Great maritime powers that forget their oceanic roots or allow themselves to be unduly distracted by continental affairs pay a high cost. We are a maritime power with a fleet that has been in decline for 20 years. The Middle East campaigns that occupy our military attention, and the broader so-called Long War against terrorists, distract strategic focus from the issues of sea power and from our most likely peer naval competitor, China, which is purposefully assembling and gradually deploying a modern, ocean-spanning combat fleet.
This is not to say that confronting the radical fanatics is a mistake. They are a threat to the U.S. and to other modern, secular states. But where is balance? What kind of strategic judgment allows passing issues to trump enduring ones?
China’s return to the naval power status that it voluntarily abandoned centuries ago is important. It challenges American power in the western Pacific, and — if current trends continue — will eventually contest the U.S. fleet closer to our West Coast as submarines bearing nuclear-tipped warheads once again affect American strategic equations. A powerful Chinese navy also threatens America’s greatest Asian ally, Japan, with large ripple-effect consequences throughout East Asia as Tokyo feels itself obliged to respond.
China’s 2004 Defense white paper spoke in vague terms about reorganizing naval “combat forces in a more scientific way” and “updating its weaponry.” Two years later, the vagueness vanished. The 2006 white paper focuses on “informationization” (allowing naval platforms to share vital tactical information) and “modernization.” It singles out “combined arms, joint operations and integrated maritime support” as major naval objectives. The 2004 document emphasizes protecting “the sovereignty of [China’s] territorial seas.” Last year’s white paper signals a more ambitious reach: “The Navy aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations.”
In short, China’s is a navy with resources that demonstrate the support of national leadership and clear direction. Modernization and training are the building blocks of an integrated, joint-force-capable fleet that will deny an enemy access to regional waters as it expands its ability to project power at increasing distances.
The U.S. Navy’s focus today is less clear. Its 274 combat ships — a number that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton called “shocking” — comprise a force that is less than half the size achieved during the Reagan years. Even Army generals have begun to address the subject in public. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told Congress in late April that “the monthly burn rate of $9 billion a month in Iraq and $1 billion a month in Afghanistan has caused us to inadequately fund the modernization of the U.S. Air Force and Navy by diverting funds (as much as $55 billion) to support the ongoing ground war. If this continues, we will be in terrible trouble in the coming decades when the PRC emerges as a global military power — which we will then face in the Pacific with inadequate deterrence.”
When the John F. Kennedy was decommissioned March 23, the number of aircraft carriers dropped to 11, more than a quarter fewer than well after the slide began. The last time the U.S. possessed so small a fleet was sometime between December 1916 and April 1917, on the eve of the nation’s entry into World War I. Fleet size will slip another eight ships this year, the number by which the 15 vessels slated for decommissioning exceeds those scheduled to join the fleet. If the Navy is able to sustain shipbuilding at seven ships each year, the fleet will diminish further to slightly more than 200 ships, a level last reached during the administration of William Howard Taft.
What happened? As the Soviet fleet withdrew from the high seas, the U.S. Navy receded from public view. The conflict in the Middle East focused attention on land warfare. Corporate mergers reduced competition in the shipbuilding industry. Shipbuilding costs accelerated, and efforts to discipline them were largely abandoned except to cut back on the number of vessels constructed. Where the Navy spent $11 billion toward the end of the Reagan administration to purchase 28 ships, the same amount today pays for about one-fifth as many vessels.
The fleet is not the only victim — so is the nation’s ability to rebuild it. As fewer ships are ordered, shipyards lay off workers, and many of the most experienced look elsewhere for more certain employment.
But the real problem is drift. Fleet size has fluctuated with shifting political winds, and amid theorizing about measuring capabilities rather than concrete numbers of ships. The Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 seemed to support a battle force of 310 ships composed of 12 aircraft carriers, 116 surface combatants, 55 submarines, 36 amphibious vessels, plus support ships. For the next two years, and as a partial result of the decision to build 56 Littoral Combat Ships, a relatively shallow-draft, fast, smaller combatant designed to operate close to shore, the desired fleet size increased to 375.
Then, in 2005, after re-evaluating capabilities, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark told Congress that “in a sensor-rich construct, the numbers of platforms are no longer a meaningful measure of combat capability.” Under the new plan, fleet size projections would vary — between 260 and 325 ships. Advancing technology allowed the fleet to be reduced, Clark argued, and cuts could be deepened because more ships would be based forward and crews would be swapped aboard the same ship, rather than the traditional practice of returning a ship from a deployment and sending another to replace it.
In February 2006, the Navy proposed a 313-ship fleet with one fewer carrier, and smaller numbers of submarines and amphibious ships than its earlier published targets. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld harked back to Clark’s argument. At a Pentagon town hall meeting, he urged the Navy to “look at the ultimate effectiveness of the fleet ... rather than numbers.”
Rumsfeld’s point is correct — up to a point. If, for example, the combat power of 10 ships today could be concentrated in a single vessel, it would be foolish to build a fleet one-tenth the size of the current one, because a force that small could not cover all the places where the U.S. needs to apply naval power. If a short-haul airline profitably carries passengers daily on 100 routes, would it make sense for the company to replace planes with newer ones that carry 10 times as many customers? Hardly. The smaller number of planes would reduce the convenience — and thus profit — of many flights scattered throughout the day. In any event, Senate Armed Services Committee members Joseph Lieberman and John McCain questioned whether the funds the Defense Department allocated to shipbuilding for the current fiscal year would allow the Navy to reach its newly declared objective. “If this continues,” McCain remarked, “you’ll never see a 313-ship Navy.”
The salient constant in U.S. naval plans over the past decade has been fluctuation and numerical decline, targets notwithstanding.
Nor is this the end of the problem. McCain, on the same occasion, noted the rising cost of shipbuilding. “I never thought I’d live so long to see a destroyer that cost $2 [billion] to $3 billion.” He’s not alone: That’s how much aircraft carriers cost when Reagan took office.
Paying for a ship is not the same as buying an apple. Years pass between the time plans for a new ship are approved and the launch. Technology changes, and it is difficult to resist adding what may indeed be improvements to a vessel under construction. The result is a more expensive ship, an outcome also advanced by the current practice of writing contracts that oblige the purchaser, rather than the manufacturer, to pay for additional costs.
Purchasing new ships, however, is only part of the naval budget. As with any budget, overcoming deficiencies in one area must be offset by actions that diminish others. The Navy says its shipbuilding accounts are sufficient to pay for a 313-ship fleet if the overall budget remains stable — if current price estimates for new ships hold, if the cost of operating and maintaining the existing fleet does not rise, if research and development costs come down and stay down, and if the cost of manning the fleet remains stable — all in constant dollars. This is like assuring oneself of a new Porsche if sticker prices are etched into the exterior of the factory wall in Stuttgart, if none of your five children requires dentistry, if college tuitions remain stable, and if fuel prices decrease.
Little in Navy or Defense Department budget history suggests cause for optimism about restraining the categories mentioned. Operations costs are notoriously difficult to predict and restrain. Capping research and development now is counterintuitive. Unlike the Army and Marine Corps, the Navy is relatively at peace, a time when monies should be spent so that better equipment is available for war. Rumsfeld’s remark about going to war with the Army you have, not the one you want, applies especially to the Navy: Nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines take much longer to develop and build than helicopters or armored personnel carriers.
Counting on flat construction costs is equally doubtful, even if contractors were to absorb costs above the agreed ones. The inconstancy of current naval planning is a large reason. The Congressional Research Service notes that the 30-year shipbuilding plan designed to reach and maintain a 313-ship fleet will roughly double, then half, then double again the number of ships built over succeeding years. As with signals that are transmitted to the outside world, stability, consistency and reliability are critical to the industrial base’s efficiency and ability to keep costs in check. With ship orders fluctuating significantly over time, the Navy is not likely to be able to depend on current price estimates. Thus, another of the variables that must hold constant if the fleet is to be rebuilt is in doubt. And with it, so are the chances of success anytime soon for a 313-ship fleet.
If actual numbers cannot be addressed, perhaps there are other options. One is Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen’s thoughtful attention to strategy. The ideas that govern how the fleet can best be used are being re-examined thoroughly as they have not in years. Mullen’s concept of harnessing the efforts of allied and friendly navies — the “thousand-ship navy” — is also an intelligent approach to the problem of a waning U.S. naval fleet.
There is little other cause for optimism in the bleak picture. The total number of Littoral Combat Ships to be built has fluctuated between 55 and 82 in a class that represents the most significant single source of the fleet’s hoped-for growth. Costs have risen sharply for the first of the new naval combatants — a modular vessel whose mission combines such close-to-shore functions as board-and-search, special operations and intelligence with a limited ability to participate in larger fleet operations. Cost overruns, however, are normal with the first in a new class of combatant. The larger question is, “What kind of Navy are we building?”
American naval thought since the end of the Cold War has regarded the disappearance of the Soviet fleet from the high seas as a strategic imbalance to be righted by the application of power closer to shore. Emphasis on expeditionary forces, such white papers as “From the Sea,” and “Forward from the Sea,” as well as the Littoral Combat Ship program are evidence of consistent direction toward land. So, ultimately, is the dwindling blue-water fleet, the end of whose decay we have not seen.
Others, however, do not share this vision. India, in search of a greater blue-water force, is buying six French conventional-powered attack subs. The Russian navy is testing its new SS-NX-30 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles, to be carried aboard the nuclear-powered Borei-class sub, expected to join Moscow’s fleet this year as a replacement to the Cold War behemoth Typhoon. South Korea is purchasing Aegis-equipped destroyers. Spain has a fifth Aegis-class frigate on the way. France recently awarded a contract for the first in a new class of nuclear attack submarines, and is cooperating with Italy in the design of a multimission frigate; the first of a total purchase of 28 vessels is due for commissioning next year. Then there is China, and its manifest interest in exercising traditional naval power — on the high seas.
Without intending it, U.S. policy is verging toward unilateral naval disarmament. Minimum standards for fleet size continue to retreat as costs increase, other priorities intrude, the industrial base dries up and we put off anxiety by reassuring ourselves that our position as the world’s pre-eminent power is secure for now.
American naval history teaches that such assurance is hollow without policy to support it. The U.S. possessed a surplus of nearly useless coastal patrol vessels and 19 seagoing combatants when the War of 1812 began. Britain’s Royal Navy deployed more than 600 active-duty ships with more than one-third as many laid up or under construction. The king’s fleet also had global requirements: continental war; channel duty; patrolling the Mediterranean, India and the Pacific. Taking advantage of British preoccupation elsewhere and the Royal Navy’s stretched lines of communication across the Atlantic, the upstart American blue-water navy sank warship after warship and preyed on unprotected British shipping from the Canadian maritime provinces to the North Sea, to the Portuguese coast, to the Caribbean. Unable to achieve military objectives, and unrelieved of continental concerns, Britain agreed to peace.
Comparing Britain’s predicament in the War of 1812 to our own today shouldn’t be carried too far. But there are useful parallels. Like Britain then, we are the world’s great naval power. Similar to the Royal Navy’s, our shrinking fleet stretches American naval capabilities to the limit as potential trouble spots at great distances abound: Iran, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan. Like the British public of the early 19th century, we cannot imagine defeat at the hands of any potential enemy. There is a strong navy growing as we watch on the other side of the ocean to our west. But here the similarity ends. Unlike the British, we are gradually walking away from the position we achieved as the world’s first naval power.
The consequences cannot be overstated. American foreign policy has no issue before it larger than the question of what kind of China we want to see emerge. Years may pass before U.S. foreign policy addresses this, and an acrimonious relationship is not inevitable. But whatever course the U.S. eventually adopts, no good one would be advanced by a neglect-induced naval power vacuum in the Western Pacific. As the future of our economy depends increasingly on seaborne trade, the same is true everywhere else: Safe transit through the international commons shouldn’t be taken for granted. The U.N. has neither the means nor the will to assure it. It will not happen of its own. No other state has the same historical and principled interest that the U.S. does in free trade and its joined-at-the-hip twin — untrammeled access to the world’s oceans.
American policymakers should consider what international maritime regimens enforced by another state, or combination of them, would look like. We ought to think seriously about the unintended results of reverting to the coastal defense mission that Thomas Jefferson imagined for the fleet of single-cannon gunboats he advocated and built.
The incumbent whom Jefferson defeated for the presidency in 1800 had a clearer view of the reason for a navy. Eighty-eight years before the publication of Mahan’s “Influence of Sea Power on History,” former President Adams wrote that “[T]he counsel which Themistocles gave to Athens, Pompey to Rome, Cromwell to England, DeWitt to Holland, and Colbert to France ... I shall continue to give to my countrymen ... that the great questions of commerce and power between nations and empires must be determined by the sea.”
Does American strategy still understand this? When he was secretary of the Navy, now-Sen. Jim Webb asked me whether I thought that a decision that reversed the policy of achieving a 600-ship fleet spelled the eventual end of U.S. global naval dominance. I didn’t believe so at the time, and that is what I told him. I still don’t think naval inferiority is written in our stars. I’m just not as sure as I used to be.