March 4, 2011 3:22PM

Mark Helprin’s Convoluted Case for a Large(r) Navy

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal featured an op ed by Mark Helprin making the case for a large navy (may be paywalled). Or, at least, that was what I took away from it. To be honest, it was a little hard to tell.

I was going to let it drop, but by coincidence I was at the Naval Academy today, giving a guest lecture to two different classes, and the experience has inspired me to pick apart examine Helprin's article.

I do so because I fundamentally agree with Helprin that we should have a strong navy. I say this because I believe that the Founders were correct to privilege the Navy over the Army (recall that the Constitution calls for maintaining a navy, but raising an Army only as required). I also have several parochial reasons for favoring the Navy over the other services: I served in the Navy; grew up in Maine, in the shadow of Bath Iron Works and the Brunswick Naval Air Station; and the name Preble is hallowed in naval history. Edward Preble (pictured), a distant ancestor, was among the founders of the American navy, and there have been several naval vessels bearing his name. The museum on the grounds of the Naval Academy is named Preble Hall.

Suffice it to say, if I believed that the U.S. Navy was in danger of losing its edge, I would support an aggressive plan to reverse its fortunes. If I thought that we could no longer defend the seaborne approaches to the continental United States, I would be calling for a crash program to reform the service. But it isn't, and we aren't. Helprin's article features misleading information and dubious logic.  An argument poorly made is worse than no argument at all.

The basic gist of Helprin's op ed is that the U.S. Navy is too small. We had over 1,000 ships at the end of World War II, and now we have only 286. (I could point out that we had thousands and thousands of jeeps and propeller-powered fighter planes at the end of World War II. Now we have none. That doesn't mean that our conventional land forces and air forces are less capable today than they were in 1945.) He goes on to explain that we need a larger navy to defeat the pirates who are assaulting ships off the Horn of Africa. Russia and China, he claims, are challenging us on the high seas, or soon will do so. He repeats the tired conventional wisdom that the global trading system depends upon a single dominant power to enforce the rules and punish wrongdoers. Great Britain served that role in the 19th century; the U.S. Navy must do so now.

None of these claims are true. Piracy is a nuisance best handled by a coalition of navies contributing forces to escort vulnerable ships, and to carry out punitive raids, not a single global U.S. sheriff that treats every body of water as though it were synonymous with the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is not, as he absurdly claims, on the cusp of the "gratuitious abdication" of our naval supremacy. The U.S. Navy dwarfs any other navy, or combination of navies, both in terms of numbers of ships, and in terms of effective striking power. The global trading system is far more resilient, and far more complex, than Helprin claims; it doesn't make sense for the U.S. Navy to commit itself to policing every sea lane on the planet. The many beneficiaries of global trade should share in the costs of keeping the seas free and open.

There is a kernel of truth to Helprin's contention that the Navy should not put all its eggs in "a small number of super ships [which] could be in only a limited number of places at a time." He seems to appreciate that "the loss of just a few of them would be catastrophic." But he doesn't finish that thought. As with many things pertaining to military spending, it isn't what you spend so much as where and how you spend it. In short, numbers of ships are misleading. What types of ships? At what cost? 

How you answer depends upon what you expect them to be doing. It makes no sense to fight pirates with aircraft carriers. Likewise, it would be foolish to park a 90,000-ton target in the Taiwan Strait, in range of China's latest anti-ship missiles. A single Ford-class aircraft carrier is projected to cost, in average, about $12 billion. For reference, we could purchase at least six new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with the same amount of money. 

In the paper that I published with Ben Friedman last year, we support the completion of the USS Ford (CVN-78), but would shift the remaining CVN funds to fielding smaller aircraft carriers that launch primarily unmanned aerial vehicles.  Meanwhile, we think it makes sense to build small, ocean-going warships that can perform escort duties and counter-piracy missions, when required. But the Navy's current small vessel, the littoral combat ship (LCS), is designed for missions close to shore, and is far too costly. Small frigates or corvettes could be designed with similar capabilities, and at far less cost.

Helprin's greatest error is in conflating numbers of ships with effective striking power. But he also misses the opportunity costs associated with investing too many resources in the wrong place. The true strength of our Navy is its people, including the exceptionally bright and motivated men and women who I had the pleasure of meeting with today. As they prepare to enter the fleet, the country owes it to them to give them a set of missions that is vital to the nation's security, and to provide them with the tools to accomplish them. But we shouldn't reflexively buy into the claim that more = better.