The port call is a chief selling point for Navy recruiters. The Navy’s main website, for example, implies that if you join the Navy, you could end up enjoying Spain, Australia, Brazil, or Hong Kong. The truth is obviously more complicated, but there is no doubt that after weeks of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week work, sailors enjoy getting two or three days off to hang out on the beach or at a hotel swimming pool, have a beer (or three) and enjoy real restaurants. For those more culturally attuned, morale officers arrange a host of tours to do everything from touring vineyards in France, to riding elephants in Thailand, to touring World War II heritage sites in the Philippines. Community service is also an important component of the port call, as chaplains and others arrange tours to help rebuild schools, repair orphanages, or revitalize military cemeteries or other sites.
Many countries, of course, also look forward hosting port calls. When an aircraft carrier pulls into port with 5,000 sailors and aviators, that easily translates into hundreds if not thousands of hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and shopping–not to mention the husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends who fly into port to meet their loved ones.
While rest and relaxation is important, too often the strategic aspect of the port call seems to be downplayed. Ask any sailor, and they would be far happier to be in Phuket or Pattaya, Thailand, than in Cambodia, where the tourist infrastructure is far less developed. Likewise, Singapore is far more popular a destination than Sri Lanka. For smaller ships, Malaga, Spain, has far more infrastructure than Dakhla, in the Moroccan Sahara (even if the kite surfing is better at the latter).
Port calls should be about more than rewarding servicemen with a good time, however. As China rattles its sabre, scheduling a port call in a country like Cambodia (or Vietnam) determined to resist Chinese pressure should outweigh putting yet another ship into dock in Thailand or Singapore. Likewise, as Morocco reforms and shines as the lone stable country in the Sahel, it is clear that it is doing something right. Why not reward it by sending a cruiser or a destroyer into one of its Saharan ports to balance growing Iranian presence in neighboring Mauritania and to reinforce the U.S. policy decision to recognize the Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco, despite Algerian complaints? Morocco is an ally; Algeria is not. It’s that simple. Certainly, the biggest U.S. ships have other considerations: depth of port, general security, and the desire by local governments to host such visits, etc. But it seems that the decision about where to schedule port calls is often haphazard without attention to deeper symbolism and strategy.
At present, the Department of the Navy is re-examining some aspects of port calls in the aftermath of a bribery scandal. Changing business practices is one thing, but perhaps it’s time for Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to articulate just how the port call can be used to enhance American strategy and presence in the world. It’s time the United States use all elements of our power in fulfillment of a larger strategy, not simply muddle through and forfeit such an important diplomatic tool.