Protecting American Seapower

Why Congress should give President Trump the Navy he needs to keep America safe.

Seth Cropsey, Seablindness: How Political Neglect is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It, Encounter Books, 392 pages, $27.99.

Seth Cropsey served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and now directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. Cropsey’s new book, Seablindness: How Political Neglect is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It, targets policy makers at the highest level, and in the early going the former Naval Reserve officer clears up any misunderstanding about the title. 

Seablindness is a condition of “amnesia of strategic befuddlement” about the oceanic anchor of commerce and security for the United States and her allies. Seablindness is also the “dangerous condition of depleted seapower that existed as an administration elected in 2008 transferred power to the one that Americans chose in 2016.” 

Cropsey hopes the dangerous condition will not endure but there’s no denying the current reality. The U.S. fleet of 276 ships is the smallest since before World War I, more than a century ago. Modernization and momentum are in decline and the nation has lost its technical edge. A hollow military, as Leon Panetta noted, weakens our ability to respond to the threats in the world. 

The administration elected in 2008, headed by the President Formerly Known as Barry Soetoro, wanted it that way, all part of leading from behind. That destructive plan was to continue under Hillary Clinton, and judging by her disastrous career as Secretary of State, she would have hollowed out the military even more. For his part, winning candidate Donald Trump touted a 350-ship goal for the Navy, and Cropsey explains why that is a good idea. 

Oceans cover some 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, so as Cropsey shows from history, sea power has always been vital. The first priority of the U.S. military is to turn back existential threats, and to that end, the nuclear submarine George Washington launched its first deterrence patrol in 1960. The U.S. Navy was vital during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Navy blockade limited the options of the Soviets, who did not give up on their colony in the Americas.  

By 1980, Soviet military aid to Cuba was ten times U.S. aid to all South and Central America. 

In similar style, Russian forces in regions that abut Eastern Europe are at least twenty times the size of U.S. ground forces, and equipped with modern, effective weapons. Nobody will learn that from CNN, and much of this book will be valuable to the general reader, as well as policy makers and the president. 

In one of the book’s realistic conflict scenarios, Russia invades NATO member Estonia. The battle would be on land but sea power would be crucial to the conflict, and also to wars in the Middle East. Those could quite possibly involve Iran, which the previous administration empowered and enriched. In the Pacific, the main adversary is the People’s Republic of China, still a one-party totalitarian dictatorship.  

“Owing to its proximity to the Asian continent, it is very convenient for the U.S. Air Force and warships of the U.S. Navy to launch” from Guam, explains an analysis from China’s People’s Liberation Army. As it happens, Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime shows keen interest in Guam as a target for its nuclear missiles. So perhaps the president should include North Korea in his “One China” policy. 

PLAN, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has more submarines than the United States Navy and the Communist nation deploys the DF-21 missile, known as the “carrier killer,” which can be fired from a truck and maneuvered in flight. China tested this missile on a carrier-sized target in the Gobi Desert. 

China is an expansionist power seeking much more than the Asian littoral. Cropsey also shows how China is collaborating with Pakistan on naval operations and that both nations are “united by enmity for democratic India.” 

To counter threats from such heavy-hitting adversaries, the United States must build the right kind of ships, with the latest technology. Cropsey cites several examples, such as the Gerald R. Ford-class supercarrier with an electromagnetic catapult replacing the old steam-powered rigs, and reactors generating three times more power than the previous Nimitz-class ships. Likewise, the new Zumwalt-class destroyer is a stealth ship capable of firing guided land-attack shells. 

To build and deploy such ships is costly, and Cropsey does not neglect the men and women of the Navy, who deserve much more than they are getting. A strong Marine Corps is also vital in the restoration of U.S. sea power, currently in a downgraded condition. As the previous administration ended, the Marine aircraft wing was in in a state of crisis, with damaged airframes cannibalized for spare parts, something candidate Trump also pointed out. 

Cropsey also recalls that in 2013 the sequestration forced cancelation of five ship deployments, including guided-missile frigates USS Rentz and Kaufmann, the attack submarine USS Jefferson City, salvage and rescue ship USNS Grasp and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. 

Key U.S. allies had also been neglected, and as Cropsey notes, “relations between US and Israel declined precipitously in Obama administration.” In similar style, the budget cuts of that administration, “due to their long-lasting effects, will take years from which to recover.”

On the other hand, Seablindness is a lot more than Obama damage assessment.  

Cropsey faults the “sum of decisions by policy makers of both parties in both executive and legislative branches.” He might have noted the Democrats’ preference for the perpetual “war on poverty,” an expensive and counterproductive loser, and Republicans’ propensity to fund the Democrats’ statist schemes. Fortunately, the author is well aware of the dynamics now playing out across the nation, particularly on campus. 

“We are in a cold civil war,” Cropsey says, “where even the need for security is open to question.” And as they attack conservative speakers, and free speech itself, the fascist Antifa chants: “no Trump, no wall, no USA at all.” So they want the same thing as America’s adversaries. 

According to Cropsey, “we are morally bound to defend ourselves.” To survive in this dangerous world, we need a modern Navy that can avoid escalation, defend allies and end conflicts by choking the adversary’s economy. 

Toward the end of Seablindness, the author cites Donald Rumsfeld that “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want or wish to have at a later time.” Ships, airplanes, artillery, small arms, intelligence and cyber-warfare capabilities, everything should be the best. As George Will observed, going into battle with the second-best military is like playing poker with the second-best hand. You have two choices: bluff or fold.

President Trump knows that neither is acceptable. Congress should fund the modern 350-ship Navy that will play a major role in keeping the nation safe. The Navy, in turn, must keep those ships safe. 

On October 12, 2000, during the second Clinton administration, al Qaeda terrorists bombed the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, killing 17 sailors, wounding 39, and causing $250 million in damage to the $1 billion ship. To prevent such attacks, the Navy should be under standing orders to blow out of the water any unidentified craft that approaches a U.S. warship and ignores the order to halt. As President Trump knows, the US Navy should bomb terrorists, not the other way around.