Is 2020 Really 1940 for the U.S. Navy?

James Holmes

It’s beginning to feel like 1940 for the U.S. Navy. To a degree, anyway. Back then naval grandees, administration officials, and lawmakers discerned grave dangers gathering along the Western European and East Asian rimlands and resolved to rebuild American military might to manage them. Today naval grandees, administration officials, and lawmakers discern grave dangers gathering along the East Asian rimland and are saying the right things about rebuilding American maritime might to manage them. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, for example, wants to exceed his mandate to field a 355-ship navy—up from 293 at present—by adding a family of medium-sized and large unmanned vessels to the fleet.

Heartening words abound, as do ideas about strategy for employing the revised, diversified, more muscular sea service. Yet the differences between 1940 and 2020 are discomfiting. Good words notwithstanding, the fleet has not grown to any meaningful extent over the first three years of the Trump administration. Nor, for that matter, is it obvious that the unmanned contingent will be the difference-maker sea-power enthusiasts seem to think it will. The U.S. Navy was over a year into rebuilding when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Today’s navy may be denied that luxury should war break out.

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