NEAL CONAN, host:
Two questions: Why do we have such a big Navy when we hardly ever use it? What do we get for the hundreds of billions of dollars we pay for having a Navy and a Marine Corps? Questions posed in a most unlikely forum - in the magazine Proceedings, which is published by the U.S. Naval Institute.
So if you are or were in the Navy, if you have questions or justifications for the size and purpose of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, give us a call: 800-989-8255, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
The provocative article is called "Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era." Its author is naval historian Barrett Tillman, who joins us now from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona.
Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. BARRETT TILLMAN (Proceedings Magazine): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And let's begin by - what do you mean the post-naval era?
Mr. TILLMAN: I define the post-naval era, which we are now well into, as that period in the history of the world's navies when fleets - armadas, as they used to be known - largely are looking for a mission.
The naval era, as I define it, essentially ended in 1944, '45, because that's the last time that two fleets, the United States and Japan's, ever clashed with one another over control of a large body of water. That was in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October of '44.
Since then, there really have been no naval battles and actually there have been very few naval engagements.
CONAN: Yet throughout the course of the Cold War, the United States Navy squared off against its Soviet counterparts. The Soviets certainly spent a great deal of money and a great deal of effort trying to match the blue water capacities of the U.S. Navy.
Mr. TILLMAN: They certainly did. And those who deployed to the Atlantic, to the western Pacific, wherever the Red Navy deployed, saw the immense capability and potential of the Soviets at sea. But that was 20 years ago. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, we still have essentially the same force structure.
CONAN: And as you point out in the article, more ships than Russia and China combined.
Mr. TILLMAN: That's correct. And obviously even more than any other potential alliance.
CONAN: There's an interesting passage you cite, this from the Quadrennial Defense Review. This is an official document very carefully published by the Defense Department every four years. This in 2006.
It says operationalizing the national defense strategy and its priorities include defeating terrorist networks, defending the homeland in-depth, shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads, preventing the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction.
And then you say an inbound question, low and fast out of left field: If not even the Department of Defense is concerned about conventional warfare, why do we persist in building a war-fighting fleet?
Mr. TILLMAN: Well, that's the $64 billion question, if you will, and it's a subject that I originally began studying about three years ago when I was completing a book called "What We Need: Extravagance and Shortages in America's Armed Forces."
And at that time I became increasingly aware that the force structure that the United States was maintaining was, in fact, oriented towards the Cold War threat.
And at that time, when I began talking to the trigger pullers in the war on terror, essentially infantrymen in the Army and Marine Corps, I became distressfully aware that the ones who were actually doing the fighting and the dying in the terror war were not always as well prepared as they could have been.
So the next logical question was where does all that money go? At that time I think a typical Department of Defense annual budget was around $450 billion. And you didn't have to look very long before you realize that it's going for extremely complex, sophisticated - read expensive - systems such as stealth aircraft and next-generation submarines which, let's face it, are largely irrelevant to what we're doing today.
CONAN: You also questioned the purposes of the Marine Corps, I suspect, not necessarily the men who are fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq - but you're talking about their amphibious capability - the specialty the Marine Corps developed before the Second World War, which proved to be, well, incredibly useful during the Second World War.
Mr. TILLMAN: That's exactly right. The Marines - the United States Marines have been the world's leading shock troops in amphibious operations since 1942. Nobody else even comes close. But again, the ability to force an entry on a hostile shore is extremely rare. I think in the article, I noted only three major examples since World War II. And the United States was only involved in one of those. That was Inchon in Korea in 1950.
So the Marine Corps' sine qua non has diminished alongside so many other conventional warfare capabilities. But to me, the real irony is that now and for the foreseeable future, it's entirely possible that the Marine Corps has a bigger stake in war fighting than its parent service, the Navy.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Barrett Tillman, a Naval historian. His article in Proceedings, the publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, is called "Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era." 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
And let's begin with Bill. Bill calling from Minneapolis.
BILL (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. My name is Bill.
BILL: I was a former aviation boatswain's mate in the Navy. And I actually have two brothers that are both still Marine officers.
My question has to deal with the actual - what they call the, you know, defending our interest versus the need for defending our actual shores of United States.
In your article, did you touch on or kind of review the need or the differences now in today's modern era versus the old need of defending, quote, unquote, "our interests." What is your thought on that?
Mr. TILLMAN: Yeah. And that's an excellent question, Bill. Really it goes to the crux of the matter as to typically historically why nations have Navies. And the United States has a Navy for exactly the same reason that Norway or Argentina or Australia has a Navy, and that is not merely to defend our large coastline but to ensure right of passage for our merchant marine, which is essential, especially now, in a global economy.
The problem is that, as I said, since 1945, there really has not been a situation - a long-lasting or of significant extent - in which right of passage of the world's merchant Marines has been seriously threatened.
CONAN: All right.
BILL: Thank you very much for answering that. Thank you.
CONAN: And well - and Barrett Tillman, somebody might say, well, it hasn't been threatened because United States Navy is predominant. Nobody sees an interest in doing this.
Mr. TILLMAN: Actually, I don't think that there's been very many examples of anybody with the capability of interfering with maritime trade who would be disposed to do so. The one exception that I would hasten to mention, was what became known as the first Gulf War in the 1980s when Iranian and some other light naval forces, basically with speedboats, were threatening…
CONAN: Oil tankers.
Mr. TILLMAN: …other nations' oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. And in that instance, the navies in the region and some allied navies, certainly including ours, were definitely useful in curbing that threat.
CONAN: And then there was Operation Praying Mantis, which eliminated what was left of the Iranian Navy in an afternoon, basically.
Mr. TILLMAN: Correct. We think three of their remaining combatants and a couple of bog hammers and that was it.
CONAN: Let's get Cynthia(ph) on the line. Cynthia with us from Vernon, New York.
CYNTHIA (Caller): Hi, everybody. My sister and brother were in the Navy (unintelligible) in World War II. I was too young, only 15. Otherwise, I probably would have been in the Navy too. But - and my teacher's two cousins went down in the Arizona on December 7th.
So - but this is my question for this historian professor. I would like to know, in light of the non-proliferation treaty regarding weapons of mass destruction that we're supposed to be getting rid of ours and other countries won't be making any.
Why is it necessary for our Navy to spend those trillions of dollars on a trident submarine fleet that has enough of those terrible weapons targeted at every city - major city in the world they can destroy in 20 minutes? This doesn't sound like a promising future or realistic expenditure of money. And I'd like to ask your opinion, sir, about this.
Mr. TILLMAN: Absolutely. The biggest criticisms you see of the current Navy is the number of aircraft carriers that we currently possess, which is 11 or 12, capable of deploying at any one time. I mention aircraft carriers because they are the most visible of naval vessels afloat.
However, with submarines, it's really a matter of a force in search of a mission. Submarines have almost totally been irrelevant to actual war fighting, but that I mean combat, since 1945. And I mentioned in the article that since 1945, only two ships have been sunk in combat by the world's submarines.
And consequently, the mission of deterrence that the nuclear missile boats, the so-called boomers, came to prominence in the Cold War was deterrence. And obviously, now, there is far less cause for deterrence. And I would say if we're looking at reducing a significant portion of our existing fleet, then submarines would be a good place to start.
CONAN: Cynthia, thanks very much for the call.
We're talking with Barrett Tillman about his article in Proceedings, the publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, called "Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we'll go to William. William calling from Cincinnati.
WILLIAM (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. Just a couple of things that I heard, that wanted to mention. Your guest said that it's 1989, when the Cold War sort of ended and the Soviet Union came down, that we're near the same ship level, and that's not correct.
CONAN: He said force structure, not ship level. But - it's different, but, yes, there are many fewer ships.
WILLIAM: We were near a 600-ship Navy at the end of Ronald Reagan, and we're hovering just a little over 300 now. And the other thing that, you know, the aircraft carriers may be questioned, but that's four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory wherever we want it within range.
And you can't count on a country to allow us to launch aircraft or even let them fly through their airspace. So the feasibility and the flexibility of that is, you know, without a doubt, one of our greatest assets.
But he also mentioned that the submarines, you know, don't really have a role in war fighting. And so much of our intelligence comes from getting SEALs to the beach. And, you know, with some of the new systems we have, a lot of those come from under the sea.
CONAN: Barrett Tillman?
Mr. TILLMAN: You know, it's true that the submarine arm has always been known as the silent service, and there's a reason for that. And obviously, we do not want to broadcast or otherwise make known what our silent warriors are doing.
But by the very nature of that secrecy, the public who buys and pays for that fleet, including those submarines, really doesn't have much of an idea as to what submarines actually do.
So I am not, repeat, not saying that we should beach every submarine we have. But when you look at the nature of naval warfare, or naval operations rather, in the face of the absence of naval warfare for over six decades, submarines simply do not figure in that.
And consequently, I think that if we're going to maintain a submarine force, especially in the current political and economic climate, the Navy is going to have to step back and reconsider its historic reluctance to discuss submarine operations, because at some point, the public o certainly Congress is going to ask what do we get for that money.
CONAN: William, thanks very much.
WILLIAM: Thank you.
CONAN: And we'll go - see if we can get one last question in. Mike, Mike with us from St. Louis.
MIKE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Mike, you're on the air. Could you make it quick, please?
MIKE: Yes. I have a quick question. I have read some articles that the Chinese are in the process of building a submarine base under an island, and that they are going quickly towards building their first deepwater navy, in a thousand years or so. I only say that part tongue-in-cheek. How does this fit into this - or the post-Navy analysis, and how does it affect our needs?
Mr. TILLMAN: Excellent question. The Chinese, in the absence of a Soviet threat, have become the duty bad guy. And consequently, just earlier this year, we saw a great deal of concern expressed among U.S. and Western defense analysts about a very long-range Chinese anti-ship missile that is being developed.
In my opinion - in underlined boldface, in my opinion, the Chinese are a straw man. Regardless of what type of force structure or specific military capabilities China develops, there is absolutely no reason that I'm aware of to think that the Chinese are going to pick a fight with the United States, not so much because of the military aspects, but because if you look at the economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, it is absolutely crucial.
So we are not about to pick a fight with the Chinese, and neither are the Chinese likely to start a war with their number two trade partner who has tremendous influence with five of their other top 10 trade partners in a disastrous confrontation that has the potential to destroy both economies.
CONAN: Mike, thanks…
MIKE: I just want to make…
CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time, Mike. Got to go. Appreciate the phone call, though.
And Barry Tillman, thank you for your time today.
Mr. TILLMAN: It's a real pleasure to join you. Thank you for having me on.
CONAN: Just want to ask you. Planning to visit Annapolis anytime soon?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TILLMAN: Well, Naval Institute is my first publisher, so yes. I would love to see Annapolis again. But I don't know that I can find a parking space.
CON: Barry Tillman writes and speaks about naval aviation and the military. His article in Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute publication, is called "Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era." And he joined us from member station in KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.