Opinion: Naval Strength Cannot Be Taken For Granted

In the spring of 1908, the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet was docked in San Francisco, readying itself for the Pacific leg of its around-the-world cruise. It had already passed through the Caribbean and around Latin America (there was not yet a Panama Canal). The global demonstration of American strength over the next year (the fleet would not return to Hampton Roads, Virginia until February, 1909) was meant to show the international community that the United States had arrived as a major power. But it was also meant to generate support in a frugal Congress for President Theodore Roosevelt’s plans for further naval expansion.

A century later, Americans have taken for granted U.S. command of the seas, won with so much effort during World War II. Naval shipbuilding has dwindled, and the fleet is less than half the size it was two decades ago. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been arguing that U.S. defense spending needs to remain at 4% of gross domestic product (GDP) even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down to make up for the neglect shown the services during the 1990s. Today, total defense spending is running at 4.2% of GDP, but that includes spending on military operations in the Middle East.  The core defense spending that raises, arms and equips the armed forces is at only 3.3% of GDP, a commitment of national resources that is actually lower than ten years ago when the country was still reducing its forces in the afterglow of the Soviet collapse.

The Pentagon needs to both reset its current forces and expand their number if the United States is to meet future challenges. As reported in Defense News (April 14th), the Joint Staff is preparing a new National Military Strategy for “an era of persistent engagement” that is expected to last decades.

Attention has focused on the Army, since it has borne the brunt of the current war efforts. But all the services were cut in the 1990s, and all have been pushed hard in recent years. The Navy has not been as visible during recent fighting, but the fleet provides essential support for the war effort.

To a nation with a strong fleet, the oceans are highways that can be closed to rivals. Whenever the United States wants to demonstrate its resolve, or react quickly in a crisis, it calls on the Navy to show the flag, and the power behind the flag. According to historian Jeremy Black, “The rise of European states to a position of power across the oceans and around much of the globe was the military/political change that most deserves the description of a military revolution.” Starting at the end of the 15th Century when the Portuguese sailed around Africa into the Indian Ocean, maritime mobility allowed a number of states to create empires, commercial networks and spheres of influence that dominated world politics. It has been America’s command of the sea that has allowed it to transport and sustain armies on campaigns halfway around the world throughout the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century. No other country can even contemplate such feats.

As marvelous as the logistical effort has been, its prerequisite has been taken for granted: complete American dominance of the air and sea along the transit routes. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the last fleet that tried to challenge the U.S. Navy. But since the Reagan era, the American fleet has also declined, from 590 warships then to 279 today. Aircraft carriers have been cut from 15 to 11.

America’s maritime problem is not just at sea. The U.S. shipbuilding industry has been in long-term decline, with very few commercial ships being built and naval construction at low ebb. The Bush Administration only asked for three surface combat ships and one submarine in its 2009 budget, plus three support ships. Meanwhile, China has created the world’s third largest shipbuilding industry, with the stated ambition of becoming number one. China is already building more surface warships and submarines each year than is the United States.

Like the Soviets did, Beijing is putting its emphasis on submarines, both nuclear and diesel-electric. On March 12th, Admiral Timothy Keating, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, was asked about the buildup of the Chinese Navy at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. He described China’s submarine fleet as “good and getting better.” Last year, a Chinese Song-class conventional submarine popped up undetected within weapons rage of the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk while the American task force was on exercises north of Taiwan.

Chinese warships are not as advanced as their American counterparts – for the moment. And China is only experimenting with aircraft carrier designs – for the moment. But “penny wise, pound foolish” budget constraints are skewing U.S. construction towards the low end of naval capabilities, allowing China to close the gap faster.

In order to reconstitute even a 300-ship fleet, the Navy has planned to concentrate production on the Littoral Combat Ship, a frigate-sized, shallow-draft vessel meant to operate in coastal waters, taking continued control of more distant ocean spaces for granted. The LCS is to be cheap (about $400 million each), so as many as six per year could be ordered.  They would eventually make up over a third of the Navy’s surface combatants. But the program has been rife with delays and cost overruns, though a recent analysis by AMI International found that the LCS is still roughly 20% cheaper than comparable European-built ships. The first LCS will start sea trials this summer.

The Navy’s new high-tech warship, the large DD-1000 destroyer, is in trouble on Capitol Hill, where sentiment is running against building all seven of the currently planned ships. Only two have been funded, out of what the Navy originally wanted as a 30 ship program. The DD 1000 will pioneer an integrated all-electric power system that is more efficient and survivable than today’s propulsion systems, and provides more power capacity for future weapons; but such advances are expensive.

At a March 14th hearing of the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, an analyst from the Congressional Budget Office argued that the Navy will need an additional $6-10 billion a year to fund its shipbuilding program. In 2006, the CBO put out a study claiming that even with a total Federal budget over $3 trillion, the extra money needed for fleet expansion could not be found. The Navy disagrees with the CBO assessment, but even if the CBO is right about the need for more money, the amount would only be 0.3% of the Federal budget.

The CBO laid out several “second-best” alternatives for the Navy over the next 30 years. It suggested the Navy choose some capabilities to preserve, and let the others slide. The Navy could not afford, within assumed CBO budget limitations, to be the full-spectrum, global force is has been the in past. In most of the scenarios, the Navy would have only 7 or 8 aircraft carriers, when admirals believe 12 are needed to cover the fleet’s world-wide deployments (though they seem willing to settle for 11). The CBO concluded that without higher shipbuilding budgets, the Navy would have fewer submarines, missile launch tubes and amphibious lift (among other things) by 2035 than they have today. But does anyone think that the number of potentially hostile warships operated by other navies will be smaller than today, given the rapid spread of industry and technology around the world?

This parsimonious outlook is unwise, reflecting political rather than strategic analysis. Nothing was said by the CBO about what threats the Navy might face over the next three decades. It was a purely budget exercise. Yet, 20 years of national economic growth should make maintaining naval dominance easier to afford, not harder. In real terms, the U.S. economy is nearly double what it was in 1988, so why is the Navy smaller? The country is not in the kind of economic decline that has forced other powers to retreat from world affairs. It is the failure to make naval operations a priority that is at fault, a failure that puts the rest of America’s global security posture at risk.

(Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington, DC.)

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