The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Does naval success invalidate the need for navies?


October 5, 2012

Acting was a big part of Battleship.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin writes a post that seeks to sink a thousand ships:

The trillions of dollars that have been spent on building, maintaining and scrapping fleets since 1945 has yielded almost zero benefits to the nations that have spent this money, in the belief that all respectable countries should have a navy. China’s carrier is an extreme example. About the best that can be said is that a zero benefit-cost ratio is substantially better than that for military expenditure in general.

Quiggin’s smart, but I’m surprised he overlooks the obvious counterarguments. The first is that the world has only had one full-service navy for the past 70 years, and that the U.S. Navy (ordinarily in conjunction with the navies of subaltern states) has, in fact, been fantastically successful at controlling the global commons, projecting American power, and operating an increasingly important part of the U.S. strategic deterrent. (Late Update: This Robert Farley fellow has more to say.)

The second is that the coming (or, arguably, current) obsolescence of some of the tools that navies employ to meet their governments’ goals has been caused not by those missions’ vanishing but by the rise of better policy substitutes. (If China opts not to pursue hot carrier battle group – on – battle group action with the USN, then that will be more because of a rational choice to switch to other means of ensuring area denial.)

The other counterarguments essentially reduce to the fact that non-military maritime missions are now carried out by coast guards, a term that obscures more than it tells (is it a couple of mates with a dinghy, as in Ireland, or a full-fledged auxiliary navy, as with the U.S. Coast Guard?). Lesser powers no longer need to maintain navies since one or another superpower is quite happy to take on the role of patrolling the oceans.

Of course, Quiggin’s observation that “a zero benefit-cost ratio is substantially better than that for military expenditure in general” can hardly be refuted by these sorts of arguments; the calculus under which navies have a positive benefit-cost ratio is, more or less, one in which states matter.

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