Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. Navy

Port Calls and Grand Strategy

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).

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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.

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Milestone for Unmanned Aircraft

Last week came word that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier on which I had the honor of spending two weeks nearly two years ago, would be testing Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aviation vehicle. The Navy has now released photos and video of the X-47B both launching from the Bush, and also conducting a touch-and-go.

There is little good news coming from the military today, with cutbacks, self-inflicted sequestration wounds, and the looming loss of capability dominating headlines. That the Navy is testing successfully the X-47B on carriers is a good sign. Launching from a carrier is one thing; a “touch-and-go” is something entirely else, as planes—manned or unmanned—must take into account ocean swell and deal with what, in effect, is a constantly moving runway.

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Last week came word that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier on which I had the honor of spending two weeks nearly two years ago, would be testing Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aviation vehicle. The Navy has now released photos and video of the X-47B both launching from the Bush, and also conducting a touch-and-go.

There is little good news coming from the military today, with cutbacks, self-inflicted sequestration wounds, and the looming loss of capability dominating headlines. That the Navy is testing successfully the X-47B on carriers is a good sign. Launching from a carrier is one thing; a “touch-and-go” is something entirely else, as planes—manned or unmanned—must take into account ocean swell and deal with what, in effect, is a constantly moving runway.

If tests to “trap” the X-47B (landing by catching the wire on deck) in the coming weeks are likewise successful, observers will get a glance of the next generation Navy. Let us hope that, even if the X-47B successfully passes all of it tests, we will still have the political leadership to understand how important the ability to project force anywhere on Earth remains for U.S. national security.

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When the Crisis Comes, Will the Navy Be Ready?

I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

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I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

The vessel I was on had been delayed repeatedly by repairs and was not in top condition. U.S. Marines putting themselves in harm’s way deserve better than open sewage pipes in their restrooms, or dysfunctional drink machines in the mess. Nor should they have to worry about water rationing because of water plant shutdowns, closing the gym, showers, and draining water from the sinks. The impact sequestration will have on the Navy, some senior officers warned in the mess, will be felt most not this year but in the very near future. Deferred maintenance—some ships funded at only 15 percent, if not less—mean effectively that those ships will be lost: the cost of fixing chronic problems will only increase. Worse, however, is the risk that those ships whose operations are funded will be run into the ground without the budget for maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures.

Congressmen posturing as supportive of the Navy are only making matters worse by constraining them. When the Navy seeks to scrap or sell some ships, congressmen afraid of declining ship numbers mandate that the Navy must keep them instead, but do not provide the money for their basic upkeep or function, making the overall strains worse.

North Korea is already testing the United States, and Iran’s leadership is also overconfident. The danger is not that the United States will become embroiled in a proactive war, but rather that our adversaries’ miscalculations could involve us in a reactive one. Let us hope that the commander-in-chief and Congress do not assume that the Navy will be ready or that the United States will always be able to project its power. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships are maintenance heavy and take constant investment. At the best of times, perhaps half of them were ready at any time. In five years, I doubt one-quarter of them will be.

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About Those Horses And Ships

At the foreign policy debate, President Obama thought he was putting something over on Mitt Romney when he acted as if the Republican was an imbecile for suggesting that the rapid decline in U.S. Naval strength was anything but a good idea:

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

That was quite a zinger. In one fell swoop, he portrayed the Republican as ignorant about defense issues and established himself as the competent commander-in-chief. Except for the fact that he was dead wrong and did himself far more political damage than good.

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At the foreign policy debate, President Obama thought he was putting something over on Mitt Romney when he acted as if the Republican was an imbecile for suggesting that the rapid decline in U.S. Naval strength was anything but a good idea:

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

That was quite a zinger. In one fell swoop, he portrayed the Republican as ignorant about defense issues and established himself as the competent commander-in-chief. Except for the fact that he was dead wrong and did himself far more political damage than good.

Contrary to the president’s assertion, the creation of aircraft carriers and submarines did not mean that we needed fewer ships. Quite the contrary. Aircraft carriers need just as many if not more supporting vessels than the obsolete battleships that no are no longer under commission. So do subs. The decline in naval strength compromises America’s ability to project power abroad. That is particularly true in places like the Persian Gulf, where President Obama is trying to sound as tough with Iran as Romney.

Even more foolish is the president’s attempt to portray contemporary naval vessels with cavalry horses. That says more about his own lack of understanding of the military than Romney’s. It also may cost him some votes in a state that he still hopes to win: Virginia, home of the largest U.S. Naval base in the country and hotbed of support for a stronger military.

One more point about those horses and bayonets. For all of his contempt for them, it bears remembering that horses played a not insignificant role in the armed forces’ successful fight in Afghanistan, a point that Obama should have remembered. The Army and the Marines operating Afghanistan still use bayonets in close combat.

The more you think about this supposed zinger, the more it sounds as if Obama made a fool of himself, not Romney.

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China Tests Law of the Sea Treaty

I confess I don’t understand the fervor of proponents and opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is still awaiting Senate ratification and has been since 1982. The former seem to imagine that it will be a vast advance for American interests; the latter that it will be a vast infringement on American sovereignty. Both views seem overblown to me. I have no problem with ratifying the treaty, but at the same time I have no great expectations for what ratification will achieve.

Case in point: the South China Sea, the subject of a long New York Times article today. China has actually signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, but that is not preventing it from asserting a cockamamie “right” to do what it wants within 200 miles of its coast–and within 200 miles of each group of tiny rocks and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing implausibly claims as its national territory. If taken seriously, China’s claims would give it access to the entire sea, even though those waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Law of the Sea Treaty, by contrast, recognizes freedom of navigation for any nation only 12 miles beyond a country’s shoreline.

This is more than an academic dispute–armed with its off-the-wall legal theories, China is sending its naval ships and paramilitary “fishing trawlers” to assert ownership of disputed territories such as Scarborough Shoal, where a group of Chinese ships have recently been in a standoff with the Philippine Navy. The stakes are high. As the Times notes: “Two-thirds of the world’s natural gas trade passes through the waters of the South China Sea” and “the sea itself is believed to hold a substantial reservoir of energy, with some experts predicting that under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

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I confess I don’t understand the fervor of proponents and opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is still awaiting Senate ratification and has been since 1982. The former seem to imagine that it will be a vast advance for American interests; the latter that it will be a vast infringement on American sovereignty. Both views seem overblown to me. I have no problem with ratifying the treaty, but at the same time I have no great expectations for what ratification will achieve.

Case in point: the South China Sea, the subject of a long New York Times article today. China has actually signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, but that is not preventing it from asserting a cockamamie “right” to do what it wants within 200 miles of its coast–and within 200 miles of each group of tiny rocks and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing implausibly claims as its national territory. If taken seriously, China’s claims would give it access to the entire sea, even though those waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Law of the Sea Treaty, by contrast, recognizes freedom of navigation for any nation only 12 miles beyond a country’s shoreline.

This is more than an academic dispute–armed with its off-the-wall legal theories, China is sending its naval ships and paramilitary “fishing trawlers” to assert ownership of disputed territories such as Scarborough Shoal, where a group of Chinese ships have recently been in a standoff with the Philippine Navy. The stakes are high. As the Times notes: “Two-thirds of the world’s natural gas trade passes through the waters of the South China Sea” and “the sea itself is believed to hold a substantial reservoir of energy, with some experts predicting that under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

China seems bent on laying claim to those resources, no matter what the Law of the Sea Treaty says, which highlights the chief problem with international law: the difficulty of actually enforcing it. That will require the U.S. to take an increasingly assertive stance to back up, with naval and air power if need be, the rights of our allies against China’s resources-grab. Sending a U.S. Navy cruiser or destroyer to Scarborough Shoal to support our Philippine friends would have sent a far more powerful message of compliance with international law than Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

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The Navy Gets Serious About Gulf Action

Looks like the U.S. Navy is getting serious about a potential war with Iran. Witness the news that four Avenger-class minesweepers are being sent to Bahrain from the U.S., doubling the number of American minesweepers in the Persian Gulf. More minesweeping MH-53E helicopters are also being sent.

This is a significant deployment given how few of each the Navy has—there are only 14 Avenger-class minesweepers in the entire fleet and only about 20 helicopters outfitted for mine sweeping. This is less dramatic than moving an aircraft carrier but potentially more effective because of Iran’s repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of any crisis—something the Iranians will no doubt attempt to do primarily with mines augmented by small attack boats and missiles. Enhancing our ability to respond to that threat should help deter Iran from any precipitous action.

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Looks like the U.S. Navy is getting serious about a potential war with Iran. Witness the news that four Avenger-class minesweepers are being sent to Bahrain from the U.S., doubling the number of American minesweepers in the Persian Gulf. More minesweeping MH-53E helicopters are also being sent.

This is a significant deployment given how few of each the Navy has—there are only 14 Avenger-class minesweepers in the entire fleet and only about 20 helicopters outfitted for mine sweeping. This is less dramatic than moving an aircraft carrier but potentially more effective because of Iran’s repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of any crisis—something the Iranians will no doubt attempt to do primarily with mines augmented by small attack boats and missiles. Enhancing our ability to respond to that threat should help deter Iran from any precipitous action.

And with time running out to stop the Iranian nuclear program, the odds of an Israeli strike are going up. From a political viewpoint Israel has an incentive to attack before the November presidential election on the assumption that President Obama will have to be more supportive of Israel before an election than after it—the Republican nominee would certainly pounce on the president were he to offer anything but unqualified backing to our closest ally in the region.

It’s a good thing the Navy is getting ready to deal with the possible consequences of an Israeli air raid, although the very fact that there are so few minesweepers available should alert us to the alarming decline in the size of the fleet and the need to build up our naval capacity—rather than continue to degrade it as we are currently going to do because of wider defense cuts.

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