The U.S. will struggle to secure its maritime interests with any number of warships under its current federal structure.
[By Jimmy Drennan]
The ongoing supply chain crisis is a sobering reminder that American maritime interests have always been about more than national defense. The U.S. Coast Guard traces its lineage to an 18th century Treasury Department service charged with tariff enforcement. Over time, its mission evolved and expanded, while the U.S. built the world’s foremost Navy and formed myriad other agencies to secure its broad maritime interests. In the 21st century, China’s ambitious bid to reinvent the way a nation can exploit the high seas and define multifaceted maritime interests has emerged as a tangible threat to America’s future. This threat demands a new approach to maritime security and prosperity.
In the next decade, the balance between the U.S. and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navies will be pivotal in defending the concept of freedom of the seas, likely without even firing a shot. Throughout its history, the U.S. Navy has ranged from six to 6,768 ships. By most estimates, the current fleet of 299 battle force ships is about 100-200 short of what America needs to secure its national interests, and navalists are dusting off old theories to convince Congress of the value of seapower.
From Barbary Pirates to the Great White Fleet, or to strategic confrontation with the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy has been integral not only in ensuring America’s security in wartime, but also its prosperity in peacetime. The 2020 U.S. Tri-Service Maritime Strategy echoes 19th century strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan when it states that the naval service’s peacetime missions include “safeguarding global commerce” and “extending American influence.”
In fact, Mahan’s philosophy even suggests that navies serve a primarily economic purpose. If the U.S. Navy’s mission goes beyond national defense, it is unlikely to be adequately resourced in a parent department that seeks to equitably distribute funds across all other military branches. Meanwhile, China’s recent naval buildup – tripling to around 360 battle force ships in the last 20 years – is possibly not meant to defeat America in a war at sea, but to serve as a credible deterrent force to underwrite the various economic and coercive aspects of its maritime strategy.
America should reconceive how it leverages and secures its territorial waters, trade routes, and the high seas. The history of America’s tangled maritime bureaucracy offers insight to how it can answer China’s challenge.
From Cutters to Committees: America’s Maritime Heritage
As the Navy steadily cemented its role as the primary guarantor of America’s maritime interests, other federal maritime entities grew and evolved, primarily through two institutions: the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine.
The U.S. Coast Guard
Long before the United States commanded the world’s largest Navy, America’s leaders recognized the sea as the lifeblood of its economic prosperity. Following the Revolutionary War, the national debt topped $75 million ($2.16 billion in today’s dollars), and import duties…