Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Lessons from Naval History: Mileage May Vary

In which the writer argues for a return to a vision of peace time naval policy not unlike that maintained by 17th and 18th century navies. During this period it was not uncommon for larger warships to be mothballed or brought to drydock when not needed for wartime operations. Instead, the navies of the period would rely on numerous smaller vessels of varying size commonly referred to as frigates.

Today, maintaining a modern, combat ready navy is just as expensive as it was in centuries ago. The value of capital ships like aircraft carriers which dominate modern naval surface warfare thought is increasingly questionable given the advancements in area denial anti-ship missiles technologies. Perhaps, although for varied reasons, there is value still to be found in a two-tiered navy system. One navy for constant use – patrolling commercial sea lanes, protecting foreign interests and acting as a first line of defense and offense. Of course, given technological advances and the size and complexity of modern warships fielding a competent fleet of carriers and other large ships from an inactive reserve would be nigh impossible.

Image result for 18th century large warshipRelated image

Pictured: Not the same thing, but similarly expensive.

The reserve element of this theoretical two-tiered fleet would then need to be conserved in a different way. However, the problem of skill and experience would always be a problem. The Royal Navy mitigated this by relying on the country’s large population of civilian sailors. Even the navies of the age of sail, however, could not overcome the problem of a slow, painful rearming process.

It is currently difficult to imagine such a solution to the great expense of a global navy despite numerous historical examples. Certainly, the political and military leadership of the U.S. would not accept the damage to readiness and capabilities assumed under such a system. Today, thankfully, the question of whether the Navy’s cost versus effectiveness is not under much stress. However, should the U.S. Navy face more potent challenges in the future from China and need to expand to meet it the prospect of the naval reserve playing a more core role in military readiness may become tolerable.

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