George F. Will: Navy with a mission — Do Americans want U.S. power projected?

By George F. Will, Washington Post

Published: Wed, Aug. 27, 2014, 7:50 p.m. MDT

 The Navy, with embarked Marines, is the primary instrument for the use of military power. The question, however, is: Do Americans, demoralized by squandered valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, want U.S. power projected?

The Navy, with embarked Marines, is the primary instrument for the use of military power. The question, however, is: Do Americans, demoralized by squandered valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, want U.S. power projected?

(Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Russia's ongoing dismemberment of Ukraine and the Islamic State's erasing of Middle Eastern borders have distracted attention from the harassment of U.S. Navy aircraft by Chinese fighter jets over the South China Sea. Beijing calls this sea, and the Yellow and East China seas, the "near seas," meaning China's seas. The episodes involving aircraft are relevant to one of Adm. Jonathan Greenert's multiplying preoccupations — CUES, meaning Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

This is designed to prevent incendiary accidents, a topic of special interest during this month's centennial commemorations of the beginning of a war that, ignited by miscalculations, ruined the 20th century. Greenert, chief of naval operations, has carrier-based aircraft flying from the Persian Gulf to targets in Iraq. He is, however, always thinking about the far side of the largest ocean.

One hundred years ago, the principal challenge of world diplomacy, which failed spectacularly, was to peacefully integrate a rising, restless power — Germany — into the international system. Today's comparable challenge is China. Greenert, who knows well his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli, radiates a serene patience about China.

Today the Chinese have one primitive aircraft carrier built from a hull bought from Ukraine. Greenert says China is about 10 years away from having a seriously large and capable carrier with excellent aircraft. By which time, optimists hope, China will accept the need for orderliness on the seas over which pass 90 percent of the world's trade (by volume) and beneath which, through cables, pass 95 percent of international phone and Internet traffic.

Greenert's Navy, which has fewer (290) but much more capable ships than the Navy had during the Reagan buildup (594), can still move nimbly to put anti-missile ships near North Korea or F/A-18s over the Islamic State. But cascading dangers are compelling Americans to think afresh about something they prefer not to think about at all — foreign policy. What they decide that they want will define the kind of nation they want America to be. This abstract question entails a concrete one: What kind of Navy do Americans want? The answer will determine whether U.S. power can, in Greenert's formulation, "be where it matters when it matters."

China's naval buildup is eliciting countervailing forces, including Japan's naval expansion, which Greenert says includes ships as capable as ours. Japan's constitution restricts the nation's Self-Defense Forces to just that — defensive activities — but the constitution can be construed permissively to allow, for example, defenses against ballistic missiles and protection of allies. This is one reason Greenert says it is reasonable to speak of a 1,000-ship naval force encompassing the assets of nations — such as India, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines — that have no agendas beyond maintaining the maritime order on which world commerce depends.

The most momentous naval event in world history, an event more important than the developments of sail and steam power, was the Jan. 17, 1955, signal from the USS Nautilus: "Underway on nuclear power." A nuclear Navy can stay on station. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs the Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, notes that with America having fewer land bases overseas, aircraft carriers effectively "move U.S. soil anywhere in the world."

A Chinese intellectual says his country has an "outward-leaning economy." China's economic dynamism, and hence its political stability and geopolitical weight, depends on seaborne imports of natural resources and seaborne exports to distant markets. China, which has territorial disputes in common waters with its neighbors, worries, Forbes says, primarily about America's Navy.

Forbes worries about China's development of "carrier-buster" anti-ship missiles that "will back our carriers away from Chinese territory," including those seas that China considers its own. A carrier can cost approximately $13 billion, but that is, Forbes says, acceptable for a product that will project national power for 50 years. The Navy, with embarked Marines, is the primary instrument for the use of military power.

The question, however, is: Do Americans, demoralized by squandered valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dismayed in dramatically different ways by two consecutive commanders in chief — the recklessness of one and the lassitude of his successor — want U.S. power projected? They will answer that question with the Navy their representatives configure. The representatives should act on the assumption that every generation lives either in war years or in what subsequent historians will call "interwar years."

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

1. Piper
Scio, OR,
Aug. 27, 2014

While carriers do cost substantially more, a greater menace to China's navy and merchant fleet is the United States attack submarines.

2. GaryO
Virginia Beach, VA,
Aug. 28, 2014

"Do Americans want U.S. power projected?"

I don’t.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” . . . Softly . . . NO SCREAMING.

Republican Bully Boys have gotten this nation into more than enough jams over the past couple of decades, don’t you think?

And make sure you’ve got the right kind of stick. It doesn’t have to be gold plated. If other powers expand their navies with aircraft carriers, that’s their prerogative. We don’t have to emulate them. Our military should focus on Lean, Mean, stealthy and EFFECTIVE

So the American people have become “demoralized” and “dismayed” by the “lassitude” of our President, huh? What “Lassitude?” I think people are becoming disgusted with the criticisms of “Conservative” columnists like George Will . . . Columnists who are almost always wrong.

George Will belittled Clinton throughout his Presidency as Clinton’s stellar policies created one success after another. And then he praised GW Bush and the policies that almost killed this nation. Now he’s back to belittling the current Democratic President for taking a sensible course.

Only the most jaundiced “Conservatives” believe him.

3. happy2bhere
clearfield, UT,
Aug. 28, 2014


Very true. I'm surprised that Mr. Will seems to forget that of all military assets, the most dangerous and hardest to stop would be submarines. No, subs won't land Marines to fight, but then the idea of a land invasion of China would be suicide. China needs to be controlled from foreign adventures by U.S. Naval power, and the submarine would be the ultimate deterrent. I'm an old aircraft carrier sailor myself, and I know that as much power as one can bring with some 60 combat aircraft, one hit from a cruise missile, or torpedo could bring carrier ops to a standstill. The sub however, could, and does, protect the carriers and the fleet from Chinese subs and surface ships. About the only thing a sub could not do is provide air cover. That however would be where the carrier aircraft and sophisticated anti-air missiles from Aegis ships would come in. I hope Mr. Will does a little more research to complete the picture. I think the U.S. Navy submarine force is the single most important military asset for national security there is.

4. RC in WJ
Aug. 28, 2014

Re: Gary O, Piper and Happy2bhere,

Great posts and right on assesments of Geo. Will.

We can always count on Geo. Will, Gerson and Liljenquist to provide enough right wing red meat to provide the DN daily anti-Obama rant!

5. intervention
slc, UT,
Aug. 28, 2014

The truth is Americans, regardless of party, really have no idea what we want in terms of use military power.