The U.S. Navy, America’s First, Best Strategy

Jim Talent
·9 min read

To Provide and Maintain a Navy: Why Naval Primacy Is America’s First, Best Strategy, by Henry J. Hendrix (Focsle, 146 pp., $20)

Dr. Jerry Hendrix (Ph.D.) is a retired Navy captain, a frequent contributor to NR, and one of the foremost naval historians and strategic thinkers in Washington today. He understands thoroughly what’s wrong with the Navy and what it will take to fix it; and it would be a sign that Providence intends once again to shine on these United States if he were at some point to become secretary of the Navy.

He would be the best secretary since the legendary John Lehman, who built the modern Navy during the Reagan years and who also writes the foreword to Captain Hendrix’s new book, To Provide and Maintain a Navy. The book is intended to be, and is, both an argument for the importance of naval power and a blueprint for the future Navy that the lay reader can easily access and understand.

The book’s thesis is that the primacy of American naval power after World War II firmly established the idea of the seas as international commons, ensured oceanic security by deterring naval conflict, and — along with the technological advances of those years — empowered the growth of the American (and world) free-trade economy while also giving the United States a cost-effective means for sustaining its influence and alliances around the world.

Hendrix offers one of the best explanations of naval “presence” that I’ve ever seen:

US Navy ships . . . possess a distinct advantage over their land contemporaries in that they can exert influence ashore without having to be physically tied to the land. Not only does sovereignty move with each commissioned ship but also through the effects of its sensors and weapons; it can project influence simply by being present offshore. Think of this influence as an incandescent lamp moving about upon the sea. As it approaches an object, its influence can be understood as the degree to which [its] sensors and weapons fully “illuminate” or make clear the local strategic environment while demonstrating US interests at the local area. . . .

Ships moving toward an area of interest cast a “bow wave” of influence ahead of them as they approach, projecting their capabilities and potential for action well prior to their arrival, yet ships departing an area also leave behind influence in the good will and stability they fostered but also because of the implicit promise that they can, and will, return.

Unfortunately, as Hendrix explains in lucid detail, American naval primacy is now largely a thing of the past. The defense budget was reduced by over a third in the 1990s, forcing the Navy to cut 200 ships. The situation got even worse in the first 15 years of this century. All pretense of meeting naval requirements was dropped, and the Navy lost another 100 ships. Our NATO allies reduced their fleets even more than the United States did during the same period.

At its low point about five years ago, the Navy had only slightly more than 270 ships. It was obvious to everyone (except some fact-checking organizations) that the Navy was too small, which prompted me in 2017 to write a column called simply “We Need More Ships!

The Trump administration made rebuilding the Navy a priority but was able to add only about 20 ships to the inventory in four years. As a result, the Navy has had to lengthen ship deployments in order to maintain at sea even two thirds of the required number of vessels. That in turn has reduced the time available for maintenance and training, to the point that even the ships we have are much less ready than they should be. Hendrix calls this effect the “material death spiral” — the cascading disintegration of naval readiness when the fleet is highly stressed for long periods of time.

But even with lengthened deployments, the Navy cannot be everywhere it needs to be:

Regions that had previously experienced two-week gaps between ship visits now went two, and then three, and sometimes six months without seeing a US Navy ship. Seas that had been frequented by aircraft carrier strike groups found themselves making do first with cruisers, then destroyers, and then later the modern corvette, the Littoral Combat Ship. Exercises with allies and partner nations were shortened to limit the amount of time that US Navy ships needed to participate, simplified to allow destroyers or Littoral Combat Ships to replace carriers and cruisers, or outright cancelled in key regions. Other types of crucial US Navy operations — such as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), Transit Passage Operations, or Innocent Passage Operations, which sought to reject excessive territorial claims, illegal baselines, or internal waters claims that endangered the concepts of free navigation or free seas — were conducted less frequently or not at all, in critical areas.

America’s armed forces aren’t and shouldn’t be the main tool of our foreign policy, but they are the foundation of all the other tools; they give credibility and energy to the diplomatic and economic influence of the United States. As American naval presence has declined, Russia and China have been quick to fill the gap. Although, as Hendrix notes, Russia and China have traditionally been land powers, they have developed modern naval forces fully capable of challenging American power. They are using their navies, along with their arsenals of land-based precision missiles, to extend their influence and even their sovereign control over the seas far beyond their shores.

Readers of NR will be aware that China claims the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, has reclaimed and militarized seven reefs in those waters, and is using its power to coerce its neighbors and capture the economic value of the South China Sea for itself. Readers may not be aware, however — unless they have read To Provide and Maintain a Navy — that Russia has similar ambitions for Arctic waters:

Recently Russia indicated that it plans to invoke Article 234 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs ice-ladened seas, and require all commercial vessels transiting along the Northern Sea Route to be escorted by a Russian icebreaker and to pay a “piloting fee,” thus altering the region’s character as a “free sea.” At the same time Russia is requesting that its Arctic baseline boundaries, which determine its territorial and internal waters claims, be amended to include several new offshore island features. The proposed baselines would have the effect of placing much of the Northern Sea Route within an “internal waters” definition, transitioning the new oceanic route to something akin to the United States’ Mississippi River.

In other words, Russia and China are developing the naval power and laying the legal basis for a mare clausum — a closed sea — in their home waters, which would enable them to monopolize the resources located there and extract tribute from other countries that wish to transit through those waters. It’s a direct threat to one of the most fundamental national interests of the United States: the right to trade and travel through the international commons in peace and on equal terms with other nations.

Hendrix’s solution to this challenge is, unsurprisingly, a large expansion of America’s Navy from the current 295 ships to 456. He does not shy away from the cost of that, but Pentagon reformers will be pleased to read that he wants to re-envision the structure as well as the size of the fleet. He thinks we need lower-end, less costly ships that can sustain presence even in smaller and shallower ports around the world. And those who are frustrated by the long and costly land engagements of the past 20 years will be pleased to read that Hendrix sees the new Navy as the linchpin of a new maritime focus in American involvement in the world. America, he writes,

needs a new national security strategy that . . . shifts its primary focus away from a continentalist focus on the Middle East and Europe and toward the ability to control key maritime regions, choke points, and the sea lines of communications that connect them. It would be a strategy that seeks to sustain the United States as a great power by . . . influence and balancing. It would be a strategy that . . . assures American access to, and control of, movement across the global commons such as cyber, space, and the world’s oceans rather than seeking the means to capture and garrison territory outside of the United States. It would be a strategy that seeks to preserve the global peace by providing offshore naval, air, and logistical support to allies and partners while they, with their own land forces, seek to protect their interests domestically and along their borders. Finally, it would be a strategy that achieves its ends by asserting persistent and credible presence in those areas of the world where the United States has critical interests without having the nation unnecessarily entangled with continental intrigues ashore.

To Provide and Maintain a Navy is a short book — the main text is just over 100 pages — but there is much more to it than simply a discussion of current naval affairs or even national strategy. Hendrix is a formidable historian; in the initial chapters of the book, he surveys how the laws of the sea developed, and he explains how they have been enforced, or not enforced, in various eras dating back to the Romans. He also discusses the role of the sea and of its resources in the global economy, and the development of merchant shipping.

Throughout, his prose is effortless and accessible. I had read about Hugo Grotius before, but he has never been so interesting.

Captain Hendrix is a friend of mine, and he was kind enough to send me the initial draft of this book, primarily for my advice on whether it was worth the effort to finish and publish it. After reviewing the draft, I told him it was a “must write” book. It’s a “must read” book as well, for anyone who wants a better understanding of American security and the kind of Navy we must create — and create quickly — to protect it.

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