This week Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday and Marine Corps Commandant David Berger went before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to talk budgets and fleet design. Representatives grilled the sea-service chieftains in particular about their “divest-to-invest” approach to procurement, questioning whether shedding aging ships and other hardware to free up funding for future acquisitions is a sound idea when the services confront near-term threats in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere.
As they deliberate, lawmakers might also requisition testimony from none other than King George III, an erstwhile archenemy. Or, more precisely, they might summon up William Pitt the Younger, who served as His Majesty’s prime minister from 1783-1801 and 1804-1806. Prime Minister Pitt put Great Britain’s Royal Navy back on a solid footing after the navy’s suboptimal performance in the War of American Independence—a performance traceable to Parliament’s scrimping on shipbuilding budgets during the years leading up to that war.
False economies in peacetime ended up costing Britain dearly in wartime.
Naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan upbraids the British leadership for letting the Royal Navy dwindle in size and capability following Britain’s triumph in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Their fleet shrank inexorably as Britons claimed a peace dividend from victory. They rightly viewed warfare as expensive while also seeming to think victory was forever. Why waste taxpayers’ money on ships-of-the-line to wage a future war that will never come?
That’s the peril of peace dividends: they encourage a society to be miserly while indulging hubris.
And they have consequences when war does come—as it will. By 1775, when fighting broke out in North America, the Royal Navy had to make do with an inferior fleet at home in order to keep adequate numbers of hulls in the Americas. The leadership had flouted time-honored policy, and thus found itself forced onto the defensive once France and Spain entered the war on the colonists’ side starting in 1778. As Mahan sums up that policy: “It had been a maxim with the best English naval authorities of the preceding era . . . that the British navy should be kept equal in numbers to the combined fleets of [France and Spain]—a condition which, with the better quality of the personnel and the larger maritime population upon which it could draw, would have given a real superiority of force. This precaution, however, had not been observed during recent years.”
In other words, the Royal Navy historically trusted to superior seamanship, gunnery, and élan to make the difference in fights between fleets equal in numbers. France and Spain were ruled by the same European dynasty and thus had a habit of ganging up on Britain in wartime. That’s why naval officialdom considered those kingdoms’ combined fleets the standard for British adequacy at sea. Lay enough keels to assure parity on the high seas and trust the human factor to do the rest.
Yet the human factor can never offset too lopsided a numerical mismatch. That was the Royal Navy’s plight from 1775-1783. During the War of American Independence, grouses Mahan, the British fleet was “habitually much inferior” to the Franco-Spanish fleet in European waters. In-home waters, in other words. In fact, he faults the leadership for failing to provide a surplus of vessels. To keep equal numbers of vessels at sea the Royal Navy needed more ships than the French and Spanish navies put together. After all, British ships commonly blockaded their foes in port and were lashed by the elements while riding offshore. Vessels needed to rotate home from blockade duty periodically to refit. French and Spanish fleets were spared the rigors of blockade duty—and thus could get by with fewer hulls.
British naval historian Herbert Richmond pays tribute to Pitt the Younger for correcting the high-seas shortfall. Pitt formed a government after peace came in December 1783. Even though “the country lay under the shadow of a threatened bankruptcy and was in urgent need of economy and the rehabilitation of its finances,” observes Richmond, the prime minister found money to recruit additional sailors and build new shipping. Taken to task for profligacy, he “replied that no one could wish more than he for economy, but the best economy that any country could practice in time of peace was to keep up such a force and take such measures of defense as would be most likely to render that peace permanent and induce its duration; so long as the necessary force for the country’s defense was maintained, it was the less likely that its tranquility would be disturbed.”
Having endured setbacks during the War of American Independence, Great Britain found wise political leadership—leadership that prepared the empire for tests to come during decades of war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Congress and the Biden administration should take note. If the United States genuinely means to keep its commitments to allies across the globe while acting as custodian of freedom of the sea, it must field maritime forces adequate to those purposes. Otherwise, its interests and world standing will suffer—perhaps grievously so. Britain was fortunate to escape the American war with as few losses as it did. Contemporary America might not be so lucky.
Take it from William Pitt: a well-armed peace is cheaper and less hazardous than war.
The British shipbuilding maxim of which Mahan writes implies that the United States must maintain sea forces able to contend with the combined sea power of China and Russia. These two opponents have formed an armed entente and thus constitute latter-day counterparts to France and Spain in the days of Pitt and George III. It’s prudent to set a two-power standard—much as Britain did in its imperial heyday—and measure the U.S. against Sino-Russian maritime might. If U.S. sea forces aren’t up to that standard, America and its allies are standing into danger.
Let’s not suffer a British fate.
James Holmes, a Contributing Editor for 1945, is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.