Foreign Policy Blogs

Message to Congress: No More Starships Please

BATH, Maine (Oct. 28, 2013) The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics/Released)

The Zumwalt (Oct. 28, 2013)
(U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics/Released)


“With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions
— about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.”
—- President Obama (May, 2013)

“The biggest, meanest, most advanced destroyer ever operated by the U.S Navy is about to hit the water for the first time.” So begins a recent New York Post article sharing the story of the birth of the first-in-class Zumwalt destroyer – the largest U.S. Navy destroyer ever built. The article continues, “It has a really big gun,a stealthy silhouette and advanced features that will make it a formidable package.”  Still not impressed?

This fearsome sailing killing machine has other unbelievable features that would make the creators of the Star Trek movie franchise burn with envy. “The ship features an unusual wave-piercing hull, guided missiles, a new gun that fires rocket-propelled warheads as far as 160 km, plus the Zumwalt will ride low to the water to minimize its radar signature.” Captain James Kirk (not to be confused with the star fleet commander of USS Enterprise) will be the first officer to command the most innovative and technologically-advanced ship ever to sail the high seas.  This out-of-this-world weapon system, though not as pricey as its space-faring fantasy counterpart, will cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $3.5 billion – more than three times the cost of previous destroyers. By the way, if you can’t make it to the first Zumwalt commissioning, do not despair: The U.S. Navy plans on building two more just like it.

Which War Are We Fighting?

Should we give Navy senior planners and their congressional overseers the benefit of the doubt as to how this new sailing starships fits into a 21st century defense strategy that is supposed to be more light, agile and adaptive than those of the past?  As a retired Navy officer with a healthy regard for the importance of the sea service in our nation’s defense wall, I am tempted to let this one slide. But the over-the-top cost of the Navy’s most blinged-out ship is jarring, especially when contrasted with national fiscal extremis and increasing non-traditional threats.

The Obama administration reminds us in its most recent National Security Strategy paper that military force at times may be necessary to defend our country, our allies and our interests from a growing array of traditional, but also non-traditional threats, such as networks of violent extremist groups gunning for Western targets. The Obama strategy addresses the need for maintaining conventional war superiority, but also clearly calls for a pivot to preparedness to dominate in military operations other than war. The 2010 strategy states – “We must maintain our military’s conventional superiority, while enhancing its capacity to defeat asymmetric threats. Our diplomacy and development capabilities must be modernized, and our civilian expeditionary capacity strengthened, to support the full breadth of our priorities.” 

With this public acknowledgement that the drivers of 21st century conflict are increasingly rooted in human security factors such as underdevelopment, poor governance, environmental insecurity, and transnational criminal organizations, then continued over-the-top investments in sailing starships cannot be the best use of America’s defense dollars.

A mix of hard power capabilities centered on special operation teams and drones, etc., combined with expanded soft power initiatives (i.e., diplomacy and development) is a  far more logical approach. With a smart power approach (i.e., soft power backed up with hard power), we can more effectively confront very agile, amorphous and violent organizations like Al-Qaeda, while simultaneously working to neutralize the toxic conditions that allow such groups to thrive in fragile states.

Somalia-pirate-attacks (Source: Christian Science monitor)

Soft power investments that address the root causes of instability and transnational violence make far more sense than continued investments in spare-no-expense military machinery that qualify for placement on the covers of luxury magazines like the Robb Report.  Sure, smart power victories don’t excite the public as much as futuristic fantasy ships or made for cable news “Shock and Awe” conventional military operations, but such approaches are ultimately more effective and longer-lasting. Britain’s Department for International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, when challenged on the U.K.’s own increase in its soft power budget stated, “Either we help foreign governments to deal with terrorists abroad, or we do nothing and face a future dealing with them at home or even on foreign battlefields.”

Not Our Grandparents’ War

Today’s security environment is far less predictable than that of the Cold War and traditional notions of  “security” fail to fully capture the challenges of the 21st century battle space. It’s time for the U.S. political-military machine to throttle back its preoccupation with refighting the conventional battles of a bygone era and accelerate the development of  solutions for non-traditional threats.

Asymmetric threats driven by ethnic, economic, social, religious, political and environmental strife – the root drivers of much of the conflicts flaring up across the globe – are the new and dominant normal in national security affairs.  The interaction of these variables, coupled with poor governance, result in unpredictable outcomes that do not fit neatly into the old school “national security” framework. A national security logic that revolves on the axis of Great States conflict is outdated and should no longer be the dominant framework for assessing and reacting to an unfamiliar and very dynamic threat environment.

Policymakers would be wise to heed former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ words when he remarked, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” In addition, the American agencies most responsible for engagement with the rest of the world must make programmatic choices that enable the country to better work with governmental and non-governmental actors to confront terrorism and a host of other destabilizing factors.

Time to Listen to “Mad Dog”

The budget of the State Department, the international soft power arm of our government, constitutes less than 3 percent of the national budget (military spending is greater than 20 percent of the national budget). Even with the growing realization of the importance of programs that address human security needs – the root causes of terrorist acts and other destabilizing events – the State Department faces the persistent threat of budget-slashing.


It is hard to comprehend the reasoning in spending fourteen times as much on arms and soldiers than on non-military programs better suited to address threats linked to global human insecurity factors. Where is the logic in spending $3.5 billion on one warship when scarce national dollars could be used to magnify non-kinetic programs that address the root causes of the ills we are now attempting to treat with expensive machines and the lives of American troops?   Congressional leaders would be wise to listen to Marine Corps General “Mad Dog” Matthis, who once stated,When you don’t invest in the Department of State, I have to buy more ammunition.”    

The greatest threats to the American homeland cannot be contained or eliminated by the newest versions of sailing starships. Further, being strong on defense should not only mean the maintenance of a global network of conventional hardware. Within this new threat environment, it should also signify the capacity to deliver soft power programs to help ameliorate the most vexing challenges of our day.

I fully appreciate the innovation and dedication that building a ship like the Zumwalt entails and I salute the men and women who had a hand in bringing this magnificent machine off the drawing board and into the water. However, this ship is the wrong tool at the wrong time and congressional national defense committees should be asking our military leaders, “Are you marching into the future facing backwards?” It sure looks like it.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).