- Historic Sites
Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
On the practical level it was a war that, I think, was a great deal like our Spanish-American War. The similarities are striking. We had two naval battles during the war with Spain, which revealed many deficiencies. As a consequence we did a lot of things to improve our Navy. I think the aftermath of the Falklands battle gives us the same opportunity. We may have to harden our missile ships. One question might be, What would be the ideal missile ship? I think it would be a ship somewhat similar to a battleship—without the guns but with armor so it could withstand the impact of a Cruise missile. I also think the ascendancy of naval aircraft has now reached its high point and it will recede somewhat in importance because missiles make the airplane more vulnerable. Now that we have ships that can shoot back, helplessness of the kind we experienced at Pearl Harbor couldn’t happen again. Suppose the Aegis cruiser Ticonderoga had been sitting in Pearl Harbor that day. She would have shot down all the attacking airplanes if she hadn’t run out of ammunition first. Another lesson of the Falklands is that you can’t go halfway into a situation where you contemplate the use of military force; you go all out or not at all. We’re going to have to professionalize our Navy even more, make the ships harder, concentrate on missiles and make them work.
One last question along this line. Didn’t the Falklands prove that you have to have a strong merchant marine to back up a fighting force? The British were able to convert their ocean liners to troop transports that were almost immediately available to accompany the fighting ships.
I have a radical answer for that question, although nobody’s going to buy it. I believe the merchant marine ought to be made part of the Navy. It seems to me if our merchant marine were run by the Navy, we’d have a merchant marine that could be converted into military service very easily. The British have a better merchant marine than we do. The Russians have a far better one than we do. The Russian merchant marine is indeed a state merchant marine, and their navy can use it any time they want. We could use some of the naval officers who are being retired and some of the good navy men we are pensioning off to man these ships. Believe me, there’d be a great improvement in them!
Under present circumstances, could we mobilize a force of merchant ships to reinforce the fighting fleets as fast as the British did?
No way! We couldn’t even come close. Most of our merchant ships are actually under foreign flags, anyway. We could mobilize some, because we have some good lines that would make their ships available. But by and large we do not have the ships.
What type of fleet do you see for the next century?
I see essentially what we’ve got now but expanded and improved. I see many more computers at sea than before. The Aegis cruiser Ticonderoga , as I said, is a huge computer herself. I see a lot of carefully armored missile ships that can do two things—be offensive in terms of Cruise missiles attacking the enemy or defensive in terms of shooting down attacking missiles. Submarines will be similar to what we’ve got. It used to be easier to answer that question. I used to say the Navy should be all submarines, but I don’t anymore. That was when I was younger. As a submariner I had a right to feel this way, but I’ve learned a few things, I guess.
I’d like to see a Navy that combines itself somehow with the Coast Guard. That’s another item. The Coast Guard comes into the Navy in time of war. Why can’t the Navy also do things the Coast Guard does, such as fight icebergs?
The missile that destroyed the Sheffield in the Falkland Islands war would hardly have scratched the paint on the New Jersey or the Missouri .
And ultimately we all look toward the idea that there won’t be another war. Then the Navy will be out of a job, but the Coast Guard won’t. This is another argument for combining our Navy with the merchant marine. Let us hope we’ve already seen the last big general war, although we had Korea and Vietnam. Almost two hundred small wars have occurred since the end of World War II. It’s hard to believe. We’re having ’em all the time, but they’re not the kind of wars that we’re geared for. Yet we should be geared for little wars as well as big ones, because we are going to run into many more of them.
Finally I’d like to see many more smaller ships too—gunboats or something like a gunboat, which really is a frigate or a destroyer. We don’t need to send a carrier to do everything; we can send a reasonably small ship to show the flag—and perhaps even use force if necessary—because the ship is backed up by the might of the U.S. Navy, which lies just over the horizon.
Our aim, I think, is to make sure we have the ability to keep the sea—which means to stay at sea in all conditions of peace or war, no matter what happens. It also means to keep the sea free for humanity, for everybody, including the Russians. To me, keeping the sea means maintaining the freedom of the sea. If the sea can remain free, the world will stay free too. I don’t know how much sense all of that makes, but it’s my philosophy.