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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mayday’

- - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MAYDAY: THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN NAVAL SUPREMACY
By Seth Cropsey
Overlook, $29.95, 336 pages

"Mayday," the universal distress call, is herein sounded for a U.S. Navy in serious trouble. Even as the Navy continues to fulfill commitments around the world, the number of ships and aircraft is decreasing, and those that remain are aging at an unacceptable rate.

Commitments to allies and theater commanders go unfilled and maintenance is deferred, again and again. From nearly 600 ships at the end of the Reagan era, the count is below 300 today and edging lower. Individual ship and aircraft capabilities are rising, but numbers count, in a big way. For a maritime power that is the United States, with promises to allies worldwide, facing a growing Chinese capability and a Congress tied in knots over issues far removed from defense of the homeland, such clarion calls are indeed in order.

Seth Cropsey, a former assistant secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and now a fellow at the Hudson Institute, delivers clear arguments for stopping the current decimation of the U.S. Navy by political budget and bureaucratic actions, including putting a muzzle on naval leaders speaking out. He argues cogently that cutting back on American sea power promises nothing except advancing powerlessness, the suspicion of allies and global challenges to American security, especially from China. He goes on to describe what he thinks are the major reasons for permitting the current decimation to continue.

The foremost problem is that Americans, by and large, do not appreciate what sea power does for peace and prosperity. This is mostly the fault of the Navy for not delivering the message. On the other hand, recent administrations share the blame by silencing individual services, including the Navy, from explaining to policymakers and the public their particular role in defending the nation. Also to be blamed is the politically correct imperative of at least the last 25 years that dictates that defense dollars be apportioned equally among the three military departments and the defense bureaucracy, regardless of the projected role of each service in the national strategy, whatever that may be.

Then there is also blame to be shared by the current philosophy of "offshore balancing": prodding others into standing in for the leadership we are unable or unwilling to supply ourselves. This includes maintaining reduced naval forces offshore. Mr. Cropsey writes that expecting to maintain influence through offshore balancing is akin to the expectation of a child that he can control the motion of the toy horse he mounts outside the supermarket. Meanwhile, other navies, including China's are growing.

By no means does Mr. Cropsey expect that money for new ships and aircraft will be easy to come by, given so many domestic imperatives. He does propose, though, that the ability to acquire and maintain the necessary hardware can come through a combination of adjusting the budget priorities among services and turning away from the more expensive and long-in-building platforms. He argues specifically that many smaller carriers, especially when equipped with short takeoff and landing aircraft, can do about the same job as a few large carriers and that newer submarines with air-independent propulsion are quieter and can get closer in to shore at lesser expense in construction and maintenance than the current nuclear submarines. Both types would be less expensive, thus more could be built, he writes. In this regard, his arguments are less than convincing.

It's really too bad he went off on that tack because his final comments make eminent sense. He writes, "The U.S. has four large tasks ahead if it is to guarantee the nation's command of the seas and with it, both the international order that a century of American diplomatic and military effort has established, as well as our status as the world's leading power. The tasks are: dividing the defense budget strategically rather than according to the requirements of political correctness; saving substantial funds by returning accountability and good management practices to the construction of naval equipment; increasing the size of the fleet through important changes in design and types of combatants; and thinking through and testing the ideas that are essential to assuring American victory in any confrontation with China's emerging military power."

Unfortunately, Mr. Cropsey's call is muted by the book's earliest pages. For reasons known only to him, he felt compelled to cover in his first three chapters a review of American naval history from the Revolution to World War II. For a reader with any knowledge of that history, the head-nodding quotient is quite high. On the other hand, if one is not acquainted with such history, he or she would be better served by reading any number of other highly respected author-historians, or at least reading the first three chapters after the conclusion. In fact, the best place for anyone to start "Mayday" is with the final chapter, the conclusion.

Because "Mayday" will be seen by many as parochial and navalist, it may not get a lot of traction. For those who are generally concerned about the diminishment of the U.S. Navy and the nation's reach in the world at large, "Mayday" is filled with cogent argument and persuasive rationale. In an up-to-date way, the book underscores that old slogan "Keep the fleet to keep the peace" at the same time suggesting how it might be done.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is past president of the Naval Historical Foundation.