The Hudson Center for American Sea Power: An Interview with Bryan McGrath

Ryan Evans: Bryan, later this week, you are launching the Center for American Sea Power at the Hudson Institute with Seth Cropsey. Why does Washington need a center focused explicitly on sea power? What do you hope to accomplish? 

Bryan McGrath: It seems clear that we as a nation have begun a journey down the road to what the Brits call “sea blindness,” which some describe as an inability to appreciate the central role the oceans and naval power have played in securing our strategic security and economic prosperity.  The prevailing national security consensus that has ruled our nation’s security policy for decades appears to be breaking down, and there is a growing bi-partisan indifference to the great benefits our country enjoys as a result of being the world’s pre-eminent maritime power.  History indicates that once a nation decides that being a sea power is unimportant, they are unlikely to regain the status.  The Hudson Center for American Sea Power will take an active role in spurring a productive national debate aimed at reversing the decay of American sea power.

Ryan EvansFor the first time in quite awhile, sea power – and the size of our Navy in particular – became an issue in the last national election cycle.  Governor Romney and Obama both took positions on the size and shape of America’s navy and it even came up in one of the debates.  When Governor Romney criticized President Obama for the size of our navy, the president’s response was:

You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.  We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. It’s not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s “What are our capabilities?”

Are our capabilities sufficient? 

Bryan McGrathI believe the President was wrong; it isn’t only “what are our capabilities?”, but “do we have sufficient force structure with those capabilities to support our national interests?”  Clearly, the networked, precise force we operate today represents greater combat power than an equal number of WWI ships, or WWII ships, or even Cold War ships.  But the size of our Navy cannot be arrived at as some kind of mathematical sum of the number of ships required to execute formal war plans.  Much of what our Navy does is conventional deterrence, and while networks and precision weapons are essential and decisive when the shooting starts, when it comes to deterring mischief, numbers matter.  Additionally, when it comes to being able to swiftly demonstrate U.S. resolve, forces on station (a function of the total size of the force) matter.  I think it is clear that we saw this in Libya, where there was a shortage of Naval power projection forces at the start of that conflict, and more recently in Syria, where available naval forces were also insufficient for anything other than a “message” strike.

Our capabilities are not the question; our capacity is.

Ryan EvansIs this simply a question of the U.S. Navy getting a bigger slice of the shrinking defense budget pie? 

Bryan McGrathI would be guilty of considerable dishonesty if I did not believe the Navy can justifiably make claim to a greater “share” of the DoD budget.  My belief is however, based on solid, strategic underpinnings, the reality of two wars drawing down, the fact that the nation’s interests are globally distributed and the fact that the globe isn’t getting any smaller or less dangerous.  So if you’re asking if the Hudson Center for American Sea Power (HCAS)  is “simply” about a larger budget share for the Navy, I would say no, it is not simply about that.  It is logical to assume however, that if HCAS is even moderately successful in its endeavors, we would see additional money flow logically to the Navy and Marine Corps.

Ryan EvansWe’ve seen considerable neglect of sea power in the think tank sector for more than a decade now.  Is this just because we’ve been fighting to major land wars or is there something else behind it? 

I think there are two reasons.  The first is what you point to, that we have been rather busy with land conflict since 9-11.  Land conflict in general and counterinsurgency in particular were where the action was.  I think the second reason is that sea power is a much more difficult concept to write and think about.  I realize that sounds insulting to land power, but I mean it only from the perspective of the ability of the average American to innately grasp the benefit.  Land power strategists and theorists have a decidedly easier row to hoe, as I think Americans “get” land conflict, and I think they “get” having forces in readiness to pursue land conflict.  I’m not sure the average American is as savvy about the strategic benefits of sea power.  When former Secretary of Defense Gates used to (unhelpfully) opine in public about the size of the US Navy vs. the next umpteen navies in the world, the average American would think “gee, our Navy must be too big.”  What’s missing there is the strategic understanding (both from the Secretary and the public) that the REASON other nations don’t build powerful navies is that they don’t need to, and shouldn’t want to.  Our investments in sea power help protect and sustain our position of advantage in the global system, while at the same time influencing others that 1) we are providing security and they need not buy their own or 2) the investment necessary to challenge that advantage is extreme.  My view is that this equation is getting out of balance, as our Navy gets smaller and is perceived as less powerful.  This is when other nations will build, and this is when the security environment (from which we prosper handsomely) will change in ways unfavorable to our interests.

Ryan EvansWhat sort of programming can we expect to see from the Hudson Center for American Sea Power? What are the big looming issues you plan to tackle in this new role? 

Bryan McGrathThe Center will

  • work to define the proper aims of American seapower and articulate its use to ensure America’s continued standing as the world’s dominant maritime power.
  • offer policy and positions that advocate for American seapower.
  • assist scholars and naval strategists through grants and other means of financial support.
  • provide expert witnesses to Congress and commentary to the American people on the value of robust American seapower.
  • collaborate with other national and international organizations devoted to the advancement of American seapower.
  • conduct forums and other public events designed to raise issues of importance for the electorate and their representatives.

The Center will offer analysis of important national security issues.  It will hold conferences and workshops that draw attention to the undebated and overlooked linkage between the Navy’s size, shape, and missions on the one hand, and the U.S.’s ability to anticipate and respond to the changing strategic environment on the other. It will question basic assumptions of defense organization, the size and distribution of defense budgets, and the design of freedom’s seagoing arsenal as well as how best to balance the multiplying and often conflicting national requirements for power at and from the sea.  These events as well as occasional papers will place the question of America’s future as a sea power within the broader frame of the nation’s security and its ability to retain and increase global military pre-eminence.  Our objectives are: to inform the public by stimulating a national debate where none currently exists; to provide a catalyst for discussion of the current as well as alternative maritime strategies that seek greater international cooperation while retaining the pre-eminence on which such cooperative arrangements ultimately rest; to demonstrate how the U.S. and global strategic landscape is likely to be altered by a substantial loss of American naval dominance; and to reverse the decline in American sea power.

The chief issues we plan to tackle are the development of compelling strategic narratives for more robust American sea power and the provision of information crucial to influential individuals and groups both in Washington and around the country.  Additionally, we look to spur interest among young academics in the study of naval and maritime strategy.

Sign up to attend the Center for American Sea Power’s inaugural event here


Photo Credit: U.S. Navy. This painting, entitled “Naval Aviation’s Future,” was created for the cover of the Naval Aviation Vision document by Chris Jantsch.  The painting itself is acrylic on canvas, 24″ by 36″ in size, and is now on display in the offices of the Director, Air Warfare (CNO, N78) in the Pentagon.