Lessons on Aging Gracefully


How does America best prevent its own naval decline? This is a good question. The problem is that it is a question asked decades too late. The Navy is in decline right now. So is the United States in terms of relative international power. The proper question for today is, “How does the United States decline gracefully?” Taking a look in the mirror, the U.S. Navy should find marked similarities to the late Victorian-era Royal Navy. Since the United Kingdom managed the declining supremacy of its naval power relatively well during this period, it would behoove Uncle Sam to borrow a lesson or two from Her Majesty.

Comparing the United States today with the United Kingdom from the late Victorian period up to World War I suggests several lessons. Using this lens indicates that the United States needs to choose its current and future investments carefully. Relying on ballistic missile defense and diplomacy in lieu of military power are not sound ways for America to preserve its defense capabilities going forward. And the metrics with which one chooses to measure naval capital matter. The U.S. Navy should invest in re-strengthening its maneuverability. The paradigm shift ought not to be towards a revolution of small, conventional destroyers but rather a resurrection of nuclear cruisers. To make such expenditures happen, navalists should inject the Navy’s importance into a very crowded public discourse now rather than allow that discourse to dictate the Navy’s disposition later. Lastly, Congress and the Department of Defense need to recognize and better distribute the unique costs of operating a multidomain Navy — particularly in the Pacific.



We believe hedging the U.S. Navy’s bets on pre-emptively downsizing to a numerically based standard, relying on diplomacy, and focusing on a small ship construct — as has been argued for previously — is unwise. America should not take its lessons from the 20th century, but rather the century prior.

America Today: A Second Late-Victorian United Kingdom

The United Kingdom was at its height just prior to the late 19th century. This was due in large part to its navy, which at the time was arguably without rival. However, as decades passed this began to change. As the race for colonization surged around the globe, the United Kingdom became very concerned with France and Russia as likely adversaries. The U.S. Navy’s growth throughout and after the American Civil War posed such a challenge in the Western hemisphere that London eventually ceded control of that area to Washington. Surrounded by competitors on all sides of the isles, the United Kingdom began a successful retrenchment campaign that by 1907 resulted in the allocation of “nearly nine-tenths of its battleship strength in home waters,” rather than projecting its naval might around the world. This pivot was only possible through diplomatic arrangements with the United States and Japan, and later France. Yet the focus inward came at a cost. By 1905, the Admiralty openly admitted that British naval strength was atrophying in the wake of changing global strategic circumstances. By the end of World War I, though it had managed a gargantuan buildup of ships in the previous two decades, the United Kingdom was underway on its voyage departing global naval supremacy.

The United States has found itself in a markedly similar position over the past decade: exhausted and overstretched. The U.S. Navy specifically has struggled in the recent past to project power as intended, with less than 20 percent of its aircraft carriers deploying in 2018 — an all-time low. Yet the U.S. government by and large is stubbornly reluctant to come to terms with this truth. It is similar to the United Kingdom’s reluctance to face its own vulnerability until after the Second Boer War. The United States, much like the late-Victorian United Kingdom, faces adversaries on multiple fronts — Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. China’s global presence could outpace America’s within the next fifteen years, given the former’s naval growth rate. America has both hawks and doves who debate the tenability of good relations with China, just as the United Kingdom did concerning Germany.

Both America’s and the Victorian United Kingdom’s rivals also share similarities. Like Germany then, China only needs to tarnish America’s reputation enough to show that Washington no longer calls the shots internationally. This would give China a psychological win. Ideologically, both present-day China and early 20th-century Germany are similar regarding their commitment to naval power and control. Financial challenges confronted the Victorian United Kingdom similar to the ones the United States faces today. For the late Victorians, raising revenue in the face of growing debts was an obstacle upon which the United Kingdom did not act soon enough. Some policy commenters contend the U.S. Navy will have to make some tough decisions concerning what to fund and how to fund it going forward — all subject to domestic pressures. Lastly, the U.S. 2018 National Defense Authorization Act is a huge push forward to reinvigorate the Navy’s physical health. The effort shares similarities with the United Kingdom’s Naval Defense Act of 1889.

If this is the proper lens through which to view the United States today, what ought we to say regarding its strategic choices in the coming decades as it manages its naval decline? Does this vantage point help us arrive at “shoulds and should nots?” We think so.

Missteps to Avoid

Mission Consolidation and Ballistic Missile Defense

Mission consolidation was a major strategic pillar for the late Victorians. The United Kingdom relinquished its global deterrence and power projection mission in favor of protecting the isles’ trade. Similarly, America will have to make difficult choices concerning what missions it continues to pursue. Nuclear deterrence is indeed indispensable. But is ballistic missile defense? We argue that it is not, for three reasons. First, investments in defense are not effective when the underlying, stronger force at play is deterrence. Isolationists begrudgingly concede that a second-strike capability is nonnegotiable. But if that is so, then many defense investments are moot. Russia ostensibly would not launch a nuclear weapon at the United States because America would do so in return. What deters Russia is the unacceptable costs America would impose post-attack — not the prospect that the United States would be able to defeat Russia’s initial missiles.

Ballistic missile defense is also an exceptionally costly enterprise. Proponents argue that it discourages adversaries from building ballistic missiles, deters enemies from using their existing stockpile, and defeats inbound ballistic missiles. However, to successfully accomplish these feats, it requires a rigorous testing program that delivers supporting data. Each ground and Aegis missile test costs the American taxpayers over $100 million. As a result, the Missile Defense Agency cannot conduct the necessary number of tests to provide reasonably high confidence in the system’s performance. In particular, the agency has only conducted 19 ground-based midcourse defense attempts since the first test in 1999, 49 Aegis ballistic missile defense tests since 2002, and 16 terminal high-altitude area defense tests since 2006. The limited number of tests is exacerbated by the different circumstances under which each test is conducted, such as differing booster designs, kill vehicles, quality-control issues, and so on. Furthermore, despite the Missile Defense Agency having a nearly $10 billion FY2020 budget, other missile defense programs (e.g., those defending against the more prevalent cruise missile threat) are left woefully underfunded. Although the Missile Defense Agency has made tremendous strides and has begun testing under (debatable) real-world conditions, the majority of its limited tests have been under ideal, controlled conditions. And even so, the ground missile defense program that became operational in 2004 has only been successful in 6 out of eleven tests. Moreover, adversaries have been and will continue to be quick to develop relatively low-cost decoy technology, making the problem more complex and thus overcoming the expensive American ballistic missile defense effort.

Problematic Standards of Power

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly references a 355-ship Navy, which is a definitive goal. Some policy thinkers suggest a quantifiable standard by which to continually gauge the health of the fleet. But the British case study cautions against focusing too much on numbers. The 1889 Naval Defense Act did great things for the British navy in the proceeding decades. The act itself provided the Royal Navy with £21.5 million (approximately $3.07 billion today) over five years, which resulted in a massive shipbuilding program. This then triggered successive programs that would eventually yield the Dreadnought class ship — the world standard of World War I. But the Act came at a strategic cost. It also formalized a “two-power standard,” whereby the United Kingdom would ensure that its fleets equaled those of the next two most powerful navies. During this time, the country maintained as many battleships and twice as many cruisers as the next two largest navies.

There are many problems with this standard, but two weaknesses in particular apply to the American situation. First, the number of ships a country has does not quantify the intangible characteristics that are also very important to winning a conflict. The quality of the sailors, their skillsets, their ability to work under pressure — these things can make the difference between victory and defeat. Further, it risks leading to tunnel vision. The British became obsessed with maintaining their ship quotas rather than focusing on their adversaries’ weaknesses. If the United States adopted a standing number of ships as a requirement, what then stops the Navy from fixating on that number instead of ensuring qualitatively that it is ready to fight the next conflict?

Most importantly: Though the U.S. Navy will inevitably require some sort of downsizing should it pursue offshore balancing, such downsizing should occur with ruthless realism intact. Navy ships break. A lot. It is the reason each ship or aircraft has so many built-in redundancies. It is also a reason why only having, for example, three carriers per coast is a dangerous bet. While the USS Harry S. Truman was underway for at least one day for 32 of the last 36 months, both the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Gerald R. Ford’s maintenance periods have met delays during the past two years. The USS George Washington’s overhaul also ran into large amounts of unforeseen work that went beyond the original budgeted plans (in both time and money) between 2018 and 2019. Shifting to bare minimum numbers does not seem a good move in the near future. The tragic picture of the burning USS Bonhomme Richard strikes a chord to this point.

Diplomatic Outsourcing amidst Waning Capital

The United Kingdom was able to successfully leverage diplomatic arrangements as a stopgap for protecting its global interests despite a major retrenchment into European waters. Equally fascinating is the fact that it did so with states that were one-time major rivals (America, France, etc.). However, there are two reasons why this strategy may not necessarily work for the United States. First, while the British held an enormous amount of clout, American international influence has come under intense strain. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently considered retracting the two-decade-old status of forces agreement with the United States. South Korea has balked at U.S. demands for billions of defense dollars, and also signed a defense agreement with China in 2019. The Japanese population’s perception of ties with the United States has seemingly declined in recent years. For better or for worse, America has signaled to its global partners that its commitments do not necessarily last beyond a given administration. Over the past few years in particular, allies once in strong step with Washington have begun to edge away, some of whom have even begun to warm to Beijing. One can only wonder how this makes Taiwan feel.

The second reason diplomacy is not a viable cure-all for the United States is that America’s adversaries are revisionist powers. Today, China and Russia do as they please in ways that 1890s France and Russia did not dare to contemplate unless they were willing to go to war (and when Germany showed up on the naval stage, they eventually did in 1914). Creating partnerships to balance against another country only works if the target country is susceptible to a coalition’s pressure. China has explicitly bitten its thumb at the world stage — particularly regarding the South China Sea. Accordingly, unlike the Victorian United Kingdom, it is doubtful that the United States will leverage diplomatic relations with its rival states (Russia, Iran, and North Korea) to counter China.

Approaches to Adopt

The late-Victorian United Kingdom did some things right amidst its naval decline. First, it made the navy a pressing domestic issue. Second, it endeavored to pursue paradigm shifts in its naval strategy. We believe the United States should adopt both of these strategies. Additionally, rather than accepting that there’s just not enough money for the Navy, Congress and the Department of Defense could shift some of the burdens the Navy carries to other services. This is because the Navy faces unique financial challenges that the other services do not — particularly in the Indo-Pacific theater.

Controlling the Narrative

By 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette’s The Truth about the Navy campaign had infiltrated the British public sphere. Domestic organizations such as the Naval League took up the navalist cause and continued to voice concerns about perceived naval weakness. By the time the National Defense Act passed in 1889, this “new public awareness of the Navy, fueled by Navalist propaganda, made the Navy and the Empire the twin symbols of British power in the world.” To be sure, the Royal Navy had long been an important part of British culture. However, this concerted campaign effort arguably turned the “want” of greater naval spending into a perceived “need.”

The Department of Defense needs to follow suit and make the rest of America care about the Navy and perceived naval strength abroad, rather than only communicating its needs and shortcomings in the never-ending echo chamber of operational planning. If there is concern that political priorities or budgetary issues could result in the Navy’s downsizing, why accept that at face value? Why is the takeaway not “the Department of Defense needs to show the country why naval strength matters?” The chief of naval operations is not afraid to address hard conversations, nor are op-ed writers. A dual campaign of leadership-driven media coverage along with a social media grassroots movement could be a good start.

Fueling Fallacies and Resurrecting the Nuclear Cruiser

Leading up to World War I, Lord Adm. John “Jackie” Fisher had realized the importance of paradigm shifts in maneuverability — especially concerning the submarine. Fisher was convinced that submarine warfare would transform British defenses in restricted waters through a “flotilla defense,” whereby submarines would inflict heavy losses on convoys of troop-carrying ships. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom as a whole did not share in his vision and the Germans were able to wreak havoc on merchant shipping lanes during World War I. However, the fact stands: The British knew that a paradigm shift in maneuverability (i.e., using the undersea domain) would have massive consequences strategically.

The United States has long since mastered submarine warfare, but it too has a maneuverability problem that will lose the next war — logistics in the Pacific. Contemporary authors rightly point out that China’s anti-access and area denial layout puts big-deck carriers in a pickle. But China (ostensibly) also puts potential refueling points within the island chains at risk with its ballistic missile ranges. This makes the notion of replacing carriers with smaller, multimission ships like the destroyer or frigate a dubious prospect. They need fuel. No matter how much hand-waving occurs regarding forward arming and refueling points, they are not consistently viable.

Consider the Navy’s force as it currently exists. Everyone needs fuel (including carriers, because jets need fuel), maintenance parts and supplies, and ordnance. Some of these items may be carried onboard ships. But not all. These requirements are particularly troublesome for aircraft, where it can take hours to load a single torpedo onto a plane. The “forward arming and refueling point” concept requires that one get in and out as quickly as possible to avoid potential strikes. Where does one store all these supplies as bases are blown up? A big-deck carrier cannot depend on the refueling ships — China will almost certainly target them first (as the United States would if it were China). Replenishment ships cannot easily defend themselves. So, the carrier can try to put supplies on land using “adaptive basing.” Except that feat is extremely difficult. Fuel is heavy and it is hard to transport over land. And the land around which the joint services would theoretically be toting said fuel is not structurally sound.

Alternatively, the Marine Corps could, some argue, pursue covert logistics to sustain the supply chain in an Indo-Pacific campaign. While it is a step in the right direction, the fueling and armament needs of Navy ships and aircraft are orders of magnitude higher than what any near- to mid-term covert logistics could procure. China does not need to find the covert marines to blow up strategically important U.S. bases. It just needs to find the large metal objects traveling hither and thither. The ships are (arguably) not as sneaky.

Carriers are invaluable not only for their strike capabilities, but because they run on nuclear power. The Navy needs to return to nuclear surface power. It cannot win a prolonged war in the Pacific without it. It will lose to logistics every time. The United States had nuclear cruisers up until the late 1990s. It’s time to bring them back. This of course is no small feat, as nuclear reactors are very expensive. And to be sure, there are many upfront costs associated with procuring nuclear reactors. But that investment also yields many dividends. Fuel will continue to become more and more expensive. Nuclear fuel lasts for approximately 20 years, freeing surface ships from being tied to conventional fuel sources (save for aircraft and other auxiliaries). And while ships will still need food and other expendable material (grease, rags, spare parts), the underway replenishment requirements drop down significantly (and now covert Marine Corps logistic operations seem a bit more viable for the Navy!). Further, they may be done by aircraft rather than requiring the ship to be tethered to another vessel. One author recalls with fondness (albeit paired with much stress) dropping spare parts out of a P-3C Orion at 200 feet over the ocean for a U.S. destroyer that was nearby. There is no reason to believe a long-range, refuelable P-8A Poseidon could not do the same with a large supply of beanie-weenies and rags. This question has been looked at in the past decade. The Congressional Budget Office conducted a study of the cost effectiveness of nuclear power for surface ships back in 2011. The over-simplified two-sentence summary: A nuclear surface Navy’s financial viability depends on the price of oil. If prices continue to rise (the budget office uses 1 percent per year above inflation), it is a worthwhile investment.

Sharing the “Wealth”

While the United States may not be able to rely on its diplomatic capital like the late-Victorian United Kingdom did, the U.S. Navy needs to leverage better (financial) relationships with its sister services. A massive reallocation of the federal budget to support an increase in shipbuilding is likely not in the cards. In the past few years Washington has signaled to the Pentagon to expect its budget to flatten out in the near future. It is time for the rest of the Department of Defense to facilitate overdue support. The Navy has paid the lion’s share of the bill in the Pacific for far too long. If the Department of Defense truly believes a future clash with China will be a total-force fight, then the financial burden to ensure mission success should subsequently be shared across the total force.

Yet, the Defense Department refuses to heed warnings of Navy leaders from as early as 2013 that the Columbia-class submarine bill will have devastating effects on the Navy’s budget. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is only the most recent defense secretary to reject the repeated request to fund the Columbia program from a source outside the Navy’s shipbuilding account.

The replacement of the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, responsible for carrying over 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear deterrent for the next forty years, should not be disproportionately borne by a single branch of the military. As it currently stands, the Columbia project will consume about 38 to 40 percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. The first boat alone will cost $14 billion. That said, it seems nearly impossible to expect an increase in overall shipbuilding for the foreseeable future unless dispensations are made.

Above all, the number-one factor limiting the Navy’s ability to free up space in its wallet is its own fatal attraction to cost overruns and controversy within its acquisition system. The sea service should stop sinking cash into large, overbudget acquisition abominations like the DDG-1000, a destroyer ship program that exceeded its original budget by 48 percent and took 6 years longer than promised to reach its full combat capability. Meanwhile, the $13 billion Ford-class carrier serves as a beleaguered metaphor for how the Navy continues to overspend and underdeliver. The supercarrier is still awaiting full certification of its weapons elevators, despite former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s promise to have them ready by last summer. When even the department’s top official cannot get a ship deployment-ready, who can? Then there’s the Littoral Combat Ship, originally pitched as a cheap, fast, flexible, and easy-to-build platform that ultimately resulted in a $30 billion sunk cost. A 2016 government oversight report found that while the Navy aimed to only pay $220 million per ship, the service ended up shelling out about $655 million per hull, forcing the acquisition to be cut from 55 ships to 35. Fast forward just four years, and the Navy is now requesting that the first four Littoral Combat Ship hulls already be decommissioned, marking a potential beginning of the end for the perpetually underperforming platform. The Navy simply cannot afford anymore poor investments. It needs to get back into ones that yield real dividends (like nuclear-powered cruisers).

Variations on a Theme

Princeton University’s John Ikenberry once remarked while lecturing on grand strategy, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are themes — there are rhymes — that come from the past.” The United Kingdom in the late Victorian era wrote the first stanza. In the face of both growing international competition and diminishing resources, it had to become resourceful. The Royal Navy, its advocates in government, and the press made the service’s health a domestic concern, which in part resulted in major shipbuilding programs. It made innovative strides in reform — made possible through personalities like Lord Adm. Jackie Fisher. It brought its other instruments of power to bear when its naval might was not internationally sustainable. And thus, much like the empire writ large, British decline was not sudden and catastrophic like that of ancient Rome. As Ikenberry described, it was “graceful.” The British Admiralty openly admitted its unfavorably shifting strategic landscape in 1905, yet British naval power remained markedly prominent through World War I (and some might argue also through to the end of interwar period). The U.S. stanza does not follow exactly, but it should bear similarities. Decline may be inevitable for America and its aging Navy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done gracefully.



Josh “Minkus” Portzer is an active-duty P-8A naval flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He is a maritime weapons and tactics instructor and recently was an assistant navigator and assistant ship’s maintenance manager on a U.S. aircraft carrier. He holds degrees from Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the University of Arkansas, and is a Presidential Leadership Scholar.

Arturo Trejo is an active-duty nuclear surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. He was previously a junior board member for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board and is a prospective executive officer of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. He holds degrees from Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Tommy “Too Tall” Shannon is an active-duty P-8A naval flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He has previously served as a weapons and tactics instructor and flag aide to a carrier strike group commander. He holds degrees from Harvard, the U.S. Naval War College, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy where he studied marine transportation and logistics.

Image: Paul Hampshire

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