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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Why Naval Power Matters

Naval Power
130719-N-TP877-667 CORAL SEA (July 19, 2013) The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Yukon (T-AO 202) during Talisman Saber 2013. The exercise is a biennial training event aimed at improving Australian Defense Force and U.S. combat readiness and interoperability as a combined joint task force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Benjamin K. Kittleson/Released)

How did we convince ourselves that naval power didn’t matter? Navies haven’t disappeared, of course, but reasons to believe in the decisive nature of sea control have faded from public discussion. This has made the remarkable rise of China’s navy more shocking than perhaps it should have been.

The early twentieth century was the heyday of naval power. Men on the streets had strong opinions about the numbers and design characteristics of the dreadnought battleships that their shipyards were building. Navies seemed to hold the prospect of seizure and control of distant lands, themselves the key to national prosperity.

Over time this sense of the strategic decisiveness of seapower faded. Land-based aircraft and missiles reach increasingly deep into the world’s oceans, making ships vulnerable in the spaces they once considered safe. Nuclear weapons seemed to make it easy to destroy even the most powerful capital ships, and in their strategic role made naval combat seem quaint.

Even the dominance of maritime trade seemed precarious. By mid-century there were reasons to believe that land- and air- trade might supplant, or at least heavily chip into, maritime trade. The century-long expansion of railways, along with the development of heavy trucks and continent-spanning systems of highways, meant that freight and people could be transferred at margins that were previously only available to ships. The development of wide-bodied, long-range passenger jets effectively took ships out of the people-transport game, at least in the Global North.

The transformation wrought by the container revolution reversed these trends, however.

Containers, and the giant vessels that carry them, radically reduced the cost of maritime trade in the second half of the twentieth century, making possible the phenomenon of globalization. The figure that 80% of the world’s freight is carried by ships has become familiar, and may even be overstated.  The capacity of the world’s oil tanker fleets has grown steadily since the 1980s, and the share of natural gas transported by ship has expanded remarkably over the last decade.

The result is that the maritime sphere is no less important economically today than it was a hundred years ago. While air travel and digital communications, along with roadways and railways, have made it possible to circumvent the sea to some degree, they cannot challenge the basic economic fact that ocean transit is the most economical way to get goods from point A to point B. This places obligations upon navies, which are required for anti-piracy, search and rescue, and the management of abandoned and damaged ships.

The maritime space has changed in other ways. Some of the most important maritime disputes revolve around control of territory that grants access to sources of energy and minerals. That the sea itself, as opposed to transit across the sea, could become a source of national wealth was not envisioned by the theorists of naval warfare, and remains under-theorized today. We don’t quite know what to do with enemy-held offshore drilling platforms during a war, but we surely know that they’ll be important.

Changes in naval technology should also have made clear the continued relevance of naval power. The missions of warships have expanded mightily since the days of Mahan and Corbett.  Most notably, naval vessels can now strike deep into land, either through launching missiles themselves or by launching aircraft that can conduct strikes. “Gunboat diplomacy” can now involved precision-missile attacks on targets over a thousand miles inland.  Warships can also provide some of the most potent defense available against ballistic and cruise missile attacks, and can become a mobile air-defense network.

Why is the importance of seapower not intuitively obvious? The single most important reason that thinking about the importance of maritime power stagnated is because of the dominance of the US Navy, and the navies of US allies. Robert Rubel calls American naval dominance “aquarium water,” because we swim in it rather than see it. For lack of a better metaphor, the aquarium water is becoming murky, and the relevance of naval power should once again become apparent.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Duane

    November 15, 2021 at 7:28 am

    Other than the usual ignorance of the crowd, there really is no more sense today than 100 years ago that naval power is irrelevant. However, few persons, including most of the people in today’s navies, really understand how technology has obsoleted most of what we consider to be naval power today … not to talk down naval power, but to reemphasize it, but in different ways.

    Prior to WW Two, most people thought of naval power, as does the author here, as all about dreadnoughts and heavy battleships … but the problem was, those ships were already obsolete by the end of WW One, with the entry of aircraft and aerial bombing, and submarines … which was rapidly proven at the outset of WW Two starting with the sinking of the Bismarck (made possible by aerial attack that disabled her) and the attack on Pearl Harbor, finishing up with the sinking of the Yamato, the world’s greatest battleship, by aircraft alone in April 1945.

    By the end of WW Two, the entire US Navy surface warship fleet ended up accounting for only 10% of Japanese ship losses, both warships and transports. The main “ball carriers” in the Pacific naval war were the submarines, which though only 2% of the US Navy fleet accounted for more sunken Japanese ships than all the rest of the navy and Army Air Force combined – 55%, to be exact. Aircraft, combined carrier based and land based, accounted for another 25%, and even the lowly sea mines sank as many ships as the entire US Navy surface warship fleet combined. And most of the Japanese shipping destroyed by our surface warship fleet was accounted for not by the famously overrated heavy battleships and cruisers, but by the lowly “tin can” destroyers, destroyer escorts, and PT boats.

    With today’s extreme precision anti-ship missiles, stealthy aircraft, and extreme sensor capability, surface warships, especially the big ones like DDGs and CGs, will matter even less.

    Naval power is more important than ever with the global connected economy. But naval power is NOT about big obsolete surface warships – it is about putting the enemy’s ships on the bottom, and starving the enemy of transport, both inbound and outbound. And it will be performed by all manner of weapons that do not require extremely vulnerable surface warships.

    In other words, true naval warpower is about subs, aircraft, and missiles.

  2. Jack Black 007

    November 15, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    We are already involved in the next war . Unfortunately when the actual full exchange starts it will be between 3am and 5am in the morning and last all day . One day. It will begin with multiple EMP weapons being detonated over the US and Britain along with several overseas bases. In addition Biological weapons will be used against CONUS . Most if not all electronics in all our planes ,ships, missiles will be fried if not hardened. Most ships ,bombers ,aircraft will be destroyed on base or in port. The only real survivors will be subs and missiles that are not hit. To few on alert at any given time . All capital ships will be lost in the first week . From there the invasion of CONUS by multiple Nations from the south and North through Alaska and Canada. It will be our darkest hour and we will stand alone .

  3. Muchael

    November 16, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Duane’s reply was better than the articles author’s. J black I agree with most of what you said but we will be hitting back and our losses will not be our whole navy. The carriers will be the critical weapon along with the subs who will wreck havoc on the chicoms navy. Their navy will not stray too far from the coastline air support radius. We will tutor the balance after the first year. Also you must remember that we will put in place a naval blockade stopping oil imports. The chicoms will hit hard the first year and beg for a ceasefire because it’s all about oil in a protracted war and after a year they will be in strategic trouble. Also they will be subject to aerrial bombardment of their factories and naval ship building yards.

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