D. Dowd Muska


Charting a Course for Endless Interventionism

February 21, 2013

Populists, left and right, squeal that Washington ignores “the will of the people.” But thoughtful analysts of American politics recognize that the federal government usually gives voters what they want -- e.g., a tax burden inadequate to cover an ever-expanding, European-style welfare state.

Still, there are exceptions. Scott Rasmussen recently documented one.

The pollster -- he’s more GOP cheerleader than number-cruncher, but on non-election questions, his firm can be trusted -- asked respondents, “The U.S. Navy now claims it is a global force for good. Is the Navy’s mission primarily to be a global force for good or primarily to protect and defend the United States?”

To the delight of noninterventionists, and surely the dismay of neocons, a naval force focused on the homeland prevailed, 70 percent to 20 percent.

The tremendous thumping dealt to seafaring “national greatness” might lead an observer to conclude that the United States Navy is about to experience a rollback. Unfortunately for taxpayers, no scuttling is in the works. The Navy plans to maintain a global presence, and D.C.’s appropriators will happily supply the money.

U.S. naval forces aren’t what they used to be, of course. By 1987, the year ABC broadcast the miniseries Amerika, the Carter-Reagan military spend-a-thon had produced a fleet of 568 ships -- up sharply from the détente trough of 464 in 1977. The implosion of the U.S.S.R. sent naval construction spiraling downward in the 1990s. When George W. Bush took office, the fleet had 316 ships. (Fans of the 43rd president’s bellicosity, take note: Your “bring ‘em on” hero presided over a decline of nearly 10 percent.)

Retrenchment was warranted. The U.S.S.R.’s armada had been decimated. (Russia, the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan split up what remained.) China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and other developing nations were increasingly able to plow the deep. And the wealthy European and East Asian countries within the U.S. military’s sphere had more than enough resources to defend their waters. Assuming it ever did, the planet no longer needed a waterborne globocop.

In this century, the Navy’s “peace dividend” should be accelerated. A back-to-the-future honoring of the Founders’ foreign policy would make the service’s mission the protection of the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and North American halves of the Pacific and Atlantic. Rasmussen’s finding, and other polls, suggest that a huge majority of the citizenry favors such a shift.

But America First isn’t adventurous enough for Washington. While the current fleet now stands at 287 ships, the Pentagon is angling for a bit more. By 2023, its goal is 300; by 2042, 307.

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) reflects the military’s refusal to embrace a constrained, fiscally friendly naval posture. Built, The New York Times put it, “to battle Iranian attack boats, clear mines from the Strait of Hormuz, chase down Somali pirates and keep watch on China’s warships,” it’s been plagued by serious defects. The Government Accountability Office found that assembly of the LCS began “without a stable design” and thus, manufacturers “had to incorporate … changes on follow-on seaframes.” Crew size has risen, and unit cost has soared by 76 percent. In 2011, John McCain thundered that the new ship “has consistently failed in its promise to provide the Navy affordable combat capability on time and on budget.” John Sayen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, was less kind. Not only is the LCS “staggeringly overpriced and chronically unreliable,” he wrote in an October blog post, but “even if it were to work perfectly … [it] cannot match the combat power of similar sized foreign warships costing only a fraction as much.”

The Navy buys unnecessary vessels that perform competently, too. In 1999, Time presciently warned that the Virginia-class attack submarine “may be preparing for a war that will never come.” Fourteen years later, Al Qaeda’s cave-dwellers have yet to construct any subs (that we know of), yet procurement of the Virginia class continues, at $2.6 billion a pop. The Department of Defense intends to purchase 33 of the u-boats in total.

Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official, sums it up bluntly: “The U.S. Navy currently possesses more firepower than the next 20 largest navies combined -- many of which are U.S. allies.”

No matter. The naval complex’s beneficiaries -- investors, executives, shipyard employees, union bosses, bureaucrats, sailors, and the fedpols who fund them -- will let neither blowback from all that global good-deed-doing nor a $16.6 trillion national debt prevent a right-sizing. It’s full speed ahead for America’s unaffordable, overextended Navy.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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