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Who is the sleeping giant now?

The Hill logo The Hill 2/7/2023 William Toti, Opinion Contributor
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After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japanese Navy Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto never actually said, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” But he should have.

That line was the invention of a scriptwriter for the 1970 movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Conventional wisdom holds that, after the United States was attacked, we cranked up our industrial machine in a way that Yamamoto predicted Japan would not be able to match. He was looking for a massive attack followed by American capitulation.

But, of course, that’s not how it worked out.

Conventional wisdom conveys that it was only after the attack that our massive portfolio of commercial shipyards pivoted toward building our Navy’s fleet. The truth is, that buildup actually started before the war began, with the recognition that the United States would have to take rapid action to prepare for a war that many Americans felt was inevitable.

American leaders recognized the peril and, unlike today’s leaders, they did something about it.  The Naval Expansion Act of 1938 was pushed through by a Democratic president and Democratic Congress that had to override the isolationist inertia of the Republican Party. That act resulted in the laying of the keels of the last Yorktown class and the first Essex class aircraft carriers, as well as the new North Carolina and South Dakota classes of battleships, years before the Japanese ever attacked.

In contrast, today’s Navy is half the size it should be for a war in the Pacific. While many of our ships are highly capable, the number of our ships is so small as to neutralize that advantage. No ship, regardless of capability, can be in two places at one time. 

Further, many of the ships we built during the past 20 years were constructed under the assumption that the only threat we would face going forward was primitive but violent terrorism.  As a result, we built a class of ships — officially named “Littoral Combat Ships,” or LCS — that sailors derisively refer to as “little crappy ships” because they likely wouldn’t last 20 minutes in a shooting war with China and hardly can be classified as “combatant.” 

As it pertains to shipbuilding might, we effectively have neutered our vast portfolio of building yards. During World War II, the U.S. had more than 50 shipyards that could contribute to the war effort. Today, we have fewer than 20 yards, all of them very old — just one of China’s modern shipyards has more capacity than all of America’s combined.  

This crisis is causing maritime experts to call for a “ship act,” similar to the recent CHIPS Act that aims to support the return of computer chip manufacturing to the United States.  

On the personnel front, after the Pearl Harbor attack we cranked up our armed forces recruiting efforts to the point where more than 16 million Americans would serve in the military during the course of the war — that’s more than one out of 10 Americans under arms. Our rural demographic meant that most young Americans were farmers or laborers, yielding a robust population of volunteers and draftees from which to build a military.

In contrast, a 2020 Pentagon study indicates that 77 percent of Americans ages 17-24 would not qualify for military service because they are overweight, had prior drug use, or have mental or physical health problems. I don’t know what percentage of China’s youth would be disqualified from military service, but I’m fairly certain that number would not be 77 percent. And, of course, they are starting from a population baseline of more than a billion people.

This does not mean it’s impossible for us to win a war with China. It’s all about how much risk we are willing to accept. As history has shown — most recently with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are so many intangibles in military conflict that the belligerent, which should lose on paper, sometimes does prevail. 

But when lives are at stake, it’s best not to rely on intangibles. That’s why it’s so disheartening to hear that, as we risk another high-end war in the Pacific, cutting the Navy budget is again on the table. After all, if you accept that the prospects of war in the Pacific are again real, every one of those American advantages I list above has since shifted to our potential adversary, China. 

Who, then, is the sleeping giant now?

William Toti is a retired Navy captain, former Pacific commodore, and former operational planner. He is author of the 2022 book, “From CO to CEO,” and co-hosts the “Unauthorized History of the Pacific War” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @william_toti.

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