Is America’s Naval Supremacy Sinking?

(FORBES 28 JUL 13) … Larry Bell

Seth Cropsey, a former assistant secretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, now a fellow at the Hudson Institute believes so. His recent book, titled Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Superiority, sounds an alarm that as the number of U.S. ships and aircraft continue to decrease, as our defense budgets are dictated by politically correct policies, as our planning strategies emphasize larger and costlier rather than smaller, cheaper and more technologically advanced vessels, and as expanding bureaucracy and regulations increase shipbuilding expenses, the Chinese gain steady naval power advantage.

There can be no doubt that the American Navy is becoming increasingly stretched both in budget and territorial challenges. While the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy focused much attention upon the Western Pacific and greater Indian Ocean, its framers also mandated that sea services were to maintain a capacity to seize command of any navigable region on the face of the globe. The Obama administration’s current pivot to Asia is encountering fierce political pushback from “Europe first” advocates who continue to demand a strong Atlantic naval presence.

Mr. Cropsey blames much of the U.S. Navy budget problem upon a political imperative over at least the past 25 years which dictates that defense dollars be apportioned equally among the three military departments and the defense bureaucracy regardless of the projected role assigned to each in the overall national strategy. He also criticizes several ills of the Navy’s planning and budgeting system. Included are: low and unsteady quantities of ship orders; trade-offs between building a few cutting-edge ships and more ships that are less technologically complex; and ever-increasing contractual and regulatory cost burdens. An example of the latter involves requirements for new paints that emit fewer shipbuilding toxins, compliance mandates which alone add an estimated $16 million to the cost of an aircraft carrier.

Basing naval strength on ship fleet numbers can be very misleading. During the 2012 presidential campaign, candidate Mitt Romney emphasized that the U.S. Navy is currently smaller (286 ships) than any time since the WWI period in 1917 under the Wilson administration (342 ships). Yet this number, in itself, has little meaning because true defense capability depends upon what types of ships are included in the tally. A three-hundred-ship fleet comprised only of aircraft carriers and destroyers would be far different from the same number comprised of unarmed oilers and ammunition vessels. Actual combat strength depends upon the proportion of battle-force combatants, light combatants such as the new Littoral Combat Ships and support vessels.

The Obama camp made an equally meaningless claim counteracting Romney’s ship number in stating that the U.S. Navy is bigger than the size of the next 13 fleets combined. This was a reference to aggregate tonnage, not to firepower or any meaningful measure of battle performance necessary to accomplish operational and strategic goals. As James Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College points out, the 157,000-ton container ship Emma Maersk hardly equals the battle power of the supercarrier USS George H.W. Bush, although it displaces one and one-half times as much as the nuclear-powered flattop.

To expand warfare capabilities under difficult budget constraints, Mr. Cropsey proposes that many smaller carriers, especially those equipped with short takeoff and landing aircraft, can do the same job as a few large ones. He also maintains that newer submarines with air-independent propulsion are quieter and can get closer to shore at less expense for construction and maintenance than current nuclear types…thus enabling more carriers and subs to be built for the same budget.

Seth Cropsey’s argument pays special heed to a 2009 Naval Postgraduate School monograph titled “The New Navy Fighting Machine” compiled by a team headed by retired Captain Wayne Hughes. The report advocates smaller, more numerous, less expensive platforms, suggesting that the number of big-deck aircraft carriers be gradually scaled back from the current eleven, to eight, or even six. The savings would then be used to construct 18 smaller carriers, expanding the Navy’s geographic coverage, diversifying its combat power, and reducing the consequences of losing any individual ship.

Captain Hughes also notes that: “Mathematically, it has been proven that if an enemy has twice as many ships attacking, then in an exchange of fire, the other fleet to achieve parity in losses must have twice the offensive power, twice the defensive power, and twice the staying power. The operational insight comes from observing that when a ship is put out of action it loses all three of its combat properties—offensive, defensive, and staying power—simultaneously.”

Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead (Ret.), a fellow at the Hoover Institute, agrees with Mr. Cropsey that “the most advanced technology should bow to numbers,” and using unmanned systems to achieve “decreased cost and increased surveillance and combat power,” yet cautions against assumptions that a linear relationship exists between cost and reduced ship size.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Admiral Roughead comments: “The inconvenient truth is that a ship that is half the size doesn’t cost half as much. Deploying more ships is appealing, but to get to areas of interest such as the Middle East, the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean we must cross vast waters and remain present for extended periods. Size, speed, endurance and lethality matter greatly, especially when forward bases can’t be assured at a time when foreign populations are prickly about sovereignty.”

Vice Admiral Edward Briggs (Ret.) told me that he disputes the credibility of Mr. Cropsey’s small carrier priority, stating that “We have been through this short takeoff and landing argument before, only to see it discarded.” VADM Briggs pointed out that one reason Admiral Holloway developed the aircraft carrier concept for Admiral Moorer (then Chief of Naval Operations), was to “ensure that the carriers represented multipurpose combat capability – that the air wing mix of aircraft would vary to meet the threats posed in any confrontation,” and that “At the same time the mix would provide airborne early warning and air defense aloft.”

VADM Briggs observed that “Small carriers do not have the flexibility and capability to meet a spectrum of foreseeable threats and simultaneous flexibility for the offensive operations. He also emphasized that “numbers without concomitant technology and flexibility is a dangerous concept of war.”

As the U.S. reduces its military budget, Bloomberg reports that the Chinese Communist Party plans to boost military spending 10.7 percent this year as it responds to a concurrent American push for more influence in the Asia-Pacific. China already has the second-largest military budget in the world after the U.S.

Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said, “We are getting indicators of a long-term intention, decisive intention, on the part of the Chinese to build up a carrier-based navy. That’s pretty much irrefutable.” Still, Bitzinger believes that building the new carrier from scratch will be very challenging for them. He observes that “One carrier is symbolic but if you really want to have an effective carrier-based force you’ve really got to have two, three or four.” And perhaps that’s exactly what they have in mind as evidenced by current developments and announcements.

China recently conducted a month of J-15 fighter jet takeoffs and landings on its Liaoning aircraft carrier which was retrofitted from the hull of an unfinished Soviet-era model. Reuters quotes Song Xue, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) stating that “China will have more than one aircraft carrier…The next aircraft carrier will be larger and carry more jets.”

Song also said that the PLA-N is building a naval aviation force for the Liaoning which will have at least two aviation regiments on the carrier, including fighters, reconnaissance aircraft, anti-submarine aircraft, electronic countermeasure (ECM) planes, and rotary-wing aircraft. Their domestically-produced J-15 is part of China’s aviation modernization process, capable of carrying anti-ship, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles as well as precision-guided bombs.


Meanwhile, the Obama administration has actually now offered to restrain our own missile defense activities in Asia in exchange for China’s help in reducing nuclear threats from North Korea. This includes cancelingdeployment of two destroyers equipped with Aegis missile defense systems, along with terminating delivery of a second TPY-2 phased-array X-band long-range missile defense radar system for Japan. China had objected to these deployments, arguing that the assets would deepen regional tensions. Unfortunately, that American concession is unlikely to lessen tensions for our allies Japan and Taiwan regarding territorial and sovereignty disputes with China.

Seth Cropsey believes that Beijing’s eventual intent is to rise in naval supremacy to surpass the U.S. as guarantor of international commerce and maritime security in Asia. As he recognizes, “the signs point to a change in power in the Western Pacific” …a region of great importance to our own future prosperity. Admiral Roughead doesn’t dispute that China has such aspirations, but notes that this won’t happen any time soon since unlike armies, navies are much slower to build. He explains that this is why framers of our Constitution wrote of the imperative to “provide and maintain a navy,” as opposed to the need to “raise and support an army.”

As former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Hayward (Ret.) told me: “The Chinese with one carrier (or even two) and a few submarines that can launch nuclear missiles is hardly superior to even a lesser capable navy than we have now or expect to have.”

Captain Jim Patton (Ret.), who Admiral Hayward described as one of his best strategic thinkers, said: “If I try to stretch the current state of the PLA-N to envision an ocean-going navy that could deploy more than one carrier strike group [CSG] to more than one place at a time – or combine CSGs with expeditionary strike groups to conduct forcible entry anywhere on the globe – while at the same time, maintaining enough submarine-launched ballistic missiles to obliterate any country on the globe – I guess that I would be anxious to shout ‘MAYDAY’ with the loudest of alarmists. How long did it take the U.S.A. to build and test (repeatedly!) that kind of naval power? Well, half a century, if you count the end of WWII. If that kind of naval power is in China’s wish list they had better ‘get with the program’.”

Still, Captain Patton doesn’t entirely rule out that possibility. While he characterizes extrapolating the Navy we presently see China building equivalent to some sort of “transfer of power” with the U.S. as “rank alarmism,” he concedes that the “dire competition that supported our own building to a force of nearly 600 ships to fight the Soviets and a readiness to fight unequalled between WWII and now, I can understand how folks will stretch the threat.” Yet he concludes “That doesn’t mean I have to believe it.”

In any case, whether or not it’s time to call “Mayday,” the book calls to question some very important issues. Perhaps above all, as Vice Admiral Dunn observes, it cogently warns us that “cutting back on American sea power promises nothing except advancing powerlessness, the suspicion of allies and global challenges to American security, especially from China.” Admiral Dunn equates the current philosophy of “offshore balancing,” prodding others to stand in for the leadership we are unable or unwilling to supply ourselves, as being akin to the expectations of a child that he can control the motion of a mechanical toy horse he mounts outside a supermarket.

America can ill afford to rely upon a wild herd of toy horses engineered by international coalitions and transient agreements to protect our national interests on sea, air and land. Doing so will sink our dominion over sovereignty and prosperity at home and abroad, placing us and our allies at the mercy of tyrants.

Larry Bell is a professor at the University of Houston where he directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture.

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