modern Navy is beside the point.

This analysis is incomplete, to say the least.   For one thing, the fact that our modern navy could defeat the navy of 1917 is irrelevant and "proves too much."  After all, a single modern U.S. Aircraft carrier could defeat the Navy of 1917.  Does that mean one such ship would suffice for our current needs?  Of course not.

Moreover, comparing the size and composition of different navies is a good start, but it's only a start.   One also has to define our Navy's mission and determine what non-naval capabilities our potential adversaries possess that might thwart that mission.  Three examples --- two historical and one current --- help make this point.

1.  In 1940, the British Navy was far superior to that of Germany.  In 1840, such naval superiority would have prevented any invasion of Britain.  It did not in 1940.  Why?  Because Germany had a large and effective air force capable of sinking any British vessels that ventured into the English Channel.  Only the British Air Force, combined with the "untested" tool of radar, prevented Germany from gaining air superiority over the Channel and thus executing "Operation Sea Lion," Hitler's plan to invade and conquer Britain.     In short, a comparison between the British and German Navies in 1940, while important, ultimately provided a misleading assessment of the balance of power between the two countries.

2.  During the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was tasked with maintaining open sea lanes between the continental USA and Europe, so as to facilitate the re-supply of Europe in the event of a Soviet invasion.   Crisher and Souva conclude that the U.S. navy, built around more than a dozen aircraft carriers at the time, was more than a match for the Soviet navy, including the Soviet submarine fleet, during this period.  Probably so.   However, the Soviet surface and submarine fleet was not the only threat to American carriers during this era.  Instead, the Soviets deployed hundreds of land-based bombers, such as the TU-22M Backfire (pictured above), each carrying anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of several hundred miles and designed to destroy aircraft carriers, their escorts, and, ultimately, troop ships.  (Those who have read Tom Clancy's "Red Storm Rising" will recall how TU-22M's devastated a joint French-American convoy early in that fictitious war.)  Thus, even if the U.S. Navy could have sunk each and every Soviet surface ship and submarine in the Atlantic Ocean, it might still have failed in its objective to maintain open sea lanes between the U.S. and Europe.  The British learned this type of lesson the hard way when, on December 10, 1941, Japanese land-based bombers sank the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (pictured above) as well as the battlecruiser Repulse.

3.   The U.S. Navy is currently tasked with the possible defense of Taiwan in the unlikely event of a forcible invasion of that island.  Indeed, during his Presidency, Bill Clinton ordered the U.S.S. Nimitz to sail through the Taiwan Straits to demonstrate American resolve.  No one doubts that the U.S. Navy is vastly superior to any other navy in the world at this moment in history.   However, China has other military capabilities that could thwart the U.S. Navy's ability to perform its assigned mission.   For instance, as previously discussed on this blog (see also here), China has developed and deployed an intermediate range ballistic missile designed to strike large ships such as aircraft carriers from over 1,000 miles away.  Indeed, according to one source, China has produced 80 such DF-21 "carrier killer" missiles, which are also capable of striking U.S. bases in the region, along with other missiles.  Moreover, China deploys a large air force, including hundreds of H-6 bombers modeled on the Soviet TU-16 Badger.  Like the Badger, the H-6 can be armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.  Moreover, Russia has recently agreed to license the production of TU-22Ms to China, which plans to produce 36 such planes in its first production run.  In short, in addition to its growing navy, China has numerous land-based assets that could make a U.S. defense of Taiwan quite difficult.

To be sure, the fact that a navy cannot perform the mission assigned to it "on its own" does not thereby establish that the Navy is too small.  Doubling the size of the British Navy in 1940 would not have prevented a German invasion, unless, perhaps, the increase took the form of more aircraft carriers.  Instead, Britain needed more land-based Hurricanes, Spitfires and the pilots to fly them.  However, in some cases, only a navy can "do the job" required.  For instance, during the 1980s, land-based air power could not have fully countered the threat to our shipping from Soviet bombers and submarines, with the result that only aircraft carrier, defended by escorts, could do the job.  In the same way, a robust naval presence in the Pacific, for instance, may be the only way this nation can accomplish its objectives.