Zoom in on This Photo (You Can See the U.S. Navy’s Greatest Foe)

 In China, C4ISR, Germany, GDI, Land

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.

How much effort should go into keep­ing up appear­ances is a run­ning debate for sea­far­ers every­where. Sailors hate scrap­ing and paint­ing. It feels like drudgery vis­it­ed on them by offi­cers bent on cur­ry­ing favor with higher-ups who visit the ship. Cynics sus­pect their supe­ri­ors of trying to win pro­mo­tions, plum job assign­ments, or medals from vis­i­tors favor­ably impressed by the look of the com­mand. They mutter darkly, chan­nel­ing Murphy’s Laws of Combat, that no combat-ready unit has ever passed a peace­time inspec­tion.

Such wise­cracks betray a con­vic­tion that there’s a zero-sum con­test between keep­ing a vessel look­ing sharp and prac­tic­ing sea­man­ship, tac­tics, and kin­dred tech­ni­cal endeav­ors that are cru­cial to rou­tine oper­a­tions and battle effec­tive­ness. In other words, every minute spent bur­nish­ing appear­ances is a minute not spent on what truly mat­ters.

And for sure, it is pos­si­ble to take the pur­suit of spit-and-polish to excess. Just about any virtue degen­er­ates into vice beyond a cer­tain thresh­old. Bear in mind, though, that it is human nature to rally to a likely winner while spurn­ing a likely loser. How do people dis­tin­guish between the two in peace­time? Combat is the arbiter between supe­ri­or­i­ty and infe­ri­or­i­ty, yet no mis­siles or gun­fire fly around in peace­time — sup­ply­ing unequiv­o­cal proof of who out­match­es whom.

That leaves appear­ances. Naval forces strive to impress audi­ences domes­tic and for­eign, friend­ly, hos­tile, or indif­fer­ent. These observers have few indi­ca­tors apart from a ship’s appear­ance to judge its crew’s sea­man­ship, tech­ni­cal acumen, and battle pro­fi­cien­cy. So scrap­ing and paint­ing is about more than rou­tine upkeep, or main­te­nance bud­gets. The look of a ship has strate­gic if not polit­i­cal import. It is crit­i­cal to the war of per­cep­tions.

But out­ward appear­ances matter even more than it might seem. While hold­ing forth on the dynam­ics of peace­time naval diplo­ma­cy, strate­gist Edward Luttwak main­tains that who­ev­er most observers believe would have pre­vailed in a wartime trial of arms tends to pre­vail in a peace­time show­down. Naval prac­ti­tion­ers could render an informed judg­ment about each contender’s prospects in action. Spit-and-polish might be a sec­ondary con­cern for them.

Most behold­ers, how­ev­er, are not spe­cial­ists in naval affairs. Yet their opin­ions count all the same. A tidy, rust-free appear­ance sug­gests to land­lub­bers that the crew knows and cares about its busi­ness. If a war­ship looks like a rusty old hulk, con­trari­wise, it’s rea­son­able for onlook­ers to con­jec­ture that its inter­nals — its propul­sion plant, sen­sors, and arma­ment — may like­wise be objects of neglect. Its image for pro­fes­sion­al­ism and battle com­pe­tence suf­fers.

If the U.S. Navy projects a sloven­ly appear­ance while, say, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy shows up in a for­eign harbor look­ing spick-and-span, guess who seems like the trust­wor­thy friend and fear­some foe? Advantage: China. Diplomatic influ­ence goes to mariners mind­ful of the fun­da­men­tals.

Nor, it bears saying, are the great unwashed alto­geth­er wrong to judge a fleet by its look. Corrosion is an antag­o­nist that can be man­aged and sub­dued but never final­ly defeat­ed. Journalist Jonathan Waldman reviews engi­neers’ peren­ni­al strug­gle against it in his book Rust, aptly sub­ti­tling it The Longest War. It nearly brought down the Statue of Liberty during the 1980s. Manufacturers make extrav­a­gant efforts to tame it when, say, can­ning soda. And it afflicts ships cease­less­ly. After all, a hull is a fer­rous metal­lic box float­ing in sea­wa­ter. Put iron in con­tact with salt­wa­ter and cor­ro­sion soon fol­lows unless sailors stay con­stant­ly on the attack.

One imag­ines Bradley Fiske would nod know­ing­ly at the U.S. Navy’s diplo­mat­ic plight. A cen­tu­ry ago Admiral Fiske wrote a trea­tise por­tray­ing The Navy as a Fighting Machine. Any piece of hard­ware, from a humble water pump or elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tor to a state­ly fight­ing ship, has cer­tain max­i­mum per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics. However, it may under­per­form its design para­me­ters because of the human factor. “When think­ing or speak­ing of the power of any instru­ment,” he writes, “we mean the power of which it is capa­ble; that is, the result which it can pro­duce, if used with 100 per cent of skill.”

Yet few human beings achieve per­fec­tion. Deficits in oper­a­tor train­ing or expe­ri­ence hand­i­cap equip­ment per­for­mance. Technicians may be over­worked or apa­thet­ic. In any of these cases, materiel will pro­duce only a frac­tion of its design output. Human frailty degrades combat excel­lence.

Luttwak notes that weapon sys­tems are “black boxes” to out­siders until used in action. With scant direct evi­dence of which naval force boasts the best black boxes — with no ver­dict of arms that yields a def­i­nite result — friends and allies, prospec­tive antag­o­nists, and domes­tic con­stituents will render a ver­dict based on the evi­dence of their eyes. Rust and slip­shod house­keep­ing are tell­tale indi­ca­tors that some­thing deeper is amiss.

The bal­ance of appear­ances, then, could favor even a lesser but spiffy-look­ing com­peti­tor. So let’s get the U.S. Navy fleet look­ing ship­shape again — and restore our stand­ing in the eyes of friend, foe, and bystander alike. The mun­dane is impor­tant.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of the forth­com­ing Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone. This first appeared ear­li­er in 2019.

Image: Reuters.

Source: National Interest

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