First up, I want to apologize to readers of CT and LGM for what has been (for me, and I think quite a few others) an unpleasant experience. The post I wrote about naval expenditures was provocative, but I thought it fell within the normal bounds of blogging license - that was clearly wrong. Obviously, this is a question on which a little provocation goes a long way.
Also, although I had noticed that people had different views about the “lesser evil” question in relation to the US election, I hadn’t thought of this as a “blogwar” between CT and LGM and in any case I had no idea that this post would upset Rob Farley in the way it did. Had I known these things, I would not have put the post up, certainly not written as it was. When the fight blew up, I made a series of attempts to cool things down, but with little success (in fact, probably making things worse).
Coming to the post itself, it contained a fair bit of hyperbole and snark (though not directed at anyone personally). This was returned in full measure, pressed down and running over. I also wrote some things in a loose and sloppy way, leaving opportunities for misinterpretation that were taken up with enthusiasm.
I’ve been duly smacked for the hyperbolic/snarky/loosely worded statements in the post. On the other hand, reflecting the nature of this kind of fight, the critics haven’t engaged at all with the main arguments of the post. So, it seems to me that the best thing to do at this point is to rewrite the post, removing the hyperbole and snark, correcting some points where I think there was a substantive error, and expanding on points where what I originally wrote was misinterpreted, or where the critics have made points that need a response.
The majority judgement is pretty clear that I’m wrong on this one. Maybe so, but as I said, I haven’t seen any real response on what I regard as the central issues, so I’m going to restate my position and leave it at that.
First, there’s the question of specialist expertise. Criticism of the original post relied heavily on the claim that specialist knowledge is critical here, and that as a non-expert I should defer to people who with better knowledge of things like the classification of battleships. Much the same response is often made by economists when arguing about issues like macroeconomics and finance. The problem in both cases is that, unlike the case with the natural sciences, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the dominant view of the experts is wrong.
Macroeconomists and finance theorists mostly failed to predict the global financial crisis, and disagree violently about the appropriate policy response. I’ve argued at length that the views that have been dominant in these fields since the 1970s are mostly wrong, and have received responses quite similar to those of the naval experts in this case. Looking at the track record of military and naval experts, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s any better than that of economists, rather the opposite. So, I’m unconvinced by the view that this is a field where expertise is a guarantee of correctness, or even positively correlated with correctness.
As I said in the original post, naval experts at least since Mahan and probably since Trafalgar, have made overstated claims for the usefulness of surface fleets, symbolized by the battleship . The battleship advocates ignored the vulnerability of these ships to much cheaper weapons such as mines, submarines and airplanes. A handful of dissidents (for example, the Jeune Ecole in France) pointed these things out, but were ignored and have been ridiculed by the dominant majority ever since. The most prominent critics of the surface fleet theory were found in the other armed services, from Billy Mitchell in the 1920s to today. But, the nature of inter-service rivalries means that such criticisms are given more little respect than those of amateur bloggers.
The arms race between Britain and Germany before 1914 was focused on ‘dreadnought’ battleships. They helped in building up the fever that led to war, but played at most a secondary role in the war itself. The British fleet was strong enough to keep German battleships in port, but not strong enough to attack and destroy them there. The only major naval battle of the war, Jutland, confirmed this.
Despite this, navies were keen to build more battleships after 1918. Disputes over the postwar naval treaties aimed at limiting battleship construction contributed once again again to the resurgence of militarism. Even before the rise of Hitler, the Germans were seeking to get around the treaties with “pocket battleships”, and Japanese nationalists were upset at not being accorded parity with the US and UK.
But, when the war broke out, it became apparent, in Rob Farrell’s words that “battleships were not an efficient use of resources”. Battleships and cruisers were sunk by planes, submarines, mines and even frogmen, and did not dominate sea battles as expected. Instead, the battleships already in existence were allocated to a variety of secondary roles, supporting land forces and carrier-based fleets, and construction of new battleships was halted.
Since 1945, there has been very little naval warfare in the traditional sense. So, any claims about the capacity of naval power are based on hypothetical reasoning rather than empirical evidence. The one substantial exception, the Falklands War, is scarcely encouraging for advocates of a surface navy. The Royal Navy came to the edge of defeat against the air force of a Third World dictatorship , operating at the limits of its range.
Coming to the question posed in the post, I’m going to try to avoid confusion by talking about countries other than the US first, and by specifying that “navy” refers to a capacity for naval combat (including attacks on land-based opponents, and a capacity for amphibious assaults) undertaken outside home waters. I’m excluding the various functions that might be performed, for example, by a Coast Guard or transport units carrying supplies to ground forces. Also, I’m not considering the option of a force designed to operate under the command of the US Navy.
As in the original post, I conclude that the fact that few such operations have taken place in the 60 odd years since the end of WWII suggests that a capacity to undertake them is likely to have a very low payoff in the future. On the other hand, the cost is substantial - lots of countries spend up to a third of their defense/war budgets on their navies. In particular, as I mentioned in the previous post, China’s recent acquisition of an aircraft carrier (<a href=”“http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/china-unveils-aircraft-carrier-despite-lack-of-planes-20120926-26kj7.html”>without, at present, any actual capacity to carry aircraft) looks exceptionally ill-advised. It’s very hard to see how this is going to be more than a vanity item for many years to come. Moreover, missile technology (including China’s) is advancing all the time, making the requirements for defending such a ship more and more demanding. So, I repeat my conclusion that the benefit-cost ratio of an independent naval capacity is close to zero for most countries.
At this point, I may as well address the various ancillary tasks and benefits that might be advanced as arguments for a navy. On the one hand, there are the kind of side benefits epitomized by the claim that the space program gave us non-stick frypans. My view (and that of most economists) is that if you want non-stick frypans you should give money directly to materials scientists, not to space programs that might hire some.
As regards other tasks, the example of anti-piracy actions was cited quite a bit, as part of the traditional ‘keeping sea lanes open’ function, but I don’t think it goes the way naval advocates want. As Robert Farley points out here, it seems unlikely that the designers of the Kirov class battlecruisers had in mind a ship that could overwhelm 10 men in a speedboat, armed with grenade launchers.
And despite the grotesque imbalance of firepower, the anti-piracy campaign hasn’t been all that successful, at least until recently. Piracy has declined this year, but largely due to developments on land. If the problem persists or recurs, it would seem more sensible to have a dedicated international response, with vessels designed for the task at hand, and a proper legal mandate for how to deal with alleged pirates (that does sound like a project for Lawyers, Guns and money).
Now, I’ll turn to the US Navy. The Navy Department’s budget is around $150 billion a year (that should be adjusted to exclude the Marine Corps operates independently). Like other post-WWII navies, it has undertaken little naval warfare of the kind for which its force structure is largely optimized, that is, battles in which the opposing side has significant naval (or air-to-sea) capacity of its own.
Of course, it can be argued that the US doesn’t engage in naval warfare because it doesn’t have to. Its 11 carrier strike groups massively outweigh the rest of the world’s navies put together. Moreover navies benefit from the military equivalent of offshore tax havens, the so-called “right of innocent passage”, by which ships of one navy are entitled to enter the territorial waters of another country, a right not accorded to land or air forces. So, carrier strike groups can be used as a threat without any breach of international law. On a few occasions, this capacity has been used effectively, for example, with cruise missiles against Serbian forces during the Balkans wars. But these examples are rare, and have commonly involved tacit or overt co-operation with ground forces, which is not always feasible. In the original post, I suggested that the benefits from these capacities aren’t great enough to justify the costs. As far as I can recall, no one challenged this, but there’s still room to do so if you want.
Finally, and most important in terms of my differences with the critics, there is the role of the Navy in land wars. The US has been involved in five major wars since 1945, with outcomes that have been at best equivocal. With the exception of Korea, the contribution of the Navy in these wars has not been commensurate with its share of the military budget. Carrier-based planes have played a role, but they are an expensive alternative to Air Force operations from ground bases. Other functions like transporting heavy equipment, enforcing blockades and so on, again don’t seem to go far in justifying the Navy’s share of the budget.
The crucial point, though, and one which the critics haven’t responded to at all, is that the US military as a whole has not succeeded in the tasks that have been assigned to it. By contrast, much of the criticism seems to take as its premises a world where the US can and should have the capacity to dictate whatever outcomes it chooses, and then to work back to the naval expenditure needed to achieve this. That’s not the world we live in. Defense funds allocated to the navy are at the expense of alternatives that might produce better outcomes on land.
An obvious response, and one which I would certainly endorse, is that the US should fight fewer wars and seek to end then sooner. And, as I observed in the original post, it could certainly be argued that the benefits of military activity in general are negative, so that it doesn’t matter if defense funds are allocated to activities with low benefit-cost ratios. But, since these arguments seem unlikely to command much support, I conclude that current US naval expenditure does not pass the benefit-cost test.
fn1. The one amusing thing to come out of the whole sorry mess was this anecdote about William Jennings Bryan and FDR. Told against me, but I don’t see a problem with taking Bryan’s part on this
fn2. Submarines were important in both world wars, but the kind of total war in which merchant ships are sunk without warning (the only kind of conventional war in which submarines are of much use) seems unlikely to recur. Then there are nuclear missile submarines, which are the literal embodiment of overkill, as both first-strike and second-strike weapons. In the event that they are ever used, we will almost certainly all be dead anyway.
fn3. Relevant because the air force was at least as engaged in running the dictatorship as in making adequate preparations for a war, for example, ensuring an adequate supply of Exocet missiles.