Put that question to a crowd of seafarers and you might be surprised what answer you elicit. I chaired a seminar at our Current Strategy Forum a few years back and posed just that question to the participants. And didn’t need to pose another. People appeared deeply worried and frustrated at the state of American sea power. They seemed to agree: the nonnaval elements of maritime power are in decay.
Also on the No side of the ledger, John Grady reports over at USNI News (click here) that the U.S. Maritime Administration is short nearly two thousand qualified civilian mariners while the U.S.-flagged merchant fleet is famously–in fact, dangerously–lean in numbers.
There are historical reasons for the dearth of American merchantmen. Thank you, Confederate raider CSS Alabama. But in part the MARAD seems to be another victim of the just-in-time thinking that has held the U.S. Navy in thrall since around the turn of the century. You refuse to keep excess capacity on hand in peacetime in order to hold down costs. Efficiency is the watchword for this just-enough philosophy. Excess is waste.
That makes sense in the business world, where rival firms are trying to outcompete you, not kill your workers or blow up your plant. But in wartime just enough means a shortfall. You need surplus capacity to manufacture and transport warmaking materiel in bulk, and to make up the losses you will suffer in action.
Mahan fretted that the character of the American people and government might not support seaborne pursuits over the long haul. In particular he worried about that core of nautical expertise without which no seaward enterprise can flourish for long. Without a corps of naval architects, shipwrights, and able seamen, American sea power could prove brittle when struck a sharp blow in combat.
America remains a naval power with a navy that rules the waves. Whether it remains a maritime power in the fullest sense is increasingly in doubt.