The U.S. Navy battling with pirates off the coast of Somalia is not getting the media attention it deserves. It’s an important new role for the U.S. Navy—the role of maritime policeman—and its implications are far reaching. By protecting trade routes from marauding pirates, the United States is doing a service that will earn it respect in the world community, something that has been quite fleeting of late. It’s an example of “soft power," something the United States should use more of, not less.
Being a “policeman” requires retooling the U.S. Navy from top to bottom. Presently, the U.S. Navy is built to fight major wars, with its aircraft carrier battle groups central to its strategy, which is overkill for battling pirates, who tend to operate in small groups. No, what the Navy needs to be is more nimble, something akin to the U.S. Army, which increasingly uses small, highly mobile groups (company size or less) instead of large, lumbering groups (divisions). What the Navy needs are more patrol boats and attack submarines rather than aircraft carriers, cruiser and destroyers.
Robert D. Kaplan, who writes about defense matters for The Atlantic, has been talking about restructuring the U.S. Navy for quite some time now, echoes what I have written above:
In essence, this new maritime strategy represents a restrained, nuanced yearning for a bigger Navy, albeit one whose mission will be cooperation with other navies. That requires more than just new ships. “A key to fostering such relationships is development of sufficient cultural, historical, and linguistic expertise among our Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen to nurture effective interaction with diverse international partners.” Such training costs money and creates bureaucratic challenges, but it helps lay the groundwork for an exceedingly gradual, elegant decline of the Navy’s capabilities—a future in which it has fewer platforms but gets more out of the ones it does have by working more closely with others.Another thing Kaplan writes about is the fact that the U.S. can’t go it alone. It will need the cooperation of many countries and, yes, including China, which, given its export-oriented economy, needs to keep trade routes secure.