Friday, August 31, 2007

I got an idea of something we can do with a gun

There are plenty of books about US naval history, but the vast majority focus on the wartime navy. In its own ways, the peacetime navy is just as fascinating. How does a navy prepare for the many potential conflicts it faces? How does internal politics determine outcomes? Black Shoes and Blue Water describes the neglected arm of the US Navy, the surface fleet, during a period of decline and renewal from 1945-1975.

The US surface fleet started the period completely dominant but declined as budget dollars went to nuclear programs, aircraft carriers and submarines. By the 60s, most of the fleet was nearly incapable of fighting other surface units, instead focusing on defending carriers. The book ably describes the technical programs designed to maintain a role for the service and the efforts to use the limited budget dollars to convert obsolescent ships into useful assets. Dealing with the shift from a gun to a missile based battlefield was fascinating and makes for a great case of study of the challenges of technical change.

Also helpful is the organizational model of what happens to the underfunded service. With fewer educational and promotional opportunities, fewer of the hard charging officers will choose that service. With fewer training dollars, the crews will be less able to perform their jobs when the time comes. And the weak performance in training operations will reinforce negative perceptions creating a vicious cycle.

Naval nerds will love all the detail of heavy cruisers in Vietnam, the conversions of cruisers to missile cruisers and the many proposals that never made it, like putting Polaris missiles on surface ships. There is a lot of fun detail here.

On the downside, there is a lack of analytical distance which limits the overall lessons. The author identifies closely with the surface fleet and doesn't analyze the overall security threat to the US and how the surface fleet could have optimized the role. While the decline of the surface fleet was certainly bad for that part of the Navy, how bad was it for US national security? The author describes a decline in US conventional deterrence in the 70s, but a more systemic analysis would have been helpful.

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