The Navy’s Knives Must Come Out

Graphic from Reuters (2019)

A few weeks ago Blake Herzinger kicked up a bit of a storm when he published an essay titled “Give the U.S. Navy the Army’s Moneyin Foreign Policy.1  Herzinger’s argument is not complicated: as military budgets are likely to remain flat over the next decade while the threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army only grows, the time has come to divert money now being sent to the U.S. Army and direct it towards the United States Navy. The USN will be taking the lead role in any future showdown between China and the United states; inasmuch as China truly is the “pacing threat” that the American military must prepare to face, the arguments in favor of this course of action are obvious.


Blake Herzinger, “Give the U.S. Navy the Army’s Money,” Foreign Policy (28 April 2021). 

Yet not everyone is pleased with these arguments. Here is a representative Twitter protest, chosen not because it is the best of Herzinger’s critics, but because it is a vivid testament of the acrimony his essay has unleashed:

The Navy dudes frame every argument around war with China because it’s literally the only scenario that centers the Navy and only the Navy. They ignore every other adversary so hard I’m starting to wonder if Russian think tanks are paying them. 

“hOw ArE yOu GoInG tO fIgHt If YoU cAn’T gEt AcRoSs ThE oCeAn?” How are we gonna fight if you get us across the ocean and we’re outmanned and outgunned? Doesn’t matter if you can deliver a force that can’t fight.

And the shit that really sticks in my craw about it is that they’re not just asking for money. That’s fine, I get it, we all need to modernize and reset. ALL OF US. They’re not just arguing for more funding for them, but for less funding for the Army. And never once have I seen anyone arguing against them say that the Navy’s budget should be cut to give the Army more. They don’t say “maybe the Space Force and Air Force give up some programs.” Or “maybe we can trim some of our own projects and be more judicious.”

It all seems very anti-Army specifically and it cracks me up when they say my arguments are from emotion when it really kinda seems like lots of them are mad that they’ve had to be *gasp* a supporting effort for a while. Maybe that’s not the case but it’s how it reads to me. 

Tryin’ to tell me China is the primary threat outlined in the NDS like I can’t motherfucking read. This is the danger of getting a cushy civilian job where you get paid to tHiNk DiSrUpTiVelY for a living; you end up thinking you’re the smartest person in every room.2


“Combat Cav Scout,” twitter thread (2 May 2021) 

There are a great many things that can be said in response to all that. One could write about the differential in Russian and Chinese power, the naval nature of commercial republics, the responsibilities of U.S. allies in various theaters of the world, land-based vs. sea-based theories of victory, and so forth. But in this post I am going to focus in on a narrower problem. It is a problem of politics.

Here is crux of the matter: the national security complex does not have a great deal of credibility left. While the military as a whole remains a trusted institution, this has more to do with gratitude for the sacrifices of average servicemen than trust in Pentagon planning teams. The broader world of national security expertise is not respected—not in Washington, and certainly not beyond the Beltway. This complex wasted vast sums over the last two decades on platforms that cannot perform. It led us through two decades of fruitless war. It did this somewhat oblivious to the public’s changing priorities. When polled on their political priorities only a minuscule percentage of Americans speak of foreign affairs or military strength. Our new president cruised to victory with a trillion dollar domestic spending plan; his most serious primary opponent would have sought an even larger one, had he been elected. This is simply the world we live in. In this world, the legitimacy of the defense establishment rests on its ability to very publicly stakeout priorities and mercilessly cut away capabilities that do not match them. The Pentagon must appear as if it has learned something from the last twenty years. The axes must come out.

There is no getting around this. Joe The Voter is aware of the general tradeoff between guns and butter; when he associates graft with defense spending, it is not with a particular service, but with military spending as unitary whole. The question for him is simply whether the military deserves more money or less of it. Pollsters ask this question regularly; according to Gallup’s most recent, a full 78% of the American public is “satisfied” with America’s “national strength and preparedness.” Only 26% of Americans think we need to be spending more money on the military.3 Our defense budgets will not grow.


Gallup Opinion polls, “Military And National Defense” (accessed 12 May 2021)

While it is not fair for the US Army to have to pay the cost of failed Navy procurement programs, fairness is a poor guide in war. Some service will have to pay the cost. In an age of static budgets, modernization money must come from somewhere else within the Pentagon. None of the Army’s defenders have outlined what in the Navy’s budget ought to be sacrificed for the sake of Naval modernization. But something must be sacrificed somewhere and it is far past time we had a debate over what that something should be.

This is what frustrates me most about this entire discussion. We are having it years too late. The PLA’s explosive trajectory has been apparent for a decade. It should have been understood as the Pentagon’s chief problem from at least 2015 onward; the Navy’s modernization crisis, meanwhile, was being predicted all the way back in 2016. Seeing all of this several years ago, I wrote this in frustration:

The modern defense professional is allergic to controversy. The fear that our reputations and programs might become matters of public controversy lead us to shield policy dilemmas from the public. America faces a series of hard choices in the years ahead. Trade-offs must be made. The refusal to acknowledge these trade offs and make them the center of public debate should be understood for what it really is: a decision to value cordiality within the NatSec community over accountability to the people at large.

Let me go through a few examples so you can a sense for what I mean. There is currently something of a demand in Navalist circles for a 355 ship Navy. Now fleets are not cheap. Hulls are not quick constructions. This places real limitations on America’s capacity to make real the Navalist dream. While you can find plenty of op-eds arguing the case for 355 ships, or think tank reports outlining how they might be built, nowhere in these clamors for Naval growth is an honest confrontation with the real obstacles standing in the Navy’s way. 

To choose a 355 ship Navy means not choosing something else. Until we can articulate what we must sacrifice to get those ships, they will not be built

Part of the problem here might just be that many in the NatSec world grew up in a different age and have not quite synced in with the realities of our era. A reminder on where we stand in 2018: One of the central pillars of our President’s election campaign was the need to reduce America’s international commitments. Congress just added a trillion dollars to the deficit. Americans’ obsession with the culture wars leaves little room for pondering foreign wars. The generation that will be responsible for bringing armament programs to completion believes that the military is an ineffective instrument for preserving prosperity and peace.

These realities cannot be ignored. At this point in our history, America simply does not have the financial or political wherewithal to be everything to everyone. She must choose. To choose a proper Navy is to not choose something else. So what will we choose to lose? Perhaps the money will come from reducing social services. But there is another, more obvious source of funds, and it is shocking how little it is mentioned. The Department of Defense has the money for 355 ships. Currently that money is being distributed to the Army and the Air Force. 

Despite this fact, you will search in vain for a single op-ed penned by retired Navy personnel (or even those anonymous wink-wink quotes dispensed to journalists when officers want to make their point on the sly) arguing that the budget needs to be tilted towards the Navy at the expense of the other services. We demand a Navy but do not justify or acknowledge the public sacrifices it would take to create it.

This is profoundly unserious.4


Tanner Greer, “You Do Not Have the People,” Scholar’s Stage (3 March 2018).

Shortly after I wrote that a USN Captain now retired reached out via e-mail to express his skepticism. Why stoke interservice conflict when so much is wasted in domestic spending? This sort of attitude is widespread in the world of NatSec. It is partially responsible for the modernization catastrophe we face today.

Look folks: three presidents in a row have been elected promising large scale domestic spending plans. The amount of money entitlement spending would swallow up in the 2020s has been known for decades. At no point in the last ten years has a majority of Americans polled said they wished to raise defense spending. When asked to rank their political priorities, health care consistently ranks first; immigration, culture war issues, and the economy come next. Military strength and foreign affairs come in at rock bottom. A telling display of priorities came when the “pro-defense spending” side diverted defense funds to building a border wall. The future promises nothing better: the younger the demographic polled, the less concerned about defense it is. America under 45 would have voted a socialist president; soon enough that America will be the majority of voters.

Imagining that the American people would rally around tax raises or cuts in domestic spending for the sake of preserving generous budgets across all three branches is a fantasy. It always has been.

This was apparent enough to me three years ago to prompt me to write the piece I excerpted above. The basic trend lines were all easy see: a looming naval modernization crisis, fantastic growth in PLAN/PLAAF/PLARF capabilities, the growing costs of domestic spending programs, and faltering enthusiasm for defense spending or an assertive military presence abroad. All have been visible for six or seven years. These debates about the proper balance of spending between the services should have been kicked off in the final term of the Obama administration. That we are only having them now speaks to the perverse incentives that rule Washington.

I get it folks. Interservice bloodbaths are not fun. Speaking out on these topics carries costs. For a think tanker it means alienating potential donors; for a columnist, potential sources; for a staffer on the Hill or a planner in the Pentagon it means hours wasted on vicious arguments. For all, it means the pressure of immense monied interests arrayed against you. The problem with the NatSec world is that for years those things have mattered more than the freedom of 23 million Taiwanese that will depend on a capable U.S. Navy, and the lives of future servicemen that will be lost if we do not have one.

So huzzah to Blake Herzinger for getting this conversation rolling. It is years late in coming—but better later than never, as they say. The time has arrived for the knives to come out. 


For more of my writing on the pathologies of American strategy, see “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead,” “Against the Kennan Sweepstakes,” “Welcome to the Decade of Concern,” and “You Do Not Have the People.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible. ————————————————————————————-

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They are building a useless, unnecessary fighter jet instead of unmanned fighter drones. Fighter drones would have higher performance at a hundredth of the cost (or is it a thousandth of the cost?) Which is to say that they could field 100 or 1000 fighter drones for the cost on one, slower and less agile, F-35. The drones would have lower operations cost too.
One has to suspect that manned ships and manned submarines are similarly inefficient compared to what we should be building — drone ships and drone submarines.

I think the public itself will actually find the general program of redistributing from army to navy to be a great idea, so long as it is framed the way it ought to be: we are reducing our ability to get involved in quagmire land wars, and increasing our ability to protect our allies from Chinese aggression. Seems great!

The idea that China poses any sort of military or security threat to mainland America is not credible to American public or to anyone outside of America. That is the main problem in my view.

You don't understand. The most important national security threats now facing the US are racism and domestic terrorism.

I don't know. We going to build more aircraft carriers?

You know there is this thing called a wake homing torpedo. The Soviets introduced them in the mid-1960s. So they have been around for some time. There has been no countermeasure to them.

The most recent attempt at a countermeasure (essentially using depth charges on them) was abandoned about a year ago as being ineffective and prone to numerous false alarms.

And don't get me started on how much fun the Navy has had with their Littoral Combat Ships.

Well at least our aircraft carriers haven't turned into an abandoned exhibit at a Chinese Theme Park – the fait of at least one Soviet Carrier.

The wake-homing torpedo is not some miracle wonderweapon that renders surface ships and carriers obsolete. A torpedo requires a launch platform, whether aircraft or submarine to get very close to the target, and a USN CVNBG is very very good at preventing enemy submarines and aircraft from getting close enough to launch.

It's still a serious threat, but carriers with ASW aircraft, friendly SSNs, and F-35s and Aegis ships can mount a credible defense.

Shortly after I wrote that a USN Captain now retired reached out via e-mail to express his skepticism. Why stoke interservice conflict when so much is wasted in domestic spending? This sort of attitude is widespread in the world of NatSec.

Given that the Pentagon flunked their most recent financial audit, I’d suggest that the Navy’s first priority should be to figure out where their current budget is being spent.

Next up: Infrastructure is critical to a strong military. (That’s why the enemy’s infrastructure is targeted during conflicts.). We need to fix our infrastructure (including cyber security defenses) right away. Imagine a ransomware attack during a crisis that shuts down our electrical and fuel distribution networks.

The days of unlimited defense budgets are over – there’s no more money for mistakes such as the Littoral Combat Ship / F-35 projects. We need to define an overall strategy for facing tomorrow’s challenges, and then decide on which systems are needed to meet those challenges. Arguing over which component of national defense should get how much of the defense budget without having an overall strategy won’t solve the problem.

As a taxpayer, I feel the Pentagon has had its own way for a long time with forever wars all over the globe and specifically the war in Afghanistan, which has been fought without any effort to let the American people know the war aims or strategy. We’ve reached a tacit agreement that the generals can have their war and Americans will tune it out.

We probably can’t have a great big Navy and a Land War in Asia at the same time.