Rebuilding a Navy that Can Go in Harm’s Way

The U.S. Navy has suffered two decades of static, sub-minimal fleet development in a dynamic world of rising threats. The post-Cold war era ended long ago. We are now in another interwar period more akin to the 1930s. But America can meet the challenge. If it could mobilize then, it can do so again given the vast expansion in national wealth and resources since then. There is no reason the United States of the 21st century cannot match or exceed what it achieved in the 20th century. Only this time, it should not have to suffer the death and destruction of the early years of World War II. What Trump has said about the challenge of nuclear proliferation applies with equal validity to naval affairs, “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” That is how we will keep America great.

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By William R. Hawkins l January 25, 2017

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Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz as it passes the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor

During the night of November 12-13, 1942, the Japanese launched a major effort to reinforce their forces on Guadalcanal and to bombard Henderson Field, the airbase from which a motley assembly of U.S. Navy, Marine and Army aircraft (known as the Cactus Air Force) controlled the sea around the island during daylight. The bombardment force consisted of two battleships escorted by a light cruiser and 11 destroyers armed with deadly “long lance” torpedoes. A dozen more destroyers escorted a convoy of transports carrying 7,000 Japanese troops.

We knew another run of the “Tokyo Express” was coming. Two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and 8 destroyers were sent out to intercept the bombardment force. They would be outgunned, but they were all we had. It was common in the early days of the war for the U.S. to fight at a disadvantage. For most of the interwar period, the U.S. had not built enough warships to even reach the limits set by arms control treaties agreed to after the First World War. The Japanese, in contrast, had cheated on the agreements and then renounced them after 1935. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor further shifted the fleet balance in Tokyo’s favor.

The rival task forces met at close range. For those who have seen the excellent John Wayne-Kirk Douglas movie “In Harm’s Way” (based on the novel by James E. Bassett), the battle at the end of that film was loosely based on this engagement. Japan lost one battleship, crippled in the battle and then sunk the next day by airstrikes from Henderson, and two destroyers. But our navy was mauled. Two light cruisers and three destroyers were sunk, with the other four cruisers badly damaged. Both American admirals with the task force were killed. Yet, their sacrifice compelled the Japanese to turn back and not attack the airfield. The Japanese, however, still had plenty of warships in the area, and when a cruiser squadron was sent “down the slot” the next night, there were no American surface ships left to oppose them.

The Japanese decided to make a major effort to destroy Henderson with naval gunfire the next night. A battleship, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 8 destroyers were sent into action, expecting no resistance. But they got a surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, the new battleships Washington and South Dakota (far more powerful than anything the enemy had) arrived under the command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee (a descendant of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee). The Japanese battleship Kirishima was hit by 50 shells and sank. The Japanese turned tail, with Washington and Lee in hot pursuit. The Japanese never tried such a naval assault again and eventually withdrew their forces from Guadalcanal.

The two battleships that arrived just in the nick of time to save the first U.S. island invasion of the Pacific War were laid down in 1938 and 1939; years before the war started. But it takes a long time to build a capital ship. That is why naval strength must be built and maintained during peacetime. It is too late to wait until a war breaks out to get ready to fight. And, certainly, there is no deterrent from a “fleet in being” that really isn’t there.

The Naval Act of 1938 authorized a 20% increase in the size of the fleet. This act was called The Second Vinson Act after Rep. Carl Vinson (D-GA) chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. More shipbuilding bills were passed, and by July 1940 some 80 warships were under construction. And that month yet another naval expansion bill was passed calling for eleven more battleships, eleven carriers, fifty cruisers and 100 destroyers. These were the ships that would enter combat in 1943 and 1944 to crush the Japanese fleet (as well as rout the German U-boats). At its lowest point in late 1942, the USN had only one aircraft carrier left in action, the famous Enterprise. Two years later, it could deploy 20 carriers off the Philippines. The first of the new Essex-class carriers that would lead this vast armada was authorized in 1938, the same year the iconic B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bomber entered service.

Today, the Navy has an aircraft carrier named for Vinson and history has a lesson for us

Vinson had been pressing for a naval buildup for years, but his previous attempts in 1934 and 1936 did not receive the requisite funding. In 1938, events both foreign and domestic put the needed political clout behind the effort. In 1936-37, the economy took another tumble, losing much of the gains made during the recovery from the depths of the Great Depression. The economy needed a stimulus and the United States needed to rebuild its military as the world headed into more perilous times. In 1937, Japan had launched a full scale invasion of China and in 1938 Adolf Hitler had scared Britain and France into abandoning Czechoslovakia.

Today, it is China that is on the offensive with its expanding territorial claims backed by a military buildup along the Pacific Rim. And Vladimir Putin scared President Barack Obama out of Syria. Despite a decade of rising tensions and combat operations, American military forces have been declining in number and readiness, and major combat systems are literally falling apart due to old age. This is particularly true for the Navy, as evidenced by the fact that there is presently no aircraft carrier deployed in the Middle East (though one did leave its port in Norfolk, Virginia the day after President Trump’s Inauguration January 21 to head for that region)! Numbers matter and the fleet just doesn’t have the numbers needed to defend America’s interests around the world.

In 2001, the Navy set a goal of a 310-ship fleet. Last March, the Navy announced the latest update to its 30-year shipbuilding plan: a 308-ship fleet. The reduction of two ships is significant since one of the “missing” units is an aircraft carrier. The 2001 plan called for 12 carriers. President Reagan had 15 in his fleet (with its goal of 600 ships), but this was cut to 12 during the Clinton years, and then reduced to 11 in 2007 by a Congress looking for budget cuts. Currently, only 10 are in service due to the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2013 without a replacement being ready.

Yet, the world has changed dramatically since 2001. And the rise of terrorism is the least of the rising dangers. Russia, China, and Iran are all on the move and others will be encouraged by the gains they have made. The Navy has always been our first line of defense and our most visible tool of power projection. This is why it is so important to take note of another campaign promise of President Donald Trump; a roughly 27% increase in the Navy, expanding the fleet to 350 ships from its current 274 (a number that does not even meet current goals and is substantially smaller than in 1938). The industrial supply chain for naval shipbuilding spreads across the country, so a fleet expansion will give a fiscal boost to an economy in the doldrums.

Shortly after Trump’s election, the Navy issued a new Force Structure Assessment calling for a fleet of 355 ships, including a dozen aircraft carriers. The document noted that “the global security environment [has] changed significantly, with our potential adversaries developing capabilities that undermine our traditional military strengths and erode our technological advantages.” Apparently, the projected change in administrations emboldened Navy leaders to state their real needs.

China poses a greater potential threat than did imperial Japan

Beijing has already created the world’s largest shipbuilding industry. Though most work is on commercial vessels, China is now building more surface warships and submarines each year than is the U.S. And, it has started construction of aircraft carriers. America still has the lead in technology, but China is learning quickly from knowledge gained through trade and espionage. Beijing’s geographical advantage must be considered as well. China can deploy its entire fleet in Asia, as Japan did; whereas, due to its global commitments, the U.S. is only planning to deploy 60% of its fleet to the Western Pacific.

The U.S. Navy has suffered two decades of static, sub-minimal fleet development in a dynamic world of rising threats. The post-Cold war era ended long ago. We are now in another interwar period more akin to the 1930s. But America can meet the challenge. If it could mobilize then, it can do so again given the vast expansion in national wealth and resources since. There is no reason the United States of the 21st century cannot match or exceed what it achieved in the 20th century. Only this time, it should not have to suffer the death and destruction of the early years of World War II.

What Trump has said about the challenge of nuclear proliferation applies with equal validity to naval affairs, “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” That is how we will keep America great.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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