Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, France 24, and Arc Digital. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Cold War Transferability or Not: Assessing Industrial Constraints and Naval Power After Long Land Wars

Date Originally Written:  February 10, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  March 21, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes the role of naval power to the United States in confronting China in the 2020s is similar to its role in confronting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He also sees economic and geopolitical similarities between the two eras.

Summary:  U.S. policymakers can learn from the last decade of the Cold War as they consider how to respond to China’s military, geopolitical, and economic ambitions. There are significant similarities between America’s situation forty years ago and its situation today, especially regarding manufacturing, trade, the defense industrial base (DIB), the exhaustion of U.S. land forces, and the importance of naval strength.

Text:  The United States in the 2020s finds itself in a position in relation to China similar to its position in relation to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have soured most Americans on extended land conflicts, much as the Vietnam War had by its conclusion in 1975. Likewise, U.S. worries about an aggressive and revisionist Chinese foreign policy (territorial claims in the South China Sea, harassment of Japanese vessels, attacks on Indian troops) parallel worries about Soviet foreign policy four decades ago (invasion of Afghanistan, continued grip on Eastern Europe, support for militant leftist forces like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Martí National Libération Front or FMLN in El Salvador). In both cases, there are reasons to worry armed conflict will break out between the U.S. and its rival power.

However, there are also differences. While China’s military threat to U.S. interests parallels the Soviet Union’s, China’s economic position differs greatly. The Soviet economy in the 1980s was stagnant[1]. China, on the other hand, while it faces long-term economic challenges, has enjoyed decades of rapid growth[2]. China’s wealth has allowed it not only to greatly expand its military, but also to engage in economic statecraft on a massive scale, most notably through the Belt and Road Initiative.

In some regards, the U.S. faces economic difficulties today similar to those of forty years ago, including ways that affect national security. The loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in the 21st century[3] has, among other effects, weakened the DIB[4][5]. Similarly, defense experts in the early 1980s expressed concern that America’s manufacturing sector would be unable to meet the military’s needs[6].

The reasons for America’s manufacturing struggles, however, are different now, as is the relationship between those struggles and America’s geopolitical concerns. Four decades ago, America’s main economic rivals were military allies, Japan and West Germany. While there were several reasons for the relative decline of U.S. manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, one was the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to friendly countries (partly as a result of U.S. trade policy)[7]. While the U.S.-Chinese economic rivalry now is somewhat similar to U.S.-Japanese rivalry then, it is one thing for American jobs to go to an ally, and another for them to go to a potential foe.

China’s gains relative to the U.S., unlike Japan’s, have been both military and economic. And while Japan’s economic boom after World War II was possible because it enjoyed U.S. military protection[8], factors in China’s rise have included U.S. policy (the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations in 2000, paving the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization)[9], and hostile actions (forcing U.S. companies to share intellectual property with the Chinese government, or else simply stealing it)[10][11], as well as Beijing’s policies of national development.

The perceived shortfalls of the DIB forty years ago led some observers to emphasize U.S. naval power as the most efficient, effective way to check a possible Soviet attack[12]. With the U.S. Army dispirited after the Vietnam War, and the Red Army strengthening its presence and power in Eastern Europe[13], a greater reliance on naval power made sense. While this emphasis on U.S. naval power was coupled with a Western misperception of Soviet naval intentions – the U.S. expected the Soviet Navy to venture far from home during a war, which it did not plan to do[14] – America’s historic position as a maritime nation positioned it well for a reliance on maritime might.

Similarly, the stresses places on U.S. land forces by nearly two decades of war in the greater Middle East lend weight to the idea of emphasizing naval strength when confronting China. Also, the difference in the nature of America’s treaty allies (i.e., North Atlantic Treaty Organization members directly bordering the Warsaw Pact compared to Japan and the Philippines near China but offshore) makes naval preeminence sensible. The fact that the Pacific is wider and takes longer to cross from the continental United States than the Atlantic is also a driving force.

Then as now, there are different schools of thought as to what precise shape the U.S. Navy should take. Proposals for a 355-ship navy, and then a 500-ship navy, put forward in the past few years parallel U.S. President Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship navy. However, an attempt at a rapid buildup has downsides. The huge increases in the costs of the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship illustrate the perils of trying to buy too much, too quickly[15][16].

Convinced that the DIB’s weakness in the early 1980s would not allow the U.S. to overwhelm the Soviets with conventional forces in a war, some defense observers, such as U.S. Senator Gary Hart, sought to emphasize Maneuver Warfare, with the goal of outthinking the Soviets[17]. The Maneuver Warfare camp worried about a U.S. overreliance on large aircraft carriers, and suggested complementing them with smaller carriers[18]. This is strikingly similar to former Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer’s talk of using America-class amphibious assault ships as “lightning carriers[19].” A 2017 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also recommended construction of small carriers (CVLs) and continued building of larger ones[20]. The Navy’s decision to decommission the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard after its damage by a fire, combined with Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger’s expressed interest in deemphasizing the Marines’ reliance on large ships for amphibious operations, provide an opportunity to put the lightning carrier concept to the test[21].

As the Biden administration considers how to approach the challenge of China, it can learn from a past period of superpower rivalry, but must also bear differences between the two eras in mind. 


[1] Trachtenberg, Marc. “Assessing Soviet Economic Performance During the Cold War: A Failure of Intelligence?” Texas National Security Review, February 2018. https://tnsr.org/2018/02/assessing-soviet-economic-performance-cold-war/

[2] Purdy, Mark. “China’s Economy, in Six Charts.” Harvard Business Review, November 29, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/11/chinas-economy-in-six-charts#:~:text=China’s%20economy%20has%20entered%20a,China’s%20GDP%E2%80%9D%20chart%20below)

[3] Long, Heather. “U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.” CNN Business, March 29, 2016. https://money.cnn.com/2016/03/29/news/economy/us-manufacturing-jobs/

[4] Herman, Arthur. “Bringing the Factories Home.” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2020. https://www.hudson.org/research/16236-bringing-the-factories-home

[5] Tadjdeh, Yasmin. “Report Finds U.S. Defense Industrial Base in Decline.” National Defense, February 5, 2020. https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2020/2/5/defense-industrial-base-earns-c-grade-in-new-report

[6] Rothenberg, Randall. The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, pp. 114-120. https://www.amazon.com/neoliberals-Creating-new-American-politics/dp/0671458817

[7] Atkinson, Robert D. and Michael Lind. “National Developmentalism: From Forgotten Tradition to New Consensus.” American Affairs, Summer 2019. https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2019/05/national-developmentalism-from-forgotten-tradition-to-new-consensus/

[8] Ibid

[9] Salam, Reihan. “Normalizing Trade Relations With China Was a Mistake.” Atlantic, June 8, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/06/normalizing-trade-relations-with-china-was-a-mistake/562403/

[10] Shane, Daniel. “How China gets what it wants from American companies.” CNN Business, April 5, 2018. https://money.cnn.com/2018/04/05/news/economy/china-foreign-companies-restrictions/index.html

[11] Rosenbaum, Eric. “1 in 5 corporations say China has stolen their IP within the last year: CNBC CFO survey.” CNBC, March 1, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/28/1-in-5-companies-say-china-stole-their-ip-within-the-last-year-cnbc.html

[12] Rothenberg, pp. 114-120

[13] Federation of American Scientists. “Soviet Military Power: Chapter III – Theater Forces.” 1984. https://fas.org/irp/dia/product/smp_84_ch3.htm

[14] Alman, David. “Convoy Escort: The Navy’s Forgotten (Purpose) Mission.” War on the Rocks, December 30, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/convoy-escort-the-navys-forgotten-purpose-mission

[15] Insinna, Valerie. “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program.” New York Times, August 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/magazine/f35-joint-strike-fighter-program.html

[16] Roblin, Sébastien. “The Navy spent $30B and 16 years to fight Iran with a littoral combat ship that doesn’t work.” NBC News, July 19, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/navy-spent-30b-16-years-fight-iran-littoral-combat-ship-ncna1031806

[17] Rothenberg, pp. 114-120

[18] Ibid

[19] Eckstein, Megan. “Marines Test ‘Lightning Carrier’ Concept, Control 13 F-35Bs from Multiple Amphibs.” USNI News, October 23, 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/10/23/marines-test-lightning-carrier-concept-control-13-f-35bs-from-multiple-amphibs

[20] Clark, Bryan, Peter Haynes, Jesse Sloman, Timothy A. Walton. “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 9, 2017. https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/restoring-american-seapower-a-new-fleet-architecture-for-the-united-states-

[21] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps.” https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700