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Lehman Calls for a Bigger Navy

July 22, 2009

The man probably responsible for America’s current unmatched naval superiority (next to Ronald Reagan of course) offers up a dramatic remembrance of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, before making his true point known to us. Here is former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman:

Our fleet today has shrunk from 600 to 270 and is heading for 150. We have cut carriers from Reagan’s 15 to Obama’s 10.  But we can’t argue with geography: The seas still cover 70 percent of the world, and our vital trade and allies are far more global than in TR’s day. With this shrinking fleet, we can no longer deter piracy and guarantee freedom of the seas.

It is indeed wise to talk with our enemies, but we must understand that successful diplomacy is the shadow cast by power, especially naval power. Iran, North Korea and other disturbers of the peace must be made to understand that our genuine wish for peaceful solutions is underwritten by the real naval power to, in TR’s words “smite our enemies down” if they pursue hostilities.

Secretary Lehman didn’t create the 600 ship Navy concept, but it was he who forced the issue as Naval Secretary from 1981-87. Capabilities are wondrous things and America’s warships are certainly among the most capable and powerful on earth. But there comes a time, especially in wartime, where warships become used up and there must be numbers to replace them. Many small hulls are better than a few exquisite ones for the mainly benign threats we most often contend with, from pirates in speedboats to Iranian swarm tactics or soft power missions.

 Despite having won the Cold War, America’s tiny fleet is still running at Cold War tempos and have been since the 1990s. Though few make the headlines, our sailors are everywhere, showing the flag and supporting naval missions around the world in the War on Terror. We can’t keep such an operation ongoing with diminishing resources. Something has to give and I fear it will be missions and the breaking of ties with old allies if the Navy’s single-minded obsession with building battle-force capable ships isn’t drastically curtailed.

Good to see someone with clout taking a stand on this important issue for our naval future.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ron permalink
    July 28, 2009 2:43 pm

    This story cannot even begin to compare the Great White Fleet with the mission and needs of today’s Navy. Here are 10 variables to consider:
    1. Two different eras & mission= different requirements.
    2. Are 11 carriers today, not 10; 283 ships, not 270; heading towards 300 ship navy, not 150; also have 110 Military Sealift Command ships along with inactive ships that can be reactivated if the needed.
    3. US Navy is the LARGEST in the world. It’s battle tonnage is more than the combined tonnage of the next 13 largest navies.
    4. The weapons & ships are far more efficient and capable than those 100 yrs past. One of today’s destroyers can wipe out an entire fleet of TR’s ships.
    5. Nations in 1907 were more welcoming to our “show of force” than nations today. A “Great White Cruise” today would be perceived as American aggression, not successful diplomacy. Our Sailors would be met with protests in foreign ports- not very good for morale.
    6. Building a fleet of 600 warships and increasing the logistics to support them could break our budget. Additionally, we BRAC’d many of our bases. Do you want your taxes to increase?
    7. Pentagon vs Congress communicates needs, wants, and numbers. The Navy, says we do not need (or want) such a huge fleet.
    8. Attempting to increase the fleet size could divert $ away from our Sailors. Housing, quality of life, pay etc would suffer.
    9. With the decom of the Kitty Hawk in Jan (last conventionally fueled carrier), we went to 11 carriers; that decom was determined before anyone knew who was going to run for President. Reagan’s “15 carriers” vs “Obama’s 10” follows the Navy’s budget plan and cont research re the need for 10 or 11 carriers.
    10. Congress, the President, and the Pentagon cont to review history. That is why we are #1 in the world. We make adjustments and improvements. So what is the correlation with the Great White Fleet?
    Yes, diplomacy is the foremost deterrent to war and our nation’s security. Considering this info, what message is Lehman attempting to convey? This piece is being perceived by many as a call to increase our Navy’s size. There is no way I would want to argue sea power Lehman; after all, he was instrumental in helping end the cold war. Nevertheless, you cannot apply the same historical approach and expect an identical outcome in a different era.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 22, 2009 8:17 pm

    Hudowen, you’re giving me a big head. And Admiral Zumwalt’s son just posted on another article I wrote about his dad, which makes it worse!

    I use to write faithfully to our SC Senator Lindsey Graham, who once supported the F-22, but interestingly sided with McCain and Obama on the vote against! So maybe you have something there…

  3. July 22, 2009 4:58 pm

    Good man, John Lehman, and good words.

    Mike, if you don’t mind a suggestion and haven’t done so already, why not write to Washington? The Senate Armed Services Committee (Carl Levin, Chair and John McCain, Ranking Member) met in June to hear from the USN and USMC on budget matters this year, but this is an ongoing process and you are bound to get a response from elected officials. Write to Lehman, the Navy, the President. Obama is looking for new ideas. You never know, you might be the one to tip the balance in favor of a more effective fleet.

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