New presidents begin to appreciate America’s armed forces at their first National Security Council meeting during their first foreign-policy crisis, when the first question asked is usually: “Where is the nearest aircraft carrier?”
President Trump has decided where two of the carriers will be. The United States is extending the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to join the USS Ronald Reagan in the waters near the Korean peninsula. The Nimitz is scheduled to relieve the Vinson in the Pacific later this year.
General McMaster, the national-security adviser, has said that the United States does not anticipate using military force against North Korea. Yet the carriers are still vital to our policy there. The carrier strike group is the tip of the iceberg of American power; its presence is a powerful signal the United States is serious about protecting its people and its interests in a crisis.
In fact, the most common use of hard power generally is to reinforce the soft power that all American presidents prefer to use when exerting national influence. George Kennan put it concisely in a lecture to the National War College in 1946: “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.”
There should be two aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater at all times. Only one is deployed there consistently. There should also be a two-carrier presence in the Persian Gulf, yet only one is typically there. There should be a continuous carrier presence in the Mediterranean, but typically there is no carrier there at all. This is because the United States only has eleven aircraft carriers and at any given time only about a third of them can be deployed at sea. Carriers have to steam to and from deployments, and they must be maintained in home port. This “two for one” rule is true for the entire Navy (and in fact, for most of the armed forces) but it’s especially true for carriers, because they require so much maintenance.
Numbers matter, both in actual combat and because forward presence, which requires numbers to sustain, is as important a mission for the Navy as combat. At 275 ships, the Navy is at least 75 ships too small — no matter what PolitiFact or the Washington Post says.
In the early 1990s, when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, he proposed a plan for the armed forces in the new post-Cold War world. He thought that the Navy would need twelve carriers and almost 200 more ships in total than it has today. That was before the rise of Chinese power, before global Islamic terrorism, before Iran’s nuclear program, before Russia became hostile, and before North Korea acquired nuclear weapons. It was a relatively peaceful world then; the world today, as Madeleine Albright put it a few years ago, is “a mess.”
Aircraft carriers cost $12-13 billion. That’s a little more than 1/15th of one percent of America’s GDP, and a little less than one third of 1 percent of the federal budget. (It’s also about one eighth of Bill Gates’ personal fortune; maybe the Navy should apply to Bill and Melinda for a grant.)
America can afford more carriers, more ships of other kinds, and a larger military generally. The problem isn’t money. It’s time. You can’t throw a switch and get an aircraft carrier; it takes five years or more to build one. Other classes of ships can be built much quicker, if they are already designed and ready for production, and if the industrial base is robust enough to absorb the extra work. That’s another problem for the Navy; the United States has lost half its public shipyards in the last 20 years.
Foreign policy is the product of capability and intention. One of the ironclad rules is that intention can change quickly — we have seen that in the last two weeks of the Trump administration — but it takes a lot longer to change capability, which is why it was such a consequential mistake to allow American strength to sink so low over the last 20 years.
I’ve always believed that Donald Trump grasped all this intuitively, that in this area his instincts were much sounder than those of his predecessors. When Mr. Trump says that his policy is “peace through strength,” he means it. He knows that negotiating from strength is better than negotiating from weakness. His defense plan calls for a 350-ship Navy. My guess is that as time goes on, he will conclude he needs a bigger Navy than that.
He can have it, and he can have the military he wants; in the process he can revitalize American manufacturing and American innovation, and get the high-end job creation he wants as well. Many of those jobs will be in the heartland, in Trump country. The defense plan alone, if pursued with vigor and purpose, can by itself go a long way toward fulfilling his pledge to make America great, and safe, again.
All his administration — or the top level of it anyway — needs to do is focus like a laser on two things: a) getting more money for defense, and b) spending the money with reasonable efficiency, so that Congress will give him even more money. Money is not the solution to most of the problems in Washington. But for all intents and purposes, it’s the solution to this one.
The industrial base has become so fragile that Mr. Trump won’t be able to complete a rebuild of the military in his administration, even if he serves two terms. But he can get us most of the way there, and there is nothing he could do that would help his country more, or secure his place in history better.