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And it Continues


Back in April, John Quiggin wrote what was at the time, to my mind, the worst post in the history of Crooked Timber. To their credit, the commenters at CT utterly disassembled the first iteration of that post, forcing Quiggin to make major revisions. They then utterly demolished the second iteration of that post. I wrote a 1400 wordish points on why Quiggin was crazy, but decided to hold fire both because the commenters had done such a good job, and because there was no need to develop any bad blood between CT and LGM.

And so now that we’re in the midst of an inexplicable war between LGM and CT, let me point out that this post is worse. The commenters are again giving it a good once over (the CT commentariat is not notably hawkish in disposition, but they do know sloppy and indefensible when they see it), but a couple additional points:

What does it deliver for that money? The US hasn’t engaged in naval warfare on any significant scale since 1945, a period during which the other arms of its military have fought five major wars, and lots of smaller ones. The record in those wars, including an outright defeat in Vietnam, a status quo ante ceasefire in Korea, and highly equivocal outcomes in the two Iraq wars and Afghanistan casts plenty of doubt on the idea of that US military as a whole is a “high-performing agency”, and raises the question of why so much of the budget has been allocated to an armed force that does hardly any actual fighting.

It’s hard to figure out where to begin. I’m happy to grant, for sake of discussion, the outcomes he describes, but John is apparently utterly ignorant of how those wars were fought. Finding out that the USN participated in the Vietnam War, the Korean War, both Iraq Wars and the Afghan War isn’t particularly difficult; there are books about it and everything. There was even a Presidential candidate named John Kerry who was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and engaged in actual combat. Swift boating is a thing.  I’m guessing that John must be equating aircraft with “Air Force,” because he apparently doesn’t appreciate that a very large proportion of the aircraft engaged in all conflicts were flown off the decks of aircraft carriers.

This sets aside the most important issue, which is logistical; turns out that there are relatively few rail lines between Pusan and the United States, and that in any case the trains run infrequently.

The arms race between Britain and Germany before 1914 was focused on ‘dreadnought’ battleships. They helped in building up the fever that led to war, but did almost nothing in the war itself.[2] Many more battleships were built after 1918, contributing once again to the resurgence of militarism, and again they proved an expensive waste of resources when war broke once more. Battleships and cruisers were sunk by planes, submarines and even frogmen, but otherwise did little or nothing.

I dunno what to say about this, other than it’s probably the single most unsophisticated, ill-informed passage that I’ve ever read about World War II on the internets. I want you to know that I fully appreciate the gravity of this claim.

Since World War II, vast amounts of money have been spent on navies that have not fired a shot in anger. The one exception, the Falklands War, is scarcely encouraging for naval advocates. The Royal Navy came to the edge of defeat against the air force of a Third World dictatorship, operating at the limits of its range.

Again, John is defining “in anger” as direct ship-to-ship combat, which is an appallingly stupid war of describing the combat contribution of a naval force. With regards to the Falklands, naval advocates often note that the United Kingdom could not have prosecuted the war without the Royal Navy; whatever the wisdom of the decision to go to war, the Royal Navy proved an effective tool for securing the ends of the British government.

The trillions of dollars that have been spent on building, maintaining and scrapping fleets since 1945 has yielded almost zero benefits to the nations that have spent this money, in the belief that all respectable countries should have a navy. China’s carrier is an extreme example. About the best that can be said is that a zero benefit-cost ratio is substantially better than that for military expenditure in general.

It turns out that most MiG-21s and Patton tanks ended up in the scrapyard, too.  And if “zero benefit-cost ratio is substantially better than that for military expenditure in general,” then why is this a post on naval spending rather than military expenditure in general?

There’s so much more… U.S. naval predominance is one reason there’s so little naval combat…. naval combat is different in character than land combat in the sense that it’s difficult to compensate for material disadvantage by using terrain or defensive position… navies play a more important role in humanitarian relief operations than either armies or air forces… and so on, and so on.

… John responds by searching for “battleship” on Wikipedia. I’ve had some thoughts over the years on battleships…

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