The Best Defense

Disappointment in USNI's tendentious response to recent item on aircraft carriers

Last week some of you may have noticed that I posted an item criticizing Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute, for running an article by an admiral about how great carriers are, without taking note of all the arguments made recently by others about how carriers may be the battleships of the 21st century -- that is, looking quite powerful but actually being quite vulnerable, and incredibly expensive to build, equip, and operate.

On the day the item ran, Tuesday, I gave Proceedings's editor a heads-up about the item. Since then, I have received a series of complaints and accusations from the journal's publisher and from a retired admiral who is on the USNI board. I invited them to send along a response that I promised to post promptly. Instead, they escalated and started complaining to my editors. "Admiral Timothy J. Keating, USN (Ret.) is a director of the U.S. Naval Institute, and asked that we forward his letter to the editor based on his reaction to a recent Tom Ricks post on Best Defense," wrote Bill Miller, the publisher. "He submitted a comment to the original post that was not published, quite astonishing considering that Ricks railed about one-sided debates in that post." 

Two points here that long-time readers know are true:

  • I welcome dissenting responses, and run lots of them. Indeed, last week I repeatedly asked the USNI people to send me a response. They did not.
  • I have no control over comments on this blog, and don't want to. As I have said before, I am a First Amendment fundamentalist, and I also think that editing out offensive material only helps the offending parties look better. Thus I don't see comments before they are posted. I see them when you do.

Yet the USNI guys persist in believing and asserting that I somehow suppressed Admiral Keating's comment. Indeed, Admiral Keating this morning sent me an e-mail that seems to me to accuse me of quashing it and then lying about it: "We had no opportunity to respond in a timely fashion. I submitted my post within a day, as is reflected in the blog comment queue. You say you didn't receive my post. I would say that bears a closer look."

Normally I wouldn't mention all this behind the scenes wrangling, but Keating's questioning of my integrity pissed me off. I think he probably screwed up posting his comment and is now are trying to pin that on me. But even if he is technologically challenged, that shouldn't have been a problem, because last week I repeatedly asked Miller and his editor, Paul Merzlak, to send me Keating's comment. If Keating couldn't post it, I told them, I would. But they didn't send it.

Given this experience, my opinion of Proceedings continues to decline. And yes, they are welcome to respond to this. They have my e-mail address if they need help.

U.S. Navy

The Best Defense

A view from the high seas: The Navy is now more important than other services because it provides unfettered presence

By Lieutenant Doug Robb, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist

The shifting strategic focus of the United States, alternately referred to as a "pivot" or "rebalance," has crystalized a debate among our national leadership about how the military can and should achieve its security goals in the coming years. At the operational and tactical levels, it is irrefutable that we must have an adequate number of highly-capable warships -- and a sophisticated logistics system to support them -- operating forward and ready for tasking to maintain the timely, efficient, and metered response to which we have become accustomed.

Ships and their capabilities are tools ("means" in military parlance) used to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives ("ends"). However, they differ from other military hardware because a constant naval presence -- simply "being there" -- has characteristics of both ends and means. As a result, the "one-third, one-third, one-third" budget allocations traditionally apportioned among the service branches simply will not achieve current or future security goals. Policymakers should recognize not only the immense payoff that naval forces provide, but how they can strengthen America's security prospects in the years to come.

However, the debate about the size and capability of the U.S. Navy must not narrowly view ships as "means" to a tactical "end." Rather, it should acknowledge that the routine non-wartime presence Navy ships maintain is an end itself -- one that delivers tangible benefit to American security, influence, and responsiveness unmatched by any other service or platform.

Unique to the Navy's routine presence mission is the ability to provide these security requirements in near real-time without the requirement of a host country. Naval forces are inherently different from Army garrisoned forces because, while long-term land occupations risk undermining security objectives, a strong naval presence can reinforce them. Maritime forces require no diplomatic approval to operate in international waters; they do not force domestic or foreign leaders to expend political capital in order to place troops within striking distance of hot spots; they do not put allies in awkward positions by asking them to house U.S. forces when the local population may be averse to such presence.

Conversely, large garrisoned forces require policymakers in both the United States and in the forward-deployed country to make decisions that could weaken broader security goals. For example, an augmented American ground presence in Germany or Poland would surely increase regional tensions already stoked by the crisis in Crimea. Moreover, it would be difficult for military strategists to argue that placing such forces in Europe would help the outlook in the Pacific, where our security focus will be for the foreseeable future.

The ship on which I serve, the USS Kidd (DDG 100), illustrates the value routine naval presence provides. Kidd recently concluded its 10-day search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; this journey took the ship from the Gulf of Thailand to the Java Sea, through the Singapore Strait and Strait of Malacca, past the Andaman Sea and on to the Bay of Bengal at the northern edge of the Indian Ocean. In total, Kidd transited more than 3,500 nautical miles conducting visual and radar searches; its two MH-60R helicopters used state-of-the-art sensors to comb nearly 15,000 square nautical miles during round-the-clock sorties.

While some may claim it was "luck" that Kidd and Pinckney (DDG 91), which also participated in the operation, were able to respond to this tragedy so quickly, this timely reaction was made possible only by the U.S. Navy's continued and persistent presence in the Indo-Asian region. Kidd was conducting routine operations in the South China Sea -- only a one-day transit from the initial search location. "Luck," said Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson, "is the residue of design."

The U.S. Navy's presence in neighboring waters permitted a rapid response to the search effort for the missing jetliner without the cost that would result from deploying a San Diego or Pearl Harbor-based ship. Conversely, a deployment announced specifically for the Flight 370 search might have sent a potentially negative signal to the Malaysians that the U.S. distrusted their search process.

Moreover, the transit time (no less than three weeks) would have limited the value of the U.S. contribution. This same logic applies to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or any other situation in which tensions rise and threaten free access to waterways essential to U.S. economic and security interests. Deploying to these areas after an event occurs or tensions flare -- especially when American naval presence has historically not been routine -- can limit the efficacy of response and might well raise the very apprehensions the Navy's presence was meant to quell.

The Navy is omnipresent in every major geographic area around the world. The very presence of naval ships simultaneously deters military aggression and assures our allies, safeguards the sea lanes and the commerce that flows through them, preserves territorial waterway boundaries and the right to resources contained therein, and facilitates a response to natural disasters and other catastrophes -- like the disappearance of MH370. In this case, showing up is well more than half the battle.

The U.S. Navy's resilience can only endure with the understanding that a firm commitment to building and maintaining a first-rate Navy -- capable of being present where our national interests lie -- is not only desirable, it is necessary. This commitment is a policy prerequisite if the United States -- a maritime nation whose interests have been safeguarded by the Navy since the country's founding -- wants to retain the ability to influence outcomes, create additional windows of diplomacy, and control escalation.

Lieutenant Robb holds graduate degrees in security studies from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and the U.S. Naval War College. He currently serves as the operations officer of the USS Kidd (DDG 100) on deployment in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are his alone.

U.S. Navy