Naval Services: We Don’t Feel the Love
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The nation’s maritime branches of the military believe that they are hugely underappreciated by the American public. Officials are convinced that most people take the Navy and Coast Guard for granted, and are largely unaware that it is thanks to naval forces that store shelves are always stocked, that plenty of fuel supplies are available and major manufacturers stay in business.
One reason the public is uninformed is that the duties of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are done in faraway lands. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind, said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
“When the Navy and Marine Corps do our jobs, we are usually a long way away from home,” Mabus said April 16 during a news conference at the Navy League’s annual convention. “I don’t think peopleunderstand how much the Navy does, how much [the sea services] do on a daily basis,” he added.
This week’s gathering of naval leaders and contractors at the Gaylord Convention Center coincides with the launching of amajor PR effort by the U.S. Navy to promote the value of maritime forces as part of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 that kicks off April 17 in New Orleans. The war is being remembered as one that was fought for "freedom of the seas," Mabus said.
In his “why we need a strong Navy” stump speech, Mabus reminds audiences of what was happening in March 2011, when sailors and Marines were in combat in Libya, helping the Japanese cope with a devastating tsunami, as well as fighting on the ground and in the air in Afghanistan. “I’m not sure people understand how much the Navy does and how well it represents the United States,” said Mabus.
Echoing that pitch was Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We are responsible for 3.5 million square miles of exclusive economic zone,” he said. “We are a maritime nation but it’s hard to convince the public that we are a maritime nation.”
The public’s blasé attitude might be one reason why Congress has not been motivated to ratify a key international treaty — the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea convention — that defines rules and responsibilities of nations in how they use the oceans and marine resources.
“That is a tough issue for me,” Papp said. Naval officials have for decades sought Senate support for the convention, to no avail. “When I deal with other countries, we always get lectured about being the only major power that has not signed” the Law of the Sea, Papp lamented. “It sets us back” in the United States’ ability to influence key issues such as global access to maritime routes.
More than 95 percent of trade moves by sea, and contributes $700 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Without ships deployed to keep watch of the world’s strategic chokepoints and protect them from terrorists,smugglers and pirates, it is hard to predict what would happen, Papp said. Most corporations in the United States rely on just-in-time deliveries of supplies and components to run their operations, he said. “We help keep the flow going.”
The Coast Guard also has been trying to make a case that its presence in the Arctic is critical to securing U.S. access to oil. Papp said the service needsmore money for icebreaking vessels and other equipmentthat would be required to operate in that part of the world. “It’s hard to convince Americans, except Alaskans, that we are an Arctic nation as well,” said Papp. Analysts and scholars have predicted that, because of the melting ice caps, maritime commerce will increase in the Arctic over the next two decades. Shell Oil is scheduled to start drilling this summer, and will deploy 33 ships and 600 people, Papp said. “This will increase our responsibility for search and rescue, security, and environmental stewardship,” he said. “The Coast Guard right now has no infrastructure” in the Arctic.
Whether the sea services’ PR offensive will result in more resources remains to be seen. Although theCoast Guard has suffered some budget cuts of late, the Navy has fared better than the Army in the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. It is not losing any of its 11 aircraft carriers, and its fleet is projected to remain at 282 ships for the next five years.
Mabus said theNavy’s fleet is projected grow to 300 ships by 2019.
But Navy leaders acknowledge that they still have more work ahead in trying to define the sea services’ roles and what specific equipment and resources they will need to fulfill future missions.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the Navy League audience that he has been pondering revisions to high-level documents that guide naval strategy and equipment-buying decisions. “We are in the very early stages” of updating the Navy’s maritime strategy, said Greenert. “We ought to refresh it,” he said, as the Navy expects to have growing responsibilities in Asia-Pacific. But before any changes are made, he said, “I have to have a conversation with the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.”