Can the US Navy fight and win a war?

Writing in The Hill last week, Steve Cohen asked “Is the US Navy totally at sea?” But a more worrying question is whether the U.S. Navy is fit and prepared for a conflict with an adversary that is at least as well equipped and armed as it is.

Of course, the same question can be asked of the other services — the Army, Air Force and Marines. The difference is that those services have been to war several times since 1945 because those conflicts were waged on and over the land and not at sea. The last big battle the Navy fought was the invasion of Okinawa in mid-1945

The Navy was engaged in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq twice. But units going in harm’s way were largely naval aviation, SEALs, the Seabees (Naval construction battalions) and a few sailors like me who fought in brown and green waters and not major sea battles reminiscent of Jutland and Midway. During the Cold War, U.S. submarines played a potentially deadly cat and mouse game with their Soviet opposite numbers. But no admirals commanded fleets battling other fleets.

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Today, China and Russia have been modernizing their forces. The Trump National Defense Strategy focused on preventing a fait accompli — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and Russia marching on the Baltic states. Currently, the media is abuzz with speculation about whether the U.S. military could prevent a Chinese takeover of the island regardless of whether the U.S. would go to war over Taiwan, even though the likelihood of that contingency arising is low.

The devastating fire in the USS Bonhomme Richard and the subsequent scathing investigation report again raise profound questions about naval competence. If the Navy is not prepared to fight a fire in a major warship, is it fit to fight a major war? Many will reject that comparison as this was only one of some 290 combatants. Yet, that possibility should not be rejected without further examination. 

The Readiness Review, conducted for Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after the 2017 collisions, and his cyber study were searing critiques.  The first identified cultural problems, many that still have not been corrected. The second concluded that China posed “an existential threat” to the Navy and Marines. So, what has happened since? 

Junior officers (lieutenant commanders and below) across the Navy complain about the decline in leadership, readiness and morale. Much of this is anecdotal and understandable. But is anyone in the senior ranks listening?  

Cyber vulnerability applies to everyone, and much is highly classified. But given the number of hacks and penetrations of the Defense Department, despite claims that cyber is being taken very seriously, it is not clear that the Navy (or other services) have done that.

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Compounding these troubling symptoms is another danger: the defense budget. While the U.S. is spending more in real and relative terms than under the Reagan buildup, the force is growing smaller. The Pentagon has not had an approved budget in years and functions on continuing resolutions that hinder its ability to plan sensibly or make efficient use of resources. Just as bad, annual defense costs are rising in real terms at about 5 -7 percent, meaning that unless they are controlled, budgets must increase by at least the same amount just to stay even.  

What should be done? In the old days, all naval combatant units were given tough operational readiness inspections, risk aversion was not quite such an imperative and veterans of World War II and to some degree Korea passed on their wartime experiences to future generations.

Today, none of those conditions exists. That's because of how culture and society have changed; because micromanagement has been forced onto the services for bureaucratic, political and regulatory reasons; and because the Navy has not fought a major war in eight decades.

Clearly, nothing can be done about the last unless naval education is drastically revised to focus more on tactical, operational and strategic matters to develop requisite critical thinking and analytical skills. Just as smart people have annual physicals, the Navy should have an annual review.

On an unannounced basis, units, including fleets, should be tested in readiness for all combat operations and commands given the authority to build on strengths and correct weaknesses and flaws. 

Hopefully, the Navy will not have to fight another war. But if it does, is it fit and will it win? Without a top-to-bottom critical examination, that question remains unanswerable. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out in December, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”