The Importance of American Sea Power

by Scott Manning on October 23, 2012

I hesitate to write this, as it may seem I am endorsing a candidate. I am not. I think both President Obama and Governor Romney are correct on the issue of America’s navy, but in different ways. I will explain further below, but first we need to be on the same page concerning sea power.

Sea power is important. Virtually every superpower in history has been “super” by means of its navy. For example, the Athenian Empire was able to dominate much of Greece and keep the massive Persian Empire at bay, as long as they maintained a superior navy. Countries such as France, Spain, and of course, Britain have all taken turns expanding their navies and dominating the world. The latter is particularly important, as they were able to remain a thorn in Napoleon’s side during his entire reign by means of their navy. Yet, they became overwhelmed during the American Revolutionary War when the navies of France and Spain teamed up against them. However, Britain was able to starve Germany into submission during the First World War with its superior navy.

Navies make superpowers and win wars.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. The Mongols conquered an empire predominantly without a navy. However, they fell short of conquering Japan, because they could not keep their navy intact. Alexander is not a good exception, as he acquired a navy early in his conquests and used it to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

When America joined World War I, we were able to muster millions of volunteers and draftees for battle, but we lacked the means to transport troops. In fact, with the ships available, America estimated it could only transport just over one-half million troops to Europe within a year. Within the first six months, American had only transported 175,000 troops to France.1 Without extensive foreign aid, mostly from Britain, there was no way America could have planted 2 million American troops in France by June 1918. To get that foreign aid, America had to make concessions to the British.

Quite simply, we were caught flatfooted. This is why Romney keeps referring to 1916/1917 as a period of having too few ships. He is correct. It does not matter how big your army is, if that army remains surrounded by ocean. In addition, airpower does not compensate for a lack of a navy. We cannot transport millions of troops by air, at least not in a timely or cost efficient manner. In all of our foreign wars, including the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of our troops traveled by sea.

Now Romney is touting the number of ships and relying on the estimates by the Navy. Conversely, Obama is touting technological advances. Given these advances, the President believes the need to count ships has become antiquated or like “a game of battleship,” as he calls it. My theory is the President believes that in a naval battle, numbers do not count; firepower counts. Conversely, I believe Romney is thinking about the ability to cover more water while maintaining the ability to transport large numbers of troops in the event of a major war (or two!).

Both are not necessarily wrong. Romney is strict about his desire not to cut the navy. The President leaves the option open, stating, “When I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops.”

Regardless, America needs to maintain a strong sea power.

As an added bonus, here is me aboard the USS Constitution, the oldest sailing warship in the world.

USS Constitution


  1. Between June 1917 to June 1918, the War Department believed it could only transport 650,000 troops to France given its availability of ships. David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 169. []

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dev99 October 23, 2012 at 1:57 PM

America is the worst kind of “superpower” today. It’s losing its influence, but still maintains a powerful military. In every instance of this scenario in history the superpower became hostile to its neighbors or the world. I am dreading WW3.


2 Craig Swain October 25, 2012 at 10:10 AM

“Navies make superpowers and win wars.”

I beg to differ. Navies can set up the situation where by wars can be won. To win a war, there must be some presence on the ground. Not to diminish the role of a navy, particularly the US Navy, of course.

As you point out the “too few ships” argument is focused to a large degree on sealift as opposed to warship. Today we lack the sealift of the 1970s or 80s. Pundits will say that’s a function of a smaller ground force footprint needed to accomplish the missions. Do we still need a “Reforager” like capability to reinforce Europe or Asian allies? Are we going to go fight in the trenches of 1917? Maybe not, but are we willing to accept the pundit’s opinions as inevitable fact? (And remember, circa 1948, those were the same guys saying the next war would involve button pushing.)

The counter argument of “more capable ships”, is, as you point out, in reference to firepower. But even the most powerful ship in the world is limited with regard to the space it can control. A ship’s captain can only positively control the sea-space he/she can see. Horizon to horizon – 26 miles or so. We can talk about radar and sonar advances, or even over the horizon targeting. That’s targeting, but not controlling of the sea. Tactical factors, technology, and rules of engagement limit the area a ship’s captain can positively control. And thus by extension, the navy with fewer ships, even if they are more powerful, can control less of the sea.


3 Scott Manning October 25, 2012 at 10:47 AM

Craig, these are all valid points. Please do not interpret my post to mean that we do not need an army. Yet, given our geopolitical situation, we have little to fear in terms of a threat of invasion, as long as we can defend the surrounding seas with a powerful navy. That means our navy is more important to maintaining our superpower status.


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