Go Navy, Beat Army: Constitutional Edition

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Opinion

As international turmoil grips the Indo-Pacific, central Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia, and former Eastern Bloc Europe, it can feel like the opportunity for defense reform or, at minimum, introspection on the last few decades is slipping away. Despite public rejection of our endless wars in the Middle East, ultra-hawks in Congress, military ground commanders and their shared armies of think-tank staff and industry advocates continue to press the American people to trade on our children’s economic future to ignite or expand campaigns that do not directly impact our national or economic interests.

So where do those seeking to reform defense, informed by realism and restraint, begin? There are endless systems small and large that are clearly broken and need reform, from all sides of defense procurement, to broken incentives in the military officer corps, to a real need for accountability for retired military commanders who misled Congress and the American people about our capabilities and their outcomes.

Chasing down and reforming each part of each massive and broken system while simultaneously playing whack-a-mole with every public campaign for every war of every size the government wants to throw us into feels improbable if not impossible. Perhaps we can focus on correcting course in a way that will drive us incrementally back to where we need to be without upending the military industry that is built into every major economic sector in America – drawing inspiration from our Founding Fathers’ insistence that America be a naval power.

Returning to the constitutional role of the U.S. Navy will fundamentally reinforce the security and efficiency of our nation’s sea freight-dependent economy. The Founding Fathers had a keen apprehension regarding a standing army and its likelihood of overuse, which is why the Constitution distinctly emphasizes a naval force. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power “to provide and maintain a Navy,” unlike the provision for raising armies, which notably includes the caveat, “but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” The Navy is upheld without such a restriction, highlighting its economic significance and critical, enduring role in national defense.

The focus on a robust naval presence is not merely a historical footnote but a strategic imperative, particularly given the challenging economic landscape. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, maritime transportation accounts for over $1.5 trillion in annual economic activity and more than 13 million jobs in the United States. This underscores the immense economic stakes tied to our ability to safeguard maritime channels from disruptions or threats – and highlights that the Navy is the only branch that doesn’t simply consume or redistribute resources.

However, incidents over the past two decades and Indo-pacific conflict on the horizon illustrate the costs of naval neglect. The crashes of the USS John McCain and USS Fitzgerald not only resulted in tragic loss of life, significant operational setbacks, and hundreds of millions in costs – but underscored how top defense officials ignored the needs of our most significant branch. A neglected Navy is now trying to rapidly scale up its fleets and sailors for deterrence against Chinese aggression, an expensive and challenging premise given the other resource heavy conflicts we have prioritized at the same time. Investing in and refocusing on the Navy’s constitutional role can mitigate these self-induced risks. A reinvigorated naval power ensures the protection of crucial shipping lanes against piracy, terrorism, and geopolitical threats.

Adhering to the constitutional vision for a perennial and potent naval force is more than a tribute to the foresight of the Founding Fathers; it is a pragmatic strategy to secure and enhance our sea freight-dependent economy.

It will take time to shift American military policy after 20+ years of largely Army leadership, who have faced no meaningful accountability for the failed small wars that dominated congressional and public interest. Investment in our Navy should come alongside significant and meaningful reduction of spending on other branches, particularly those with redundant capabilities. Decision makers will eventually return to prioritizing the use our greatest tool of military deterrence and economic progress, the United States Navy.

Follow Sam Rogers on X at @realsamrogers.

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