Safe shipping on the high seas
On Alexander Hamilton, carrier strike groups, and one idea for getting more maritime power with fewer sailors
In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton revealed thoughts on America as a maritime nation: "If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons."
■ It may seem like a fait accompli by now that the United States should have the world's greatest navy, but that wasn't always the case. It really wasn't until World War II that the US took the mantle of naval supremacy. Nor is it adequate to assume that American dominance of the seas is a "forever" condition.
■ If we take Hamilton's ideas seriously, then the purpose of a great navy isn't confined to simple projection of power, though a navy is especially useful for that purpose -- especially one equipped with the world's preeminent collection of aircraft carrier groups. It's hard to find a place outside the reach of American carrier groups.
■ But Hamilton explicitly tied the navy to the protection of seafaring commerce. The literal bulk of international trade floats aboard ships, and in the last World War, the largest number of ships (other than small craft) built were the Liberty and Victory classes of cargo ships. Keeping supplies from being sunk by enemy warships was a critical naval mission.
■ A great deal of intellectual firepower is lining up behind arguments to modernize and scale up the American fleet. An ambitious scale-up would likely be appropriate in light of current events. But we also ought to consider adjuncts to the big ships that are expensive and hard to build.
■ In terms of sheer numerical projection, perhaps America ought to consider a program to build small, remotely-controlled submersible or semi-submersible vessels that could be used as lightly-armed escorts for cargo ships. If built at the right size -- say, just shy of the 40' length of a standard shipping container -- they could be constructed inland and shipped to the water. And if equipped with a battery-electric propulsion system, they could be operated with minimal requirements for maintenance, since electric motors are vastly simpler, mechanically, than combustion engines.
■ If built on a component-type platform, the same vessels could not only be used for cargo escorts, but also for surveillance, coastal patrolling, and even search and rescue. The main value, though, would come from developing a platform that could be scaled up quickly without overburdening the world's existing shipyards, and that could be deployed without stressing the workforce of the existing navy.
■ There are some 5,500 container ships in the world, and the need to preserve their free passage on the seas has been proven by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as by China's apparent policy of intimidation of other nations' ships on the South China Sea.
■ Thoughtful, pragmatic policies on the sizing and modernization of a full-fledged blue-water navy ought to be developed nonetheless. But as a useful adjunct to those forces, the same kind of technological imagination that has propelled an unmanned aerial program in the skies ought to be committed to ensuring that the US Navy can project power in big ways while also protecting commerce -- just as Hamilton imagined -- at modest cost.
More power, fewer sailors (Library of Congress)