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First in Harm’s Way

January 17th, 2013 - 9:34 am

George Will — who does not oppose Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary — has a few questions for him, anyway. Here’s the most important one:

The Navy has 9 aircraft carriers. Aircraft carrier groups are the principal means of projecting U.S. power. And they are very expensive. How many should we have? How is your calculation influenced by the fact that seven weeks ago China for the first time landed a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier?

I dread any further cuts to the Navy. Yes, naval procurement is a mess, and I’d like to see Hagel (or any SecDef) run roughshod over it, make some heads roll, and clean up the godforsaken mess. While we’re fantasizing, we might also give serious thought to nuking the Pentagon. The military’s new HQ could be located far from Washington, where they might actually get some work done. Here’s a few hundred bucks to book a couple rooms at the Holiday Inn in Salina, Kansas. Cut some more fat, and we’ll upgrade you all to the Holidome in Topeka.

But we were talking about the Navy.

Worst comes to worst, you can raise Army divisions pretty quickly. Marines might take a little more time, what with all that beach storming to learn. But so long as you maintain a solid cadre of NCOs, they can train up the lower ranks and the junior officers in comparatively little time. And we can do with a lot fewer officers. Today we have about one officer for every five enlisted men. In World War II — the last time we threw a winning war — the ratio was one-to-ten. Our higher-tech military requires a higher proportion of officers, but we can surely do without bunches of flag officers whose primary mission is military-grade ass-covering at the soon-to-be-nuked Pentagon. I can live with a smaller Army, and I suppose we’ll have to, given Washington’s inability to prioritize spending.

The Air Force is trickier. Before the 9/11 attacks, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld came into office with a plan to skip a generation of procurement, and use the savings to speed up development of the next generation. We were at peace, and our existing airframes could be made to last long enough to cover the procurement gap. I liked this idea a lot, right up until jihadis brought war to Manhattan. But to give an example, our entire fleet of F-22 Raptors took 15 years to build, at a rate of about two per month. That was a leisurely production rate, and with a sloppy production system, too. To generate enough support in Congress for gold-plated fighters, production was split up amongst about 1,000 subcontractors spread out of 46 out of the 57 states. We can do better than that, should push come to shove. Which undoubtedly it has. So don’t get me started on how screwed up F-35 production is.

But that pales in comparison with raising a fleet. The first of our Gerald Ford -class aircraft carriers was laid down in 2009, but isn’t planned to be commissioned until 2015. Then there are all the other warships and supply ships which make up a carrier battle group. They take time, too. And it can take a year or two between the launching of a modern warship and when it can be commissioned into the fleet. I’m not sure there’s any way to speed up that process, either. Warships are incredibly complex beasts, requiring many sea trials before they’re ready for war.

And naval traditions are difficult to come by and easy to lose. We operate the best carriers in large part because we’ve been doing it longer than anybody else, and, most importantly, we’ve been doing it continuously. China has been trying for a couple decades now to get a working carrier, and has only just recently made their first (and only) carrier landing. That was on a “practice” ship that will probably never be able to fight. This stuff is really, really hard.

The job the Navy does, even in peacetime, is vital, too. Trading powers that can’t maintain the sealanes don’t stay trading powers for long. Before you object, Japan and the United Kingdom do have immense and powerful and experienced fleets — it’s just that most of the ships sport the American flag.

What I’m saying is, eliminate Army brigades if we must. Make the Air Force do more, with less, and faster. But this landlubber can’t say it enough: Do not shrink the Navy.

UPDATE: Try as I might, I couldn’t find the text of COL David Hackworth’s “Nuke the Pentagon” anywhere online. It was published in Playboy twenty years ago this month, and it’s one of the few issues I bought and kept. Because of Hackworth, I swear. Not the Barbie Twins. Not at all.

ONE MORE THING: An anonymous commenter left a link to a scanned copy of Hackworth’s article. It’s as true as ever, and is today’s recommended reading.

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