For the Athenians, the Great Harbor of Syracuse was anything but. A monument to their tactical bottle-necking of the “world’s” most powerful navy, the Great Harbor symbolizes the cost of trading mobility for convenience. The five carriers lined up like dominoes in Norfolk are reminiscent of that inflexibility, serving as a greater metaphor for constraints the fiscal crisis may impose on the US Navy worldwide.
During the siege of Syracuse, the Athenian expedition anchored its naval task force inside the protected Great Harbor of Syracuse. Maintaining such a large force in a single place and at anchor decreased the price of manning, and control. The single entrance of the harbor and its copious defenses against wind and wave simplified the maintenance and logistics. The convenience came at heavy cost. The great advantage of their number was lessened by a lack of mobility. Infrequent patrols allowed for the deployment of navigational hazards and blockade runners by the enemy. Superficially low-cost reaction lost to the proactivity of the Syracusan enemy. The harbor’s single entrance turned into a nightmare scenario as the massive fleet was locked into the harbor by a chain of ships strung across the entrance. The expedition of the mightiest naval power in the world died in a Sicilian quarry without a single ship remaining.
America’s Great Harbor is not in a foreign land, but up Thimble Shoals channel and through the gap in the Hampton Roads beltway. Five carriers, the world’s most powerful collection of conventional naval power in one location, sit idle at harbor, one beside the other. The United States maintains a massive naval center of gravity within a single chokepoint that could be plugged at a moment’s notice before a crisis. The concentration not only lends itself to easy containment, but simplifies the problem for espionage and terrorism. The fiscal noose tightening around the navy’s neck is creating a prime target that goes against every lesson we’ve learned from Pearl Harbor to Yemen.
America’s Great Harbor is a vicarious manifestation of a more terrifying fleet-wide atrophy. Sequestration will force the navy into a fiscal Great Harbor. A sample of the Navy’s potential pain includes: 55% decrease in Middle Eastern operational flights, 100% cut in South American deployments, 100% cut in non-BMD Mediterranean deployments, 100% cut in training exercises, 100% cut in non-deployed operations unassociated with pre-deployment workups, and a slew of major cuts to general training. Not only does this seriously hamper the navy’s ability to conduct deterrence, detection, and presence, but it undermines an organization only just recovering from a previously ruined training regime. Despite a growing trend of worries about fleet maintenance, a half year of a/c maintenance and 23 ship availabilities will be cancelled. The snowballing impact on already suffering training and maintenance will further exacerbate that diminishing return on size and quality created by the fiscal Great Harbor. Nations like China and Iran continue to make great strides forward in countering a force that will recede in reach, proficiency, and awareness. The mighty US Navy is forced to sit at anchor while the forces arrayed against her build a wall across the harbor mouth.
Military leadership has done a poor to terrible job advocating the true cost of defense cuts. A series of actions by brass has undermined their credibility and covered up the problem. The blinders-on advocation for teetering programs like LCS and the F-35 have undermined the trust that military leadership either needs or can handle money for project development. The navy personnel cuts were pushed hard for by leadership, and when the navy grossly overshot its target, the alarms were much quieter than the advocation; the ensuing problems were left unadvertised. In general, military-wide leadership uses public affairs not as a way to inform, but as a method to keep too positive a spin in a misguided attempt to keep the public faith. That public faith has removed vital necessary support in a time when the military is rife with problems that absolutely require funding. The PAO white-wash helps under-achieving programs and leadership get passed over by the critical eye. Where Athenian leaders were frank with their supporters at home, stubbornness and inappropriate positivity have undercut military leadership’s ability break loose from the fiscal harbor.
Those who dismiss the hazard of sequestration are wrong in the extreme. When I was an NROTC midshipman, I remember a map on the wall of the supply building: a 1988 chart of all US Navy bases around the world. Today’s relative paucity of reach leads some to believe that surviving one scaling back shows inoculation against another. However, the law of diminishing returns has a dangerous inverse. Each progressive cut becomes ever more damaging. The United States Navy and sequestration apologists must realize what dangerous waters the US Navy is being forced to anchor in. The question is, how long can the navy safely stay in the Great Harbor before her enemies get the best of her?