Monday, August 10, 2020

Zugzwang Naval Advocacy

How is the game being played and who are the pieces?

In a pseudonymous guest post by a friend of the blog known to me, the author pulls together the challenge all navalists are having as we try to advance the proposition of a stronger and better navy.

Over to you.

Great power competition can be likened to many games, including chess, especially when discussing naval competition. Space on the board, like the size of the oceans, is finite. It is known. Players, like platforms, have various capabilities. Some are limited by the number of moves they can make, or the speed at which the platforms or projectiles can be propelled. In light of recent posts here on CDR Salamander’s blog on advocacy and messaging for the navy, let’s consider a few of those chess pieces and what they mean in light of two recent posts.

The White Bishop – CDR Salamander. The bishop is a loyalist to the cause, close in proximity to the mission of the powers of the Queen and King but is willing to sacrifice itself on the altar of truth. The bishop is the prophetic preacher, sermonizing on the woes and ills of the navy for more than a decade. But how many worshipers are there to hear readings from the Book of Sims or the Gospel of Mahan? More pews are empty from those having left the naval church; those remaining to be seen in the front rows are either the true believers, or those nodding in agreement to be seen as believers but within two hours of service will spend their time at a bar or brothel.

In addition to more than a decade warning of the challenges of the Littoral Combat Ship, the ZUMWALT-class destroyers, and the pending budget (specifically SCN) crisis of the 2020s, and other issues, CDR Salamander has recognized the importance of proper messaging and the underlying problems as leaders whistle past the proverbial graveyard of ships:
Each generation of civilian and uniformed leaders must execute superior stewardship of their inheritance, improve on it, and give the next generation a better baseline than the previous generation received. This is the only way a civilization continues to prosper, and we are failing.

Over the last two decades, our relative power has decreased. This relative decay accelerated by distracted leadership and clumsy program management. One aggregate cohort failure layered on top of another.
The White Knight. The knight is unique in the game of chess. Its moves are unlike any other. In a way, they are the thinking-player’s piece, something that advance or parry in a variety of ways. Unlike other pieces which move in a linear direction, knights can jump over other pieces to get to their destination. They require complexity of thought in overall strategy. In terms of the last few weeks, the navy has again seen the White Knight played. The United States Navy community would be hard-pressed to find a stronger, more articulate, and greater advocate for American sea power than Commander Bryan McGrath. But he recognizes one voice alone does not comprise a gospel choir as he recently wrote and also discussed on the Midrats podcast:
The problem, simply stated, is that at the very moment that the need for American Seapower advocacy is most critical, it is nowhere to be found. Ok. That is probably an overstatement. There is advocacy. It is, however, insufficient, ineffective, untargeted, uncoordinated, poorly resourced, diluted, and inadequately championed.
McGrath is not wrong. As anyone who has listened to him speak or read his works will know, he makes his cases forcefully, logically, and from a principled stance of a true believer. He rarely errs in selecting his words and his arguments are largely irrefutable. He doesn’t state what he doesn’t believe and what he believes he bases on facts, analysis, and experience. But in chess a player can make no mistakes and still lose the game.
His latest bold proposal is rectifying the current situation:

a new organization should be formed, and that this organization would have four broad lines of operation: research into the nexus between national strength and seapower, the development of seapower related policy, active advocacy for seapower in both the Executive Branch and the Congress, and dedicated outreach to civic minded Americans through targeted media and events.
McGrath’s piece is predicated on several hoped-for conditions. He rightly compares this new advocacy organization for American Seapower to successful models like Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association in terms of scope and impact. McGrath is absolutely correct that advocacy for American Seapower has as much, if not more, of a primogeniture quality from a Constitutional standpoint since Article I, Section 8 (…to provide and maintain a navy) preceded the Bill of Rights. In addition, the only maritime security threat mentioned in the Constitution is that of piracy.

The U.S. Navy had a long history of protecting American trade and merchant ships. After paying tribute to Tripoli, the nation eventually sent squadrons to the Mediterranean. Pirates were fought in the Caribbean, off Sumatra, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. But by the twenty-first century the American merchant fleet was a shadow of its former 19th and 20th centuries’ self. As Somali piracy rose, threatening legitimate commerce, one U.S. Navy admiral that they should arm themselves because the U.S. did not have the ships and it had other support missions for Iraq and Afghanistan. Several months later, a U.S. merchant ship was seized, thus demanding a more public call to action even though international merchant ships had been seized for several years. It’s tougher to sell commerce protection when there are few U.S. merchant ships or crews plying the seas.

McGrath faces a challenge in his worthy proposal and it may be the first insurmountable hill – those organizations have been built on passion and fear, a far greater because it more personal than the impassioned response to the Maersk Alabama incident. The American public, whether it’s the voting public or those more active in civic advocacy, will not be driven by the logic McGrath offers. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper 55, “passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.” Just as there was no reasoning with the recent rioters across the nation, nor with their enablers, there can be no reasoning for good policy-making based on those same facts and analyses. More to the point from a popular culture perspective as explained in one film: “Rome is the mob…the beating heart of Rome isn’t the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Coliseum.” While the NRA often relies on the Second Amendment as its founding purpose, the methods it – and Planned Parenthood – use in campaigns is fear of loss of a right and not the Constitution as a document most Americans have never read.

Enter the White Pawns – the most numerous pieces on the chess board and the most underrated. Together they can form an incredible marching force across the board and threaten even the most power Black pieces. These can be likened to the civic- and like-minded community leaders McGrath mentions who deeply care about their communities and the country, and, therefore, could be persuaded to join the cause. The nation and communities might have been able to appeal to local and national organizations in participating in this seapower advocacy forty years ago, but it is far more difficult in 2020. The reason is simple demographics Far fewer people today are involved in community organizations.
- Lions Club is about half of its 550,000 members in the 1980s
- Shriners International has a quarter of its one million members in 1978
- The Order of Elks is down about half of what it was in 1981
- Kiwanis has declined by a quarter of its peak in 1992-93
- The Masons have about 1.25 million members, one quarter that than in 1959
Those rolls are also aging with few younger people to replace them. The seapower harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

Assuming a seapower advocacy organization can reach critical mass, it will need an Executive and Legislative branch interested a larger navy. It is particularly important for the Hill which has the power of the purse. It needs, as McGrath points out, supporters from both parties to make that happen and, while one party has mentioned a 355-ship navy, there is little to suggest that can be achieved. A few advocates and visionaries are there but not in positions of seniority or leadership. Absent those key influencers, navalists must turn to those to whom it has always relied since the “Six Frigates” and that is members from shipbuilding districts. As the late Speaker Tip O’Neill famously quipped, “all politics is local."

This is not the 1980s when approximately 75 percent of Senators and 50 percent of House members were veterans of major wars and understood their need which former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman to appeal to. The rising generation in Congress has other legislative funding priorities. Advocates of the navy and its industry are fewer than they were. Take the case of the one shipbuilding state, Maine, which builds . Enter onto the chess board the White Queen, the most powerful piece on the board. Actually, remove that piece before the game is played. Current polls have Senator Susan Collins trailing her challenger. If she loses, there are likely to be consequences to the navy in building surface ships.

Collins was first elected to the Senate in 1996. With Senators Shelby and Alexander retiring after this term and with Senator McConnell unable to assume a committee leadership due to his floor leadership, Collins is next in line to assume the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee if the Republicans hold the Senate, or Vice-Chair if they lose. Maine has not held the Chair of Appropriations in nearly a century and is unlikely to for several decades. What would a Collins loss mean for work at BIW in a few years? Likely, given Maine’s current political climate, that waterfront will be repurposed into waterfront condos, art galleries, and a Starbucks. The shipyard at Kittery would not be far behind without the clout of seniority (Maine’s other Senator, Angus King, will be 80 years old at his next election in 2024 and, although he sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has no realistic opportunity to serving as Chair or Ranking Member given that six members of his party hold seniority.)

Finally, we turn to not another chess piece nor the board, but of the designer of the game. Alfred Thayer Mahan outlined six key elements comprising sea power: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of the population, character of the people, and the character of government. The first four elements have remained largely constant (or in the case of population size comparably similar) while the last two are the greatest challenge for McGrath’s proposal.

The nation has changed and is changing at a more rapid pace. Advocacy may work with more experienced individuals who are civic-minded, business-oriented, and understand America’s role in the world. But that national character will not convey to the next generation which is lurching far left in terms of policies and funding due in no small part as a reaction to Trump’s behavior, statements, and failures. The political pendulum is swinging and it is swinging hard. By any measure, best discussed beyond this naval blog, the traits that defined the nation regardless of political affiliation or administrations are dramatically changing.

Advocacy for large navies has often been predicated on the traits that contributed to national pride – again, an appeal to public emotion over logic and reason gain support. Why are there large events for a ship’s commissioning? Is it to explain the nuances of international relations, of sea control, of power projection? More often it turns to pride in the ship and the sailors, a fundamental emotion that can be understood, or rather felt. But how do you advocate for a navy when an emerging public arguably has no pride in the nation? How do you advocate for a navy that represents to them another military tool of imperialism? Will they view the navy as simply an international version of the police stations and cars they want to destroy? How can they accept a navy that guarantees commerce if they don’t believe in the capitalistic and market economies that need that protection on the ocean?

Put simply, they don’t care about the navy or what it does or what it represents. That is not a judgment call on whether their outlook is right or wrong but what is.

The pillars of political support, budgetary investments, civic-mindedness, and a national maritime orientation are fading – quickly. Navalists are attempting to appeal to the expand the Chief of Naval Operations’ 53,000 Twitter followers when 66 million are more inclined to follow Kim Kardhasian. Those are the conditions that McGrath’s plan faces today and tomorrow. Commander McGrath is absolutely right on why that organization is needed. The challenge will be is if is something the country wants.

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