Zoom In On This Photo (You Can See the U.S. Navy's Greatest Foe)

James Holmes

Key point: Power projection is not just about hardware but about how such hardware and military forces present themselves. Appearing ship-shape is necessary to project gravity and competence.

The U.S. Navy has a diplomatic problem. It’s a problem that stems from the most mundane of failings: neglect of vessels’ outward appearance. The amphibious assault ships USS Boxer and Fort McHenry put into the seaport of Kiel, Germany not long ago in a disreputable state. Rust streaked their sides for all to see. The destroyer USS Gravely, one of America’s frontline Aegis surface combatants, operated alongside allied ships in a likewise parlous condition.

U.S. Marines have a slogan: no better friend, no worse enemy. Slovenly appearances imply to influential audiences that the U.S. Navy is neither a friend worth courting nor a foe worth fearing. After all, navies that skimp on the basics in peacetime seldom triumph in wartime.

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