The year 2022 was an underreported but brutal one for the US Navy. The service is in crisis. Retention issues, an aging fleet, the revelation of several command failures, and a blunt inability to articulate its strategic mission in an increasingly hostile bureaucratic environment bode ill for the navy’s ability to meet American strategic needs.
As the US faces a potential Indo-Pacific war that could spiral into a Eurasian conflagration, revitalizing the navy’s command culture and strategic thought is vital to American interests.
The roots of American naval atrophy run deep, far deeper than even the Cold War’s conclusion. American political culture ironically militates against naval power. In the context of Eurasia, the US is a maritime nation.
The nation’s founders understood this, and thereby authorized within the constitution the maintenance of a navy without restriction, as opposed to the stringent limitations placed on peacetime ground forces. However, strategic conditions did not bring naval power to the fore until the early 20th century.
The US Navy played a vital role in preserving American access to Eurasian markets, from policing the Barbary Coast to securing Anglo-American trade routes alongside the Royal Navy in the Indo-Pacific. But until 1898, America’s wars were land wars, either of continental expansion or civil pacification.
The Civil War
During the American Civil War, the Federal and Confederate Armies engaged in land battles that resembled European warfare in scale. Nearly 200,000 men fought at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, making each engagement similar in size to Waterloo or Austerlitz.
But there was no great sea fight, no fleet action akin to Horatio Nelson’s victories at the Nile or Trafalgar. Rather, the naval war was attritional and logistical, with Confederate commerce raiders and blockade runners pressing the Federal Navy’s blockade, while Union ships supported amphibious assaults along the Confederate coastline.
The navy played a crucial role in the Union’s victory. Without it, the Confederacy would have received far greater supply from the European powers, seeing no risk in opposing a United States incapable of policing the North Atlantic. Yet after 1865, the US reoriented toward continental expansion once again, de-emphasizing naval power.
Even the American relationship to significant naval power is unique. The US has maintained a world-class navy since the late 19th century, and since 1945 has maintained the world’s most powerful combat fleet. This navy defeated Spain in a major fleet action, imposed its will on the German U-Boat threat twice, facilitated an amphibious invasion of Europe, and defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Nevertheless, the United States is an industrial-agrarian power, a unique hybrid of continental traditions. The American founders understood the role of maritime power in the national interest largely because they were northeastern Anglophiles, not southern agrarians.
This article originally appeared in the Asia Times.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.