Dawn of a new naval age

July 25, 1996|By William J. Toti

WASHINGTON -- Following the end of the Cold War, one of the most pervasive themes among defense analysts was the message that the U.S. Navy, born and bred to effect massive war at sea against the Soviet Union, was now defunct.

The United States might indeed rule the waves, but without a Soviet Union to challenge it, who cares?

This trend was halted in its tracks this year by an event that almost nobody predicted: the confrontation between China and Taiwan. It has caused many defense analysts to rethink their position of questioning the need for naval forces.

Because of fundamental changes in the world geopolitical scene, naval options are not just favored options: they are the nation's only options -- not just for this crisis, but for many others elsewhere in the world.

This is a trend that will continue well into the next century. While we should not read too much into a single crisis, the China-Taiwan situation reveals a profound truth about how the U.S. will have to respond to many future crises, as well.

In the past, an event such as this might have prompted a response on the ground. An Army brigade and Air Force squadron might have been moved to a base in the Philippines or Japan. But the Philippines is lost to us, and Japan is not likely to accept a single additional soldier. So our only options were naval.

Skeptics will say that the Pacific has always been a naval theater, that this lesson should not be applied to the rest of the world. But consider these hot spots:

Africa. Marines were the first U.S. forces in Somalia. When things turned sour for the U.N. contingent, Marines were sent in again. Marines were sent to rescue civilians in the 1990 civil uprising in Liberia.

The Middle East. Since the end of the Gulf War, nearly all our forces deployed to watch Iraq have been naval.

Non-Pacific Asia. Marines were used in 1991 disaster relief operations in Bangladesh and Northern Iraq.

Europe. Most of the early air power in Bosnia was naval, and even when land-based air power became available, those units were constrained by the government of Italy.

Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to face the fact that Army ground forces in Bosnia represent the whole of our non-armor ground presence in Europe. The only available reserves are Marines at sea.

These are but a few of the operations where naval forces were used when land-based forces were either unavailable or out of range.

The truth is, naval forces will increasingly be our only option for dealing with crises.

This is not because naval forces are "better" than land-based forces. It is not because naval forces have been more effective at preparing themselves for the future than have land-based forces. It is simply a result of a new geopolitical reality: when most of our overseas, land-based armies of occupation have been returned to the United States, our options for responding to crises will increasingly be naval.

Point missed

This point has been missed by many defense analysts. Some have recently forwarded a number of proposals to cut our naval strength, or reduce forward naval presence. Their position would eviscerate the Navy and Marine Corps.

Of the naval response to China's recent aggression, Stanley Roth, fellow of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said: "This is a skillful honing of the policy of constructive ambiguity. The administration has gotten China's attention that this is a matter we take very seriously, while at the same time avoiding the trap of committing the United States to coming to Taiwan's defense."

This characteristic -- the ability to demonstrate resolve without backing yourself into a corner -- is a key strength of naval forces. You don't have to put forces on the ground that could put you in a "fight or flee" situation.

It is one of the reasons that for centuries in the face of adversity, American presidents have found in naval power a safe, effective, and soothing response to world crises.

Commander Toti is Navy Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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