Saturday, March 11, 2006

First was Robert Kaplan's over-the-top " War with China" piece in The Atlantic that sparked Thomas P.M. Barnett's infamously caustic rebuttal ( with Curzon and I exchanging supporting fire ). Now Ralph Peters has his own " Navy" piece entitled "Waters of wealth and war " in The Armed Forces Journal. An excerpt:

"As you read these lines, nearly 20 million shipping containers are underway around the globe — carried by fewer than 4,000 hulls. The explosion of transoceanic trade simultaneously has made that commerce more vulnerable, not only in the obvious sense that economies have grown more interdependent, but also because, even as the volume of shipped goods increased, the number of significant cargo carriers plummeted — because of the increasing size of commercial vessels, from supertankers to container ships. Far fewer transports ply the seas today than a century ago; the sinking, seizure or blockading of a small portion of the international merchant fleet could bring high-end economies to a standstill. While our Navy — the most powerful and skilled in history — focuses on grand fleet actions (or their postmodern, dispersed equivalent), the strategic weak link across the globe is trade.

This is nowhere more evident than in the greater Indian Ocean (GIO), on whose shores lie great potential wealth and incomparable poverty, along with multiple immediate and potential clashes of civilizations, cultures and minorities. Here, the world’s great religions confront each other; systems of government challenge one another; social systems conflict; and the world’s two most powerful states, the United States and China, find themselves in a competition for resources and allies that Beijing, at least, views as a zero-sum game.

And no waters are so vulnerable."

I'm not questioning Peters facts or argument here, I'll leave that to others to dissect, but I'm curious if this emerging Neo-Mahanist perspective is as relevant today at the start of the twenty-first century as it was at the close of the nineteenth?

I am no opponent of a large and versatile U.S. Navy. Back in the day when the Soviets had ambitions for a global power projection, I admired the Reagan administration's plan for a 500 Ship Navy and thought that the first Bush administration's eliminating the Iowa class battleships from active duty removed a useful arrow from the American quiver ( In fact, I still do; the battleship is a " Leviathan in the Gap" ship if there ever was one). Credibility of American military deterrence, both conventional and nuclear, rests on the expectation of ally and foe alike that the U.S. Navy can show up anywhere and be the hammer of the American Leviathan, from the Arctic circle to the East African coast.

But spatially speaking, isn't much of the security problem Peters describes here highly, highly, localized to a few choke points where geography and dysfunctional governance coincide ? How will the energy lifelines that China seeks to secure today look in a quarter century when natural gas and most likely, a resurgent nuclear power industry, change the global energy market profile ? Is the security problem in this region answered by massive ( physically and and in terms of investment) naval platforms or nimble littoral/amphibious assault forces, robust HUMINT and SIGINT penetration or even - looking ahead - legions of robotic naval UAV equivalents ?

There's more here to the geostrategic picture than is dreamt of PACOM's philosophy.


Younghusband's Mahan vs. Corbett

Eddie's post on The Shipbuilding Fantasy of the Navy
This article is just another add-on to his "Hidden Unities" essay (from 2003?), where he outlined in detail his view of the great potential for trade, security and alliance in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere (seemingly an enlarged version of the "Anglosphere" argument with some notable exceptions like Iran, Thailand and Brazil added in for good measure) in general (something he's continued since in other essays and also in his "New Glory" book). It does not seem to be a call for more ships and/or larger, more powerful ships.

Indeed, Peters has been scathing in debates, columns and speeches about the money the Navy's been wasting on what he views as Cold-War era ships (like the nuclear subs the QDR recently endorsed buying more of) and poorly designed 21st century models (like the LCS). The Navy's spending more, not spending smart.

Its worth noting that whereas in the past Peters would always discount war with China as doubtful because of China's internal problems, he seems to be mentioning it more often in articles like this and the "Counterrevolution in Military Affairs" piece earlier this year.

Whereas in the latter, he was warning Americans of not seriously considering what a war with China would entail in blood and treasure, the former seems to consider control of the GIO as tantamount to all but a victory in such a conflict, though like Kaplan, he labels it unlikely but yet devotes half the article to talking about it.

Its sad he didn't mention the possible greatest benefit of the growing piracy threat, which is the growing support role the US Navy plays in training and advising SE Asian nations and navies (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore) in how to deal with it and the possibility of naval cooperation between China and America on the issue.

An interesting question from this article is: how many of us agree with Peters' assessment of the GIO as arguably a more important theater (in military, political and economic terms) than the Pacific?
(here is a pathetic attempt to carry on an intelligent conversation about this with people far more knowledgable than I)

- The problems Peters describes are indeed highly localized (Straits of Hormuz, Malacca, Horn Of Africa) and would be best solved by mil-mil cooperation, training and patrols with America and the various nations in these locations. Often, the US Navy stays out of the way (as with the Straits of Malacca patrols conducted by local nations) and just offers training and logistics help.
Thanks Eddie - I was hoping that you would comment here.

And the seawolf really is a ( very expensive) sub in search of a mission. (We should kill a few of the order and buy us some more units of the Marines).

Unless the " mission" is providing jobs in certain Congressional districts. That it does well.
Of course our zillion-dollar Navy is wonderful. Makes my heart beat faster every time I see the ships pass by!

But it is only possible so long as the Asian & OPEC nations continue to lend us the money to build and maintain it.

Perhaps we could build them with mortages from China.

Perhaps they might let us build them in exchange for branding rights -- "This carrier provided courtesy of China Telecom Corp!"

The financial damage inflicted on us by borrowing to maintain our forces perhaps exceeds the damage they'll ever do to any serious enemy.

More on this in Chapters 4 and 5 of my series on Grand Strategy, coming soon.
Hi Fabius,

"But it is only possible so long as the Asian & OPEC nations continue to lend us the money to build and maintain it."

Not quite true. This is a political and not an economic choice here. We elect to borrow rather than tax. We are not forced to borrow due to a lack of potential revenue to tax.

Longitudinally this represents a gamble on the cumulative effects of real GDP growth rates coupled with currency depreciation to make the debt tolerable relative to frontloading the cost in the former of higher taxes on dollars that are more valuable today than they will be in two decades.

Secondly, Asia and OPEC are not holding dollars and T-Bills out of either loyalty or friendship but out of economic self-interest. They have their own economic and structural problems for which dollars as a reserve currency make sense as an insurance policy and hedge. Politics is not a primary driver here - China and the U.S. are shackled by " golden handcuffs" for which they have lost the key. Getting free requires lopping off a hand which either side will only do in extremis.

" Perhaps we could build them with mortages from China."

In effect, as budget expenditures and sovereign debt are fungible notions, we are.
You're right. But consider this thought experiment:

Slash GDP by 4% due to reduced consumer spending (a cut of aprox 6%). And balance the budget by tax increase of aprox 3-4% of GDP (e.g., boosting income taxes by aprox 15%).

Result (unless done over a long period): instant severe recession. But the $1 Trillion current accout deficit goes away, and we still have our massive military.

Recruiting will even be easier with all those unemployed!

Incuring debt is fun, and the way we're borrowing, it is forever. Until the gravy train stops.

Agreed that nobody lends to us except for their own reasons. Neither does Household Finance nor the Mafia lend for platonic reasons. But none of that changes the deadly effect of excessive debt.

Nobody has ever tried this "gamble" (nicely appropriate word) on such a scale. Only the insane would try. Or those drunk with hubris.

Let's enjoy the pretty ships. Somehow, sometime, the bill will come due.
Glad to be able to comment productively for once, but I have a lot to learn about Mahan and Corbett and other sea strategists (as I know next to nothing about them other than cursory reads in a few books and on here & CA).

Let's hope the Navy comes to its senses on these outrageous projects and budget priorities, but I doubt it. They're drinking the Kool-Aid, check out the new uniforms for sailors and you'll see what I mean.
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