The recent resignation of Chuck Hagel as US defense secretary is a sign of the times. During his short, unglamorous tenure as the Obama administration’s defense chief, Hagel had become a symbol of the White House’s failed foreign and defense policies.
His principal purpose was to oversee and promote the administration’s defense budget cuts and larger retreat from global military responsibility. And when global events — to say nothing of the congressional midterms — did not comport with the administration’s vision, Hagel was the leading casualty.
In the wake of Hagel’s resignation, attention rightly focused on possible replacements with former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter emerging as the White House’s nominee. So far, however, little attention is being paid to the job that the next defense secretary must do, and the retreat that he will be forced to reverse.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the domain of US maritime power. While defense secretary, Hagel took considerable liberties with the truth when he stated that even with naval budget cuts and the mothballing of the aircraft carrier George Washington, America would still have a 10-carrier complement. This is correct only in the most technical and tortured ways; US naval power is unmistakably in retreat, a situation made worse by the administration’s heavy-handed, top-down approach to defense austerity.
Further, America does not field its entire fleet. Rather, the usual state of affairs is to have one-third of the fleet on station, another third en route to relieve active duty ships and a final third in maintenance. Under these circumstances, the US is attempting to create global stability with just three carriers on station — a task that is both impossible and dangerous.
The global system is dependent on the preservation of open and safe waterways. This task ranges from keeping waterways free of pirates, aiding in water-based disasters, acting as a deterrent to regional naval warfare, all the way to forestalling a great power naval conflict. And for the moment, the only nation whose existing seapower can accomplish these global tasks is the United States. It is a challenge that Congress must now take up.
It is not often remembered that one of the first strategic battles fought by the office of the presidency and the Congress was over the issue of the American Navy. Early questions about whether to have a navy at all, and whether to have a large one, defined conflict not only between the presidency and the legislature, but between factions in the House and Senate for decades.
It was John Adams who fought to create a US Navy, knowing the danger to the new republic of not having an effective one. His anti-federalist rival and friend, Thomas Jefferson, would subsequently use that small Navy to great effect against the terrorists of the 19th century: the Barbary pirates.
Since that time, naval power has enjoyed pride of place in American strategy. In the 1890s, a small group of military, strategic and philosophical leaders began preaching a new religion of destiny, geopolitics, diplomacy and power projection. The most prominent among them was Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose “Influence of Sea Power upon History” laid out the intellectual argument for hegemony through naval dominance.
His ideas were translated into action by President Theodore Roosevelt, whose heavy investments in America’s maritime force-projection capabilities contributed greatly to the emergence of Pax Americana.
During its time in office, the Obama administration has questioned this paradigm. With Hagel as the implementer, the White House has worked to draw down America’s naval power, including its most visible manifestation: the carrier task force. Current administration plans, which by all accounts will survive Hagel’s departure, call for reducing American carrier strength to as few as eight, with potentially dire effects for international stability.
The American carrier fleet is seen by many as the ultimate offensive platform to project power. It is also the greatest tool for stability in the international system, granting the United States multiple strategic alternatives in the face of global conflict. It gives dictator, terrorist, pirate and criminal alike great pause knowing that the United States patrols the blue ocean with what the US Navy likes to call “4.5 acres of sovereign and mobile American territory.”
Restoring that strength to its former pride of place should be a top priority of the next defense secretary.