The Paradox of American Naval Power


The U.S. Navy’s ability to provide the president with a variety of timely regional response options is its marquee contribution to American military strategy. But has its reliability and readiness become a detriment to the greater strategic ends of readiness to deter and conduct great power war?


Faced with the prospect of a humanitarian nightmare (at best) and genocide (at worst) in northern Iraq, President Barack Obama made the correct decision last week to initiate a limited intervention, including an air drop of food and water to Yazidi refugees and of ordnance on their oppressors, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The combat power behind the latter operation came initially from the air wing of the USS George H.W. Bush the centerpiece of the nation’s on-call naval presence in the Arabian Gulf. For decades, the Navy has operated at least one aircraft carrier strike group in or near the Arabian Gulf, in addition to various other elements of naval power including cruise missile submarines and amphibious forces for delivering the U.S. Marine Corps’ own particular brand of combat power. When tensions rise in the region, a second carrier strike group is routinely deployed, straining already thinly arrayed assets.

These forward deployed naval forces—as the strikes on ISIL have highlighted—provide the president with a variety of response options to regional crises, both military and humanitarian. The 2013 earthquake in the Philippines demonstrated this equally well, as the U.S. Navy was able to sortie over a dozen ships to participate in the humanitarian relief effort within days. The reliability of on-call naval forces has achieved an almost “background music” quality in national security circles, with the trite cliché that presidents always ask, “Where are the carriers?” when the excrement hits the oscillating unit having achieved widespread recognition.

The Navy is seemingly able to respond to whatever it is asked to do. This is a particular point of pride within the service, and the “can-do” spirit (certainly not peculiar to the Navy) means that whatever must be done, will be done, to meet the president’s requirements. It is not difficult to imagine that this readiness and availability is quite comforting to U.S. presidents. It does, however, present us with a potential paradox: Since the Navy seems to be able to respond whenever and wherever it is needed, it must be adequately sized, and even possibly, too big. There is a certain rationality to this view, as long as one views the Navy simply as a crisis response force. And while this is the predominant mode d’emploi of the Navy in peacetime, its wartime value slips further from the discussion and its readiness for high-end warfighting declines in comparison to its potential adversaries. This is the state of things today, although as recent events have shown, the Navy’s ability to respond even to regional crises has declined.

The Navy We Need Versus the Navy We Can Afford

Each year, Navy officials troop to Capitol Hill to perform the dance of “defending the president’s budget.” Irrespective of party, this kabuki represents the tail end of a process that begins with the Office of Management and Budget providing financial controls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), who then further subdivides them among various claimants, including the Department of the Navy. The Navy then attempts to capture higher strategic guidance in its program within the budget constraints provided. This ultimately results in what can be referred to as “The Navy We Can Afford,” or that amount of naval power that can be organized, trained, equipped, procured, manned, and sustained within the budget controls that the Navy is given. I am not aware of a parallel process that would try to paint a picture of “The Navy We Need.” This process would start with the strategic guidance and then plan a Navy that best captures a realistic appraisal of the Navy’s contribution thereto, in a resource unconstrained manner. This strategically based view would then be costed and compared against the resources available from OSD.

Across the Internet, readers are now sighing, “Oh there goes another ‘strategic thinker’ who does not operate in the real world of budgets and money, who whines about resources following strategy. McGrath just doesn’t get it.” To which I respond: guilty as charged. And I would then ask my critics three simple questions: Whose job is it to tell the American people what the Navy they need is, rather than what the Navy that they can afford is? Is there anyone with authority doing this today? Would this not be useful and sensible?

Whose Job is it to Tell Us What the Navy We Need Is?

No one seems to be carrying out this important task. No one is doing it because at the very top of the decision-making process, U.S. presidents tend to have a generally sanguine view of the naval forces they have available to them, largely reinforced (as stated earlier) by the Navy’s continuing ability to meet its requirements in crisis response. And in the particular case of Obama, the role of the Navy in the deterrence and conduct of great power war is simply not considered, because he appears to believe we have put the days of great power conflict behind us. Without the presidential gravitational pull that would drive the rest of the national security apparatus to size and shape the Navy to more effectively address this strategic imperative, the Navy’s size and shape will continue primarily to reflect its knack for regional crisis response. In the long run, the Navy will grow increasingly unready to deter and fight the wars that must be won as our potential adversaries increasingly prepare to wage exactly such wars.

Back to the question, whose job is it to describe the Navy we need, rather than the Navy we can afford? Is it Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert? Maybe in days gone by, but the Goldwater-Nichols Act did a fine job of removing any incentive for service chiefs to advocate for their own service’s particular contributions. Chiefs of Naval Operations of late tend to do their yeoman best to build and maintain navies that are affordable. Is it Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus? Perhaps, but any SECNAV who advocated for a Navy that exceeded the controls passed to it by the OSD Comptroller would find him or herself in hot water with the Secretary of Defense, if that person did not agree and could/would not provide top cover. Maybe then, it is the Secretary of Defense. A secretary with gravitas could sit down with the president and the Director of OMB and argue for greater resources for DoD, if he felt that the Navy we needed greatly exceeded the Navy we can afford.

The point of all of this is that we have created a system in which it is very difficult for any individual with authority to do or say anything effective to address the mismatch between the Navy this country needs and the Navy it currently claims to be able to afford. Worse yet, there are penalties to be paid for doing so. The one individual with the mandate to do so is the president, and if the president does not believe that the potential for great power conflict is serious enough to spur investment in a navy powerful enough to meaningfully deter it, well then it simply is not going to happen. And it is not going to happen, not only because he believes great power conflict to be a relic of the 20th century, but also because from his vantage point, the Navy does everything it is asked to do. Or does it?

The Three Hub Navy

I have argued elsewhere for a return to a three-hub navy, where credible combat power is forward deployed in the three regions of the world where America’s interests are manifest and most challenged: the Mediterranean, the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean Region, and the Western Pacific. Currently, the U.S. Navy fills only two such hubs —the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific — leaving the Mediterranean to rely on transiting strike groups for episodic coverage on their way to the Central Command’s area of responsibility. One can credibly argue that the lack of naval combat power in the Mediterranean limited the response options in Syria, Libya, and during the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy currently strains to meet the commitments of two combat hubs with a 286-ship Navy. A three-hub Navy would be sized consistent with the National Defense Panel’s recent recommendation of 323-to-346 ships, and would necessarily require additional resources. Additionally, as time goes on, it grows clear that the United States should consider home porting a second aircraft carrier west of Hawaii, while the requirement for at least one on station in the Arabian Gulf at all times is unlikely to diminish. The 11-carrier, 306-ship fleet that the Navy has planned (but admits it cannot afford) is woefully insufficient to the growing requirements for forward-deployed credible combat power.


The U.S. Navy is to some extent, a victim of its own success. It consistently provides presidents with flexible options for response and it rarely has to say, “No, we cannot do that.” Unless a president comes into office with the idea that the nation must begin to prepare for the rigors of great power competition again, the Navy will appear sufficiently sized to meet the requirements of crisis response, for these are the requirements against which its size and capabilities are resourced. And since there is no bureaucratic incentive for anyone within the chain of command to advocate for such preparation in the absence of presidential leadership, we may unfortunately someday find ourselves with a navy we can afford, but not the one we need.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group defense consultancy and the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery