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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

How to Get Americans to Support a Bigger Navy

Sad to say, but rhetoric alone is not enough. It seems things must get worse in the commercial world before they get better for a U.S. naval buildup. 

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

A friend asks: how do you convince the American people to take the threat to seaborne commerce seriously and to support a bigger U.S. Navy to protect it

The Case for a Bigger Navy: How Do You Make It? 

I’m not sure you can. Not under current circumstances, anyway. The threat to shipping seems amorphous, abstract, and remote to your average Everyman on the street. Why, he would ask, should we sluice more taxpayer dollars into shipbuilding accounts to meet it? 

And yet my friend’s question is a sound one. Commerce represents both the purpose and the engine of maritime strategy, and maritime strategy is the natural choice for a seafaring republic like the United States. Commerce is the purpose because trading societies want to enrich themselves, and overseas trade charts a sure route to prosperity. That being the case, wise practitioners of statecraft enact laws and policies that nurture mercantile pursuits in important trading regions. The government harvests revenue from trade that it can invest in a navy to protect merchantmen hauling goods from port to port. 

That’s how commerce acts as the engine of maritime strategy: it produces the wherewithal to fund its own guardian. Setting the virtuous cycle between commerce and the navy in motion and keeping it churning forever ranks among the foremost tasks for the leadership of a maritime society. 

Sea-service grandees get that. A standard U.S. Navy talking point holds that 90 percent of global trade travels by sea. (The percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the bulk or the value of trade goods, but either way it’s a hefty percentage.) Safeguarding nautical thoroughfares is thus a national interest commanding the utmost importance. And yet the talking point always seems to fall flat with lay audiences. It has generated no groundswell of popular support for shipbuilding, at any rate. 

Why is that? 

Ask Aristotle. In his treatise on The Art of Rhetoric, the classical Athenian philosopher observes that to persuade an audience—which is what rhetoric is all about—you need to calibrate your message to appeal both to audience members’ intellect and to their emotions. A compelling argument sways them through fact and logic while getting them to feel its truth in their bones. Passion fuses with reason to prompt action. 

The argument resonates. 

What the Recent Past Tells Us

And yet appeals to sea-lane security have little Aristotelian resonance, even for the world’s predominant sea power. But this has happened before. The early Cold War was something like today in that no obvious or immediate threat to the shipping lanes had appeared on the horizon. The Imperial Japanese Navy and German Navy adorned the seafloor, while erstwhile enemies Japan and Germany were now loyal allies and trading partners. The Soviet Union was a fearsome rival on land, but the Soviet Navy was little more than a nuisance at sea. 

Public sentiment favoring a huge U.S. Navy wilted after World War II, dragging fleet numbers down with it. 

By 1954, in fact, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington had taken to counseling the navy to remake itself as a “transoceanic” force that concerned itself chiefly with projecting power onto foreign shores rather than guarding seaways against nonexistent threats. Only thus, opined Huntington, could the navy justify maintaining a fleet of meaningful heft in the absence of any pressing blue-water menace. 

That was political reality for the day. 

But not forever. Fast-forward to the late Cold War. By the 1970s the Soviet Navy had become a thing, and it had explicitly geared its strategy, doctrine, and fleet architecture to cutting the sea lanes connecting North America to allies in Europe and the Western Pacific. It boasted vast numbers after Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s shipbuilding spree of the 1960s. U.S. Navy leaders were palpably shocked when the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet outnumbered the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Worse, Soviet ships of war were more youthful than their American counterparts. 

By the late 1970s the sea lanes had come under unequivocal threat, and the politics of shipbuilding shifted again. By the Carter and Reagan years, officialdom could frame an argument about threat and response that resonated with the American people. Spokesmen could rally intellect and passion in grand Aristotelian style, winning support to lay the keels for a 600-ship navy—more than double today’s inventory. 

And then another lull followed the Cold War, and for similar reasons. The Soviet Navy now sat rusting at its moorings, and once again there was no clear danger to high-seas traffic. The U.S. sea services shrank along with the perceived threat, and reverted to Huntington-esque transoceanic missions in places like the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. 

And today? Well, Communist China has built itself into a formidable competitor, but it differs from the Soviet Union in important respects. For one, it remains a major U.S. trading partner despite the acrimony of recent years, whereas the Soviets always stood apart from the West economically. That means Moscow had military options then that Beijing does not today. Everyman would look at you quizzically if you suggested that China would use naval and military might to interrupt its own trade, much of which travels in Chinese-built hulls. Everyman would reject that argument from the standpoint of reason. It would leave him cold from the standpoint of passion. And his skepticism would be warranted. 

Aristotle would frown. 

Now, if economic disentanglement between America and China continues, China may come to resemble the Soviet Union of the late Cold War years as a plausible hazard to commerce. If interdicting U.S. trade no longer harmed Chinese trade, Beijing might come to see it as a worthy course of action. Severing sea routes between North America and East Asia would cramp the United States’ economic power and in turn its military and diplomatic clout, as close and distant blockades have since time immemorial.  

At that point, China’s navy and array of ground-based anti-access weaponry would come to look forbidding indeed. Beijing would have matched an imposing arsenal with ill intentions, imperiling that 90 percent of world trade that figures so prominently in U.S. Navy rhetoric. And then senior leadership could put the question of shipbuilding to the American people with reasonable prospects of swaying their minds and hearts to the cause of a bigger navy. Reality would have come to back up rhetoric. 

Sad to say, but rhetoric alone is not enough. It seems things must get worse in the commercial world before they get better for a U.S. naval buildup. 

Biography of the Author 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. 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. Holmes is a Contributing Editor to this publication. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Commentar

    April 22, 2023 at 6:24 pm

    U.S. Navy already very very big. Any bigger, and ya would soon be getting humpty dumpty, instead of mike da tyson.

    Navy is more than just so many numerous ships (and subs) poking around other people’s backyard from jan to december.

    The U.S. Navy also has near countless aircraft, unmanned naval drones and volunteer ‘assistants’ like CG and newsmen flying around in civilian aircraft, also, secret naval special forces and commandos to inflict more poking. Plus vassals like like canadian navy, etc… etc.

    U.S. Navy must use its assets sparingly, as sea water is corrosive and maintenance is thus very costly.

    Greater use of drones should be encouraged, as it cuts down costs and leans toward less problem with ‘diversity quota’ personnel intake.

    Navy assets must not be deployed near the front porch or front gate of other maritime nations, as currently being inadvisably practised in places like black sea and persian gulf.

    An isolated or seemingly innocent encounter or incident can always develop into something sinister or foreboding. So bigger navy no.

  2. Jim

    April 22, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    The picture heading the article is of a majestic aircraft carrier, the pride of the United States Navy.

    Three hypersonic missiles pinpointed on that beautiful carrier sends it into distress, if not to the bottom.

    We’re in a difficult situation in a peer power full confrontation.

    What to do?


    Denial of passage… that’s what attack submarines do.

    We can do a lot with attack submarines… and improve on what they already do. Much thought can be devoted to submarine strategy in peer to peer war.

    And building those submarines.

    Also, we need to disperse our forces, but be able to act in a coordinated manner… from disbursement to maximum focus of fire power.

    There will be loses in war.

    The key is to limit loses and the best way to do that is disperse forces, so one big hit doesn’t stop the overall formation of attack.

    We need big & smart thoughts in the dawn of hypersonic weapons with ranges of over 2,000 miles.

    That’s the facts.

    With hypersonic missiles, carries are only safe in a permissive atmosphere.

    Sinking of a aircraft carrier brings us to the brink of going bigger.

    I respect the power and reach of aircraft carriers.

    But we must recognize how much a sitting duck a carrier is in a peer to peer war.

    That’s where we are against China.

    Don’t kid yourself.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    April 22, 2023 at 11:19 pm

    We don’t even have the requisite sailors necessary to field the vessels we have in the fleet NOW. You want to add more?

    Let’s get these ship builders to make ships not cost billions and come in on time on budget without serious technical issues.

  4. Len Mullen

    April 23, 2023 at 9:10 am

    The US is poised to go to war once again defending other people’s interests. Our ‘leaders’ are squandering trillions defending the people, sea lanes, and borders of faraway nations while leaving us unprotected. Time to bring our warfighters and money home. Time to end the endless wars.

  5. TrustbutVerify

    April 23, 2023 at 9:40 am

    Ummmm…what genius told you the American people don’t support expanding the Navy or understand maritime commerce (let alone the lessons of WWII)? I think whoever is selling that line inside the bubble has his or her head up their fourth point of contact.

    The American people understand the Navy is the first and most robust line of defense for the country and provides us with the capability to ensure the safety of our country and our allies.

    What somebody is selling is the “oh, they want us to take their tax money and redistribute it to social programs…not build ships”…and it is a lie.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    April 23, 2023 at 1:44 pm

    The evolution of weapons from Industrial Age dumb weapons to Information Age smart weapons is making many common weapons obsolete. Patrolling the 71% of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water, requires large numbers of platforms. It would be best if they were cheap, long range, fast, and attritable.

    The Navy’s handful of huge, vulnerable, multi-billion dollar surface warships, that can’t exceed business district speed limits of 35 mph, are the Wrong Weapons.

    200 cheap, small (1kton), AIP utility submarines and thousands of cheap, long range, attritable UAV’s are the Right Weapons.

    Large numbers means strategic dispersion, better coverage, and reduced risk of loss. Putting all your eggs in one basket is a strategic mistake. Based on the principle that a good offense is the best defense. Using resources on pure offensive weapons, provides much greater combat power than wasting most of your resources defending inherently undefendable surface warships.

  7. David Chang

    April 24, 2023 at 12:18 am

    God bless people in the world.

    The Democratic Party do not agree with the expansion of the Navy, and some Republican Rep. of Republican don’t agree with it in election, so they made a series of Top Gun.

    But some Navy and Marine Corps officers know the dangers to CVBG are not just the CBRN, but also missiles, so they want to change the carrier budget to building the dispersed  and UUV fleet. But the Democratic Party threaten and lure the Navy to agree to the Green New Deal by the shipbuilding budget some months ago.

    Moreover, the sea control capability is not only the prerogative of CVBG or CSG, but also the duties of Missile Cruisers, Destroyers and Submarines. So Captain Mahan’s deep thought is the policy of the Navy, and it is the principle of against the People’s Liberation Army. NGAD and GPS are handy tools, but astronomy, sextant, and flag semaphore are necessary navigational tools and skills.

    God bless America.

  8. John

    April 24, 2023 at 3:58 am

    The commenters are right, we are building the wrong stuff. Subs and long range UAVs such as maritime strike RQ180 drones are the future.
    Amphibs , air craft carriers will be sunk. More P-8s including longer range versions w greater payload and self defense capability have greater deterrent. We are behind in hypersonics, but should build conventional land based mobile Trident D5 and SM6-1b

  9. David Chang

    April 26, 2023 at 6:36 am

    God bless people in the world.

    What the most sad is the Rep. Republicans refuse to tell the fact in public, and refuse to talk about the problem they see in the history and wargame exercise.

    Rep. Republicans talk about the United States’ advantage with USAF and USN submarines, even if victory comes with the missing of U.S. western Pacific surface ships.

    So people in America should see the revenue and expenditure of war. While it is immoral to think of people as income and cost, Game Theory’s authors really think so, like pawns. This is the sadness explained by the author of Game Theory, people’s sin makes themselves to be tools and keeps people away from God. So one of Game Theory’s authors is baptized in his end.

    However, when people in the Republic of China talk about the war game exercise held by the Rep. Republicans of the United States, they only say it is an advertisement for the promotion of weapons by America. So instead of preventing the Democratic Party from deceiving the people, the U.S. Rep. Republicans are making future war to be the reality and the predicted deaths will be fulfilled. Therefore, South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol hopes that South Korea will cooperate in the future deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea with the United States in response to the first strike on South Korea.

    In response to the future first strike on South Korea, we understand the South Korea President’s decision, but most people in East Asia do not understand this decision, they only believe that they will prevent war by having strategic weapons, so people will destroy the world by themselves.

    God bless America.

  10. Dennis Baughn

    April 26, 2023 at 7:35 am

    Total US foreign trade in both imports and exports is only about 10% of GDP. And over half of that is with Mexico and Canada.

    So there goes the argument that the US depends on global sea lanes being safe and secure.

    So while the US will be hit, it is the rest of the export dependent world that will really go down the tubes, instead. Particularly Europe and Asia.

    In this new deglobalized era, the US will be relative King.

  11. TG

    April 26, 2023 at 9:52 am

    But what’s the point? The United States is being invaded by the surplus population of the third world, and it is likely that we will be driven down to the level of Mexico or Brazil within a generation (if we are lucky). And that expensive military is doing NOTHING to defend the nation – in fact, it’s helping the invaders in!

    And as far as the US military defending the interests of multinational corporations that care nothing for the US and have shipped most of their operations overseas, well, where is Smedly Butler when we need him?

    I say get rid of the Navy entirely, have the Coast Guard and Army actually patrol the borders, and spend the money we save at home. If Tyrannia invades Fanatistan, or Elon Musk’s investments in China are at risk, it’s not my problem.

  12. Tamerlane

    April 26, 2023 at 1:33 pm

    Maybe the American people would support fleet development if our “leaders” were utilizing our fleets to defend American interests instead of the interests of foreign nations? That’d go a long ways. I have zero interest in giving “leadership” more tools to harm America’s strategic interests abroad.

  13. David Miller

    April 26, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    I don’t accept this sea lane obstruction nonsense. The Soviet Union did not intercept merchant shipping and China doesn’t today.

  14. ATM

    April 27, 2023 at 7:10 am

    The main argument is that the US must protect shipping lanes. Given that most shipping is Chinese, the idea is the US tax payer should be burdened with protecting Chinese shipping?

  15. DT

    May 4, 2023 at 11:23 am

    The military fear is that another country dare control anything. God appointed us full control of the world and we will not stand for any less. The new Navy transgender recruiting video should do wonders. Bud Light and the new Navy.

  16. Winston Smith

    May 4, 2023 at 9:31 pm

    Hm how about flying planes into buildings? Or sponsoring virus research in China and the virus gets out?

    Then we can justify adding to the $1 trillion in military spending as our country crumbles.

  17. Steven Naslund

    May 4, 2023 at 11:37 pm

    The reasoning for not support a huge fleet is simple math. Years to build vs minutes to destroy. The Navy would have to prove survivability against a near peer force. They can’t do this. What we need is precision global air strike capability, either missile or aircraft. We should also be developing intercontinental tactical weapons to target naval forces anywhere in the world. Why send shiploads of young Americans where we can send missiles?

  18. Steven Naslund

    May 7, 2023 at 4:03 am

    This is how you change warfare….U N M A N N E D systems.

    If your enemy is expending their citizens lives and you are not, you are winning. The U S was the innovator of drones and needs to exploit that and not ancient surface combatants. 40 knot targets in a hypersonic world is what they are. They have zero stealth capability (the stupid Zumwalt may be harder to see on radar but cant hide from a satellite or drone camera), any decent naval power will have pictures of them leaving port and track them worldwide.

    Unmanned aircraft can exceed frail human physicality. Submarines are still hard to detect. Missiles are still hard to defend against especially in bulk. The world shipping lanes are full of Chinese products we can survive without. Why do we need to defend global shipping with a navy when we can easily design intercontinental cruise missile capabilities?

    The question is not do we need a bigger fleet, the question is are,surface combatants the best use of resources. They aren’t and I think most people know it.

    Its just hard to sell those fact to the Naval War College I suppose.

  19. JR

    May 7, 2023 at 11:30 am

    I don’t think the end is nigh for extremely complex and expensive weapon systems, but I do think that they need to be paired with a large amount of cheaper systems to augment them. The US military is in the process of adopting a high-low mix using drone aircraft, ships, submarines and vehicles. Containerized weapon systems can be used to launch missiles and even CCA drones. Distributing containerized weapons across the Pacific on ships and islands would compound an enemy’s problem because it would be difficult to track them all, and if anything’s even inside.

    A Chinese assault on Taiwan would likely start with a siege of the island. How would the US be able to counter that using a force structure of a small number of expensive ships compared to an armada of (comparatively) inexpensive platforms that are distributed and can intermingle with Chinese platforms? The US would be unable to “stand-in” without being at great risk without the large distributed force.

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