The Importance of Naval Power

The U.S. Naval War College was started in an abandoned poor house on an island near Newport, R.I., in 1884. It's still there, a mixture of attractive turn-of-the-century and ugly 1970s buildings overlooking the approaches to Narragansett Bay. Here, naval officers pushing around ship models on a checkerboard floor war-gamed sea battles against Japan in the 1930s. Here, in June 1897, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous paean to the Anglo-Saxon warrior spirit: "All the great masterful races have been fighting races …"

But the War College's greatest contribution came from a genius who saw the Navy as a way to keep peace. Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan was not much of a commander at sea, but his theories on sea power had an enormous influence on navies and political leaders all over the world (Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was so taken that he ordered Mahan's book, "The Influence of Sea Power on History," placed in the wardroom of every German warship.) Mahan was able to see that as global trade developed, great powers would need strong navies to protect their interests all over the world. His model was Great Britain, which enforced a Pax Britannica through naval power throughout the 19th century.

Mahan's heirs have made the U.S. Navy the dominant sea power in the world for more than a half-century. But the Navy as it now sails is still a cold war force, with giant "boomer" submarines (fleet ballistic missile subs) built to launch missiles at the Soviet Union and a large carrier fleet for projecting power in several theaters all at once. In an age when the boomers are no longer needed in such large quantities and the carriers are vulnerable to increasingly cheap and available ship-killing missiles, the Navy needs to modernize and rethink. But the brass, never quick to embrace change, fears that if it signals a willingness to cut back on existing weapons and platforms, the money will be quickly sucked up by the Army and Air Force, which have their own modernization needs.

The Navy has a new maritime strategy, written largely at the War College, for projecting its power around the world. But as the president of the War College, Rear Adm. Jake Shuford, explained to me recently, the Navy lacks an obvious adversary (with the possible exception of China, a rising power the fleet does not wish to antagonize). Without an enemy, it's harder to get lawmakers to pay for a global naval force, especially at a time when the Army is stretched thin fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Visiting journalists need to be a little wary of admirals saying that the Navy needs more money. But as Mahan recognized, the best way to avoid war is to be stronger than any enemy. It seems to me that we want the nations of South and East Asia along our most vital trade routes to welcome the U.S. Navy as the cop on the beat—and not feel the necessity of building up their own naval forces to rival each other or the United States. There are already signs that China is building a formidable submarine fleet.

America does not want to provoke the Chinese with belligerence, but nor does it wish to tempt them with weakness. War may be a great test of nations, as TR suggested, but keeping the peace through power is a wiser strategy, as Mahan showed.

Does the Navy need to reconfigure its fleet, perhaps with smaller, less expensive subs and carriers that can stand way over the horizon and send in drone warplanes? Or picket ships for missile defense off Korea and in the Mediterranean? What is the cost and what is the benefit? What is more important to national security: expanded ground forces or a bigger, modernized Navy (or Air Force)? These are the sort of questions that never get debated in a presidential election—but should be.

From Trafalgar in 1805 to Jutland in 1916—111 years—the British Navy did not fight a single major sea battle. It was an era of immense growth and stability in global trade and a time of relative peace and prosperity for the English-speaking peoples. The United States Navy has not fought a major sea battle since it defeated the Japanese at Leyte Gulf in 1944—some 64 years ago. The wisest goal for policy makers would be to keep that streak alive.