Bryan McGrath is a retired naval officer and the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. He is also the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.
There are many complex questions in modern life that, because of our simplicity, we tend to distill into elementary oppositions. Among these are nature v. nurture, fiscal v. monetary, and Lebron v. Michael.
Thousands of doctoral dissertations and the very existence of sports talk radio attest to the continuing preference for such comparisons, and in general, they provide a reasonable starting point for debate, informed and otherwise.
One such opposition is at the heart of the complex question of how large a Navy the United States needs, and its simplicity provides all manner of rhetorical refuge to those who dabble in Seapower and its relation to the strength of our Republic. The comparison is most often stated as “capacity v. capability,” but dispensing with the jargon, it breaks down to the size of a navy as measured by the number of battle-force ships it fields, versus an understanding of how various attributes of that navy (logistics, networks, precision guided munitions among them) combine to contribute to its overall combat power, numbers of ships playing only one role among many others.
The “capability” side of this argument seems to occupy the rhetorical high ground. Only a Luddite would ignore the impact of technology on naval force structure, a circumstance that provides the opportunity for a smaller, modern, navy to amass greater aggregate combat power than a larger, less capable force of the past. The seemingly self-evident nature of this argument reached its zenith during the 2012 Presidential election when Barack Obama sarcastically dismissed Mitt Romney’s call to increase the size of the U.S. Navy.
The capacity v. capability debate continued to rage during the second Obama term, as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (who wanted more ships) waged a bureaucratic guerrilla war against Defense Secretary Ash Carter—who was aided and abetted by Mabus’ former subordinate Bob Work. Work had risen from Under Secretary of the Navy to the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense and had steadfastly maintained that the shipbuilding budget should be decremented to provide additional resources to capability enhancements elsewhere in the Navy, including increased unit lethality, and electronic and cyber warfare upgrades.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 seemed to represent the high-water mark of the “capability” crowd, as Trump made a 350-ship Navy the centerpiece of his promise to increase America’s military power, an increase in size of 25% over the force he inherited. Painting in broad strokes due to the nature of political campaigns (and unfamiliarity with the subject), Trump avoided discussions of capability and fixed on a number.
Seven months into the Trump Administration, it appears that the President’s repeated pledge to build a 350-ship Navy is being abandoned in favor of the more nuanced “capability” approach. During his recent confirmation hearing, just-confirmed Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer specifically passed on the opportunity to reinforce the 350-ship goal, choosing instead to resort to the talking points of the “capability-over-capacity” argument, telling the Senate Armed Service Committee, “What I will tell you is that, whether it’s a 355-ship or not, what we also want to get our head around is, can we have a capacity number, but have a capability that’s even greater than that, so have the capability of a 355 that might be a 300-ship Navy.” Shortly thereafter, Chief of Naval Operations ADM John Richardson spoke to the “2017 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo” and also created space between himself and a specific number. Notably absent from President Trump’s recent remarks at the commissioning of the nation’s newest aircraft carrier (USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN 78)) was any mention of the 350-ship Navy. A potential reason for this distancing could be the ongoing strategic review underway in the Pentagon, a review that will likely generate bills across the Department of Defense. Given the considerable expense associated with a 25% increase in the size of the Navy, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is likely pushing not to be tied down to a specific number.
The lack of nuance and sophistication bound up in a simple numerical representation of naval power is both a blessing and a curse for those who believe “capacity” should be more highly weighted. Because of the Constitutional mandate to “provide and maintain a Navy,” Congress looks to the Executive Branch for input as to how it should do that. The technological sophistication and capital-intensive nature of providing and maintaining a modern Navy requires long term plans against which Congress (and the industrial base) must then allocate resources. Those plans take into consideration a broad national defense strategy, advances in technology, the nature of the threat to American interests, and investments in the fleet already made—as modern warships are designed for service lives of between 25 and 50 years.