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May 25, 2018

STEVEN WILLS: Why Peacetime Naval Buildups Are Difficult.

There has been much gnashing of teeth and complaint in response to the U.S. Navy’s slow build toward a goal of 355 ships. Peacetime naval buildups by free societies have never been simple undertakings. Such governments usually retire large numbers of warships in search of “peace dividends,” from which recovery is often a challenge. If ill-timed, they can result in large numbers of warships that are out of date before they complete even a decade of service, or need to be retired before the end of the service lives to cut costs. Getting to the right numbers of ships, especially in a period of tight finance may mean holding onto old ships well past their expected service life. Past examples of peacetime buildups by the British Royal Navy and U.S. Navy suggest that while getting to larger numbers of ships is possible, the costs can be prohibitive; especially in an environment of rapid, technological advancement.

In desperate times, armies can be trained and thrown into battle in a hurry. The cost, in terms of blood lost, is high — but it can be done.

The same is not true for navies and, in these days of fifth generation jets and bombers, air forces. We cut both to the bone — and beyond — following victory in the Cold War, and never built back up (or even sped up procurement) despite constant low-level warfare since 9/11/2001. Now that China and Russia are getting frisky again, we have naval and air forces which are too few, too old, and stretched too thin.

So it may turn out that there’s nothing more expensive than a peace dividend.