The Navy We Need

“…Everyone seems to remember Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship Navy from the 1980s, but few understand how precipitate the decline was following the demise of the Soviet Union. First the Bush/Clinton “peace dividend,” and then the nation’s focus on its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw the Navy fall from 592 ships in 1989, to 350 in 1998, to its nadir of 271 in 2015. While this was playing out, both civilian and uniformed leaders made the argument that the Navy did not require large numbers of ships so long as the ships it retained were of the most advanced designs. This answer appeared valid, in theory, but the reality was that a smaller fleet simply could not be everywhere we needed it to be at once.

The result has been a slow unraveling of the maritime order of free trade and free navigation that the United States and its Navy struggled so hard to build over the previous 70 years. The current situation recalls the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement first advanced by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in the early 1980s. The theory took its name from the phenomenon wherein an unrepaired broken window acts as a psychological invitation to break other windows. Kelling and Wilson argued that police could control crime by maintaining a general sense of order in their communities, with cooperation from the communities themselves. This entailed patrolling on foot rather than by car — so that officers would be seen as part of the neighborhood — and by taking “quality of life” offenses seriously.

Between 2001 and 2016, when the Navy was shrinking rapidly, the United States’ strategic focus was firmly locked on its counterterrorism wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Most of the Navy’s deploying ships were either moving towards those conflicts or returning home from them, leaving entire maritime “neighborhoods” unpatrolled — and windows started to break…”