The size, budget, and operations of the U.S. Navy rely on a theory that global trade depends on the regular “presence” of U.S. ships. Naval and shipbuilding advocates tell us that global patrols of U.S. warships constantly protect seaborne commerce.
The notion that naval presence is vital to global trade is very expensive. In theory, it creates a near bottomless appetite for ships, since the volume of U.S.-origin or U.S.-bound shipments will always massively exceed the available number of U.S. naval vessels, even if the present size of the fleet doubled. As a recent article by Robert Work discusses, demand for the presence of U.S. ships to protect peacetime commerce has become an increasingly important rationale for the Navy, as its more traditional missions, starting with combatting other navies, have grown less important. The demand from combatant commanders for presence missions is a major reason why roughly one-third of U.S. ships are deployed at any given time and why the Navy has major readiness problems. That means personnel and ships are overworked and less than fit for core war-fighting missions.
Yet this idea that global trade depends on the Navy is a myth, albeit one with real historical origins. It’s true that sea control, which entails protecting trade in sea lanes, is a traditional naval mission that the U.S. fleet should remain equipped to perform in times of war and crisis. But if the Navy stopped patrolling so much in peacetime, there is no good reason to expect trade to suffer. We have confused the Navy’s ability to protect sea lanes with the idea that it should always be doing so.
Most writing that claims naval presence is vital to trade uses vague causal logic. A prominent, recent example is the new official naval (technically “Tri-Service”) strategy: “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power.” It begins with a standard observation from advocates of this view that seaborne trade is economically indispensable to the United States:
The oceans connect global markets, provide essential resources, and link societies together. By value, 90 percent of global trade travels by sea, facilitating $5.4 trillion of U.S. annual commerce and supporting 31 million American jobs.
The reader is invited to draw the inference that the Navy’s operations are essential to all of this trade. But the document, like past Navy strategy documents, more or less asserts this as a fact rather than explaining how it occurs:
We have crucial peacetime missions, including responding to disasters, preserving maritime security, safeguarding global commerce, protecting human life, and extending American influence. We underwrite the use of global waterways to achieve national security objectives through diplomacy, law enforcement, economic statecraft, and, when required, force. We embody America’s resolve, its might, and its commitment to uphold the values of a free and open order.
However, read enough documents and articles about the Navy and you can discern two causal stories about how it is vital to trade. One is direct: that the Navy stops anyone from interdicting shipments at sea. This theory has a historical basis; governments developed navies largely to ward off pirates, privateers, and other parties looking to rob, redirect, or disrupt nations’ shipping.
This notion holds little water today though. Most shipping faces no threat beyond bad weather or ageing hulls. Piracy is occasionally a major issue in waters, like off the coast of Somalia; but the portion of trade affected by it, even in the worst of times, is miniscule. Very little of what the U.S. Navy does has any connection to policing piracy, and none of its vessels are specifically designed for that mission. Other nations, like Iran in the Persian Gulf, are potential threats to shipping routes. While this threat makes the Navy’s ability to reopen shipping lanes important, it is not a constant threat that justifies constant patrolling to stop it.
The more credible causal logic says that U.S. naval presence deters states from future attempts to threaten trade routes at sea. In this view, patrolling U.S. ships are like policeman whose occasional presence reminds criminals that their misdeeds will be punished and encourages law-abiding citizens to go about their business without great worry. Thus “Freedom of Navigation” operations (FONOPs) are not meant to militarily block current threats to ships’ free passage; rather, they are meant to show that the Navy would be willing and able do so when a threat emerges. Presence missions are thus meant to serve as deterrents or signals of resolve.
One problem with this logic is that the object of deterrence is often fuzzy. For example, a Navy press release claims that one U.S. ship’s visit to Senegal has to do with how “global commerce depends on freedom of navigation through the waterways of the world to ensure economic prosperity.” However, it seems unlikely that either American sailors or their Senegalese partners know precisely who their meeting is deterring out of threatening trade. Such actions likely produce more busy work for the fleet rather than assert a serious effort to promote economic prosperity.
Even where it is evident what state is supposed to be deterred, as with FONOPS in the Taiwan Strait, the deterrent logic is flawed. What makes deterrent threats credible is some combination of perceived will and capability to act. Running a warship through a strait in peacetime demonstrates some interest, but it is little indication that you will risk ships and sailors, not to mention nuclear escalation, in a war with China. And the surface ships the United States uses for FONOPS are quite vulnerable to Chinese defenses near its coast, further diminishing their deterrent effect. A ship making a port call or patrol might simply show how fleeting the U.S. interest is. A presence patrol might show off U.S. sea power, but it’s the capability more than the patrol that sends the message.
There is another problem with the idea that naval patrols protect trade. It ignores how supply chains for most goods are flexible. As we see with incidents like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which disrupted the supply chain for iPhones, global commerce generally adjusts rather quickly to disruptions. Globalization, by linking more markets, makes more supply options possible and thus lessens dependence on particular trade routes that navies might patrol, even in a war. This is a major shift from the late 19th century when Mahanist thought about the need for a global navy to protect global trade as it grew prominent. So there are fewer threats today to sea lanes and fewer sea lanes irreplaceable enough to need the U.S. Navy to open them when threatened.
It is also worth noting that the U.S. Navy probably does more, by design, to menace global trade than protect it. It helps enforce a myriad of economic sanctions and also antiproliferation efforts. Likewise, sea control, which is always central to the Navy’s mission set, is not just about ensuring that trade flows, but also about stopping an adversary’s trade by blockading or disrupting their supply lines. The Navy’s ability to halt China’s seaborne trade is a potentially major source of deterrence. So, the notion that the Navy protects trade is partly backwards. This is not to criticize the Navy; if anything, the Navy threatens trade in service of U.S. foreign policy.
It is unclear how costly this bad idea is. It may be that the Navy would simply tell another story about why so many ships and patrols are demanded if this one no longer floats. But if the Navy could truly abandon peacetime presence missions and focus its energy on core military missions—to include gaining control of sea-lanes during wars—it would be substantially less depleted in its readiness, smaller in size and cost, or both.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sawyer Haskins)