March 14, 2016
In the years prior to that war, our nation was questioning what sort of military America was going to have and, in particular, whether the U.S. should have a strong Navy. We knew we were a seafaring nation. But could we rely upon others' navies to protect our interests? Could we even afford a Navy? What value and benefit would it bring to our society? There were sharp debates over this topic, and they were largely left unresolved – until the War of 1812.
Our Navy had inadequate funding, forces, and manpower when we found ourselves in the midst of war– with the enemy right at the water's edge. British naval power far exceeded that of the U.S. The Royal Navy had 500 active warships, 140,000 sailors, and was renowned for its recent victories against Napoleon.
The British blockaded the Atlantic coast, including the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The British captured merchant vessels and crews. They raided coastal communities—including Washington, DC—and set the White House and Washington Navy yard ablaze. The blockade crushed the fledgling American economy and cost us over $100 million, a huge hit to a brand new nation.
Nevertheless, a handful of American ships were able to sneak past the British blockaders. Thanks to the quality of their construction and the bravery of their captains and crews, these ships were able to raid British commerce and best their Royal Navy counterparts in a number of ship-to-ship duels. These successes helped convince Britain to sue for peace and retreat from our shores.
The War of 1812 was not a decisive victory for our nation, but it proved the value of a robust Navy. It answered those tough questions our nation was considering. Was a Navy worth it? Yes, our leaders decided. We needed a maritime force. And not just any maritime force – we needed the best in the world. The investment and commitment to build a strong Navy was necessary to protect and defend the nation we had worked so hard to create.
Today, to say that our Navy has served us well is an understatement. Time and again, our Navy has protected and defended our nation. It's kept enemies at bay. Because our leaders decided to "provide and maintain" a robust Navy, we defend ourselves today – not at the water's edge of our nation – but at the water's edge of other nations. The freedoms and comforts we enjoy exist largely because our nation, in commitment to our Constitution, has placed great priority on a dedication to a well-guarded peace.
However, in the past couple decades we've witnessed a sea change. We have seen that we live in a world where threats are becoming more global. We have seen that there are those who want to hurt America and rob us of our freedoms, and that just like during the War of 1812, their reach can cross our shores. Abroad, we've seen a rise in naval competition that we haven't seen since the Cold War: nations – like China and Russia – are building up their naval strength.
At home, national defense cuts have put us in a position that undermines our ability to meet national security requirements. Over the last 30 years the size of our fleet has shrunk by half, and shortfalls in sailors, ships, munitions, and other key factors are reducing our naval strength.
American economic prosperity and national security have always been tied to the sea in some form. The War of 1812 made that painfully clear. And yet, over 200 years later, we find ourselves asking the same questions our forefathers considered. Is it worth it to have a strong Navy? Is it valuable? Can we afford it?
From my vantage point as Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, the answer is still an unequivocal yes. We cannot afford to under-resource our Navy. If we do, we stand to invite conflict back to our water's edge. We will undermine our national security. We will imperil our freedoms.
This debate is crucial for our region. Virginia is known for its role in national defense. Our harbors, airfields, and neighborhoods are home to the world's most powerful Navy, but all of our military services have a presence here. The cooperation among the services, the industries, and the communities here in Virginia strengthens our military and our national defense.
My priority is to ensure that the men and women who wear this country's uniform have the training, the cutting-edge capabilities, and support they need to defeat any adversaries and protect American citizens and interests. Not just because a weak national defense is more often an invitation to confrontation than an overture of peace. But also because, for us here in Virginia, supporting our military is more than a priority – it's personal. These are our brothers, daughters, neighbors, and friends. We want to ensure they are the best trained, best prepared, and best equipped so that they can accomplish their missions and return safely home to us.
The danger of eroding our naval and military strength stretches beyond the oceans and the battlefields. The ripple effects extend past our men and women in uniform, federal workers or defense civilians. They don't just touch the Commonwealth of Virginia. The losses impact every aspect of the American way of life – from our economy, to our safety, to our families, to our freedoms.