Revitalize American Sea Power

By Representative J. Randy Forbes

Failing to bolster the U.S. Navy in the face of 21st-century maritime threats could prove disastrous to the international order.
The year 2014 promises to be exceedingly important for the future of America’s Navy. As the Pentagon and Congress face continued budget reductions and the Department of Defense is forced to weigh its priorities, the contours of American sea power and our global commitment to an expeditionary posture are at stake. Indeed, the choices made in just the next several years will lock in major trends in shipbuilding, naval aviation, and important research-and-development (R&D) efforts that will define the Navy of the 2020s and beyond.American economic prosperity and national security have always been tied to the sea in some form. More than two centuries ago, George Washington wrote of the need, “as certain as that night succeeds the day,” for effective sea power to achieve decisive military outcomes. Writing long before theorists like Alfred Thayer Mahan or Julian Corbett were heard from, Washington opined that success on land required superiority at sea. 1   Our nation’s first foreign conflicts, the Barbary Wars at the dawn of the 19th century, were undertaken to secure global maritime trade against the scourge of international piracy. The growing U.S. ability to defend the maritime commons and project power abroad increased international respect for our fledgling nation and began America’s ascent as a great power. Like Great Britain in an earlier era, the United States has used its maritime supremacy to construct an international order predicated on a commitment to unrestricted access to the global commons and deterrence of regional aggression.

Our Enduring Global Interests

Under the latent protection of U.S. maritime power, international commerce and prosperity has expanded exponentially. Ninety percent of global trade by volume is seaborne, and the tonnage shipped is expected to more than double by 2030. 2   Our economy has derived tremendous benefit from the maritime stability that results in robust trade; sea power thus helps pay for itself. Undersea cables have tied continents together through affordable, prompt communication lines. More than 30 percent of global oil production, including 34 percent of U.S. production, is from offshore sources, and that percentage is rising. 3   The sea will also become an important space for renewable energy, ensuring a continued role in American energy security. These forces are essential to not just the American economy, but the very financial system that underpins our international order.

If one surveys the list of challenges faced by the U.S. Navy today and in the near future, the scope and scale of potential maritime insecurity becomes apparent. The East and South China Seas feature contentious maritime territorial disputes that threaten to be diplomatic battlefields for future great-power conflict. The Strait of Hormuz is consistently threatened with closure by Iran, either directly or through non-state entities. Thawing Arctic ice has created a new arena for geopolitical competition and prompted DOD to release its first Arctic Strategy. 4   Somali piracy cost the global economy roughly $6 billion in 2012, and piracy is growing elsewhere in the world. 5   Maritime trafficking of drugs and arms has become increasingly sophisticated as smugglers turn to submarines and unmanned vessels to evade detection. The protection of energy infrastructure should not be taken for granted, either, as witnessed by insurgent attacks on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Guinea and the proliferation of low-cost means to disrupt energy production available to non-state actors. 6   These are just the sea-based challenges to the current U.S.-shaped international order and do not include the land, air, or strategic challenges the U.S. Navy addresses on a daily basis.

Without a strong Navy to underpin American economic strategy, many aspects of U.S. foreign policy would become untenable, including encouraging and protecting international trade, resisting the aggressive ambitions of rising powers, or projecting force to achieve a diverse array of objectives. The Navy–Marine Corps team is a versatile force that can be tailored for a range of military, diplomatic, or humanitarian missions. In times of peace, naval forces serve as formidable reminders of American presence, improve relations with foreign navies, and respond to humanitarian disasters. In a crisis short of conflict, naval forces can demonstrate the consequences of belligerence to adversaries through exercises with allies and partners. And should a crisis ensue, our Navy–Marine Corps team provides policymakers with scalable capabilities from passive deterrence to various forms of kinetic operations. To quote former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, with so many different uses of sea power available, “the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war.” 7   Instead, they augment American power across myriad domains and allow decision makers in Washington to ensure a stable, prosperous order.

‘A Generational Task’

And yet at current resourcing the United States is slowly backing itself into a world where its naval power will fail to meet the challenges of the international order it seeks to safeguard. Given the centrality of U.S. sea power to the post-1945 American-led order, the current trajectory of the Navy is simply unacceptable. The Reagan administration’s program of naval expansion was so large and comprehensive that it enabled the service to thrive for nearly three decades, but since then we have taken our command of the seas for granted and are now failing to adequately invest in its future. Sustaining American sea power is a generational task. Instead of carefully nurturing our new-found position at the end of the Cold War, we allowed ourselves to view sea control as an American right, a natural condition of the international system that we could take for granted.

Today, many of the ships built during that period are reaching the end of their service lives, causing the size of the Fleet to fall precipitously. Even before sequestration, it had atrophied from 568 ships in 1987 to just 283 this year. 8   By 2015, the administration is projecting a continued decline to an alarming 270 ships. 9   The service itself asserts that a minimum of 306 ships is required to meet current requirements, while a report from an independent, bipartisan panel of defense experts called for 346 vessels. 10

These shortfalls will be felt more acutely among some classes of vessels than others; for example, attack submarines (SSNs) will be decommissioned faster than they are being replaced. While the Navy has said it requires a minimum of 48 SSNs to execute current missions, by Fiscal Year 2025 the Fleet will begin to fall below that requirement and will continue to be significantly under-resourced until the late-2020s. 11   A similar situation prevails with other classes of vessels. The Navy’s shortages in its destroyer and amphibious fleets will fester this decade and continue in the 2020s without a new investment in shipbuilding.

While total Fleet size is an important metric in gauging the Navy’s combat capabilities, its ability to meet the needs of our combatant commanders is another essential barometer. The percentage of asset requests from combatant commanders fulfilled by the Navy has dropped from 90 percent in FY 07 to a projected 42 percent in FY 14. 12   While the service’s ability to meet requirements has decreased, the demands of our commanders in the field have continued to rise in response to a dynamic global threat environment.

Critics of investments in a robust American Navy–Marine Corps team have and will point to the qualitative advantages our Navy currently enjoys in comparison with potential challengers as justification for avoiding these investments. The danger of this thinking is that it erodes the margin between just accomplishing objectives and achieving them with a minimum of risk and cost to our serving personnel. In some capabilities, these margins are already perilously thin. If the Navy’s only goal was to defend Norfolk and San Diego, the Fleet would be sufficiently resourced as currently constituted. Yet in a world requiring continuous American presence from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf and nearly everywhere in between, our planned course will fail the nation.

What does this all mean in terms of our investments? The “fair-share” approach of relatively equal budgets for the services that has endured at the Pentagon for decades is antithetical to good strategic planning. If the United States is going to posture its conventional and strategic forces to maintain a competitive advantage in the decade ahead, we are going to have to do much more than striving to dole out equal shares of the Pentagon budget pie.

Certainly, the past decade has been characterized by prolonged counterinsurgencies in the Middle East and South Asia. These operations have exerted tremendous strains on our Army and Marine Corps, which received significant budget increases commensurate with the missions assigned to them by the President and Congress. While the United States will remain active in the Middle East, the shifting security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific have necessitated a re-emphasis on our maritime forces. As such, I believe that in the coming decade we will ask a disproportionate contribution from our maritime and power-projection forces. But filling this gap and resourcing the current shipbuilding plan does not require a large shift in Defense Department resources, according to Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, but instead just 1.1 to 1.5 percent more of the department’s current average annual budget.

Priorities for the Future

Though any plan to revitalize the U.S. Navy should be comprehensive, we must prioritize our high-end warfighting capabilities and build on traditional American competitive advantages. Four priority areas must be sustained and expanded in an era of fiscal constraint to ensure the United States can maintain naval supremacy for decades to come:

•  Extend the range and capabilities of the Carrier Air Wing (CVW).   Carriers have long been the centerpiece of U.S. power projection. Yet advances in China’s and Iran’s anti-access/area denial and precision-strike weapons will force carriers to either operate from farther afield or at greater risk. In response, the future CVW must be equipped with a combination of extended-range, persistence, stealth, payload, and electronic warfare capabilities to operate at both the high- and low-end of the threat spectrum and to maintain our ability to strike at the time and place of our choosing. Integrating a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft into the CVW is a critical part of preserving the aircraft carrier as the most potent power projection platform in the Navy’s kit. The Navy is well along in proving the feasibility of an unmanned combat air system. To be effective in emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific and other regions, a future carrier-based unmanned combat air system must have broadband, all-aspect stealth, capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality. In contrast, developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily another flying sensor would be a missed opportunity.

•  Sustain our undersea warfare advantage.   Our Navy has a unique competitive advantage in undersea warfare that we should seek to expand on in the coming decades. We will need to continue constructing  Virginia -class attack submarines at a rate of two each year to help offset projected shortfalls in the 2020s. The Navy’s four cruise-missile submarines will not be replaced when they retire in the 2020s, meaning the development of a Virginia payload module to enhance strike power will be essential to maintaining our undersea capacity. In addition, the Navy must remain ahead of the technology curve on the development of unmanned underwater vehicles, a capability that promises to radically change the composition of the future undersea competition.

•  Hone surface warfare capabilities.   Our ability to control key sea lanes and deny enemy ships freedom of movement when necessary will remain central to the future naval surface competition. Today, we face a surface warfare challenge where we are now “out-sticked” by Chinese antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). This challenge did not emerge overnight. Instead, it is the result of a two-decade malaise where our Navy won almost complete command of the sea following the Cold War and then failed to keep pace with emerging threats. The Navy’s own ASCM, the Harpoon, is an over-the-horizon, antiship missile system that was designed in the 1970s and now does not have the range or survivability to operate against more sophisticated anti-surface threats we are seeing from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy today. An air and sea-launched version of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile is an important investment to help close this gap in anti-surface warfare. The Navy should also consider ways to extend the range of the littoral combat ship’s antisurface capabilities. Additionally, we should reinvest our time and energy in the offensive mine warfare mission, an investment that will provide significant returns for the Fleet.

•  Protect funding for naval research and development.   The U.S. Navy’s qualitative edge has rested on forward-thinking investments in cutting-edge technology. Developments such as naval aviation, the nuclear-powered and ballistic-missile submarines, land-attack cruise missiles, and sea-based missile defense have all served to enhance the Navy’s peacetime and warfighting functions in different ways. But in today’s budget environment, slashing future innovation has been a tempting proposition. Navy R&D dollars are critical to advances in robotics, directed-energy weapons, next-generation radar, and electromagnetics, among others that will allow the United States to remain competitive in future warfighting environments. We must remain focused on maturing these technologies.

This year will be pivotal for the future of the Navy. A new  Quadrennial Defense Review   and maritime strategy should spur debate on the roles, missions and resources expected for the Navy–Marine Corps team. I welcome this discussion and believe that proponents of continued American maritime superiority should use these opportunities to cogently demonstrate the need for a comprehensive revitalization of American sea power.

1. George Washington’s letter correspondence, Marquis de Lafayette, French military representative, 15 November 1781,… .

2. Nina Chestney, “Global seaborne trade seen doubling by 2030-report,” Reuters, 8 April 2013, .

3. Christopher Johnson, “Factbox-Offshore increasingly important to oil industry,” Reuters, 6 July 2010, .

4. Thom Shanker, “Pentagon Releases Strategy for Arctic,”  The New York Times , 22 November 2013,… . For the strategy itself, see “Arctic Strategy,” Department of Defense, November 2013, .

5. Jonathan Bellish, “The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy 2012,” Oceans Beyond Piracy, 2013, executive summary,… .

6. Andrew Krepinevich, “The Terrorist Threat Beneath the Waves,”  The Wall Street Journal , 2 November 2011,… .

7. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, change of command address at U.S. Naval Academy, 1 August 1961.

8. Historical fleet sizes were tracked by the Navy and published here: “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1886-Present,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 10 June 2011, . Current Navy shipbuilding plans call for a drop in fleet size to 282 this year before falling to 270 in 2015: Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 8 November 2013, 7.

9. Christopher Cavas, “US Navy Still Seeks to Decommission More Ships,”  Defense News , 23 April 2013,… .

10. O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure…” 81–4.

11. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 27 September 2013, 9.

12. Statistics provided by the U.S. Navy to the Office of Representative Forbes, 2013.

Representative Forbes (R-VA) is Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. He is currently co-leading a bipartisan Asia-Pacific Oversight Series for the House Armed Services Committee.
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