U.S. Navy: Drifting Toward Danger

China now deploys some 79 principal surface combatants, 55 submarines, 55 amphibious ships and 85 missile-equipped fast boats. Russia’s once-rotting navy is experiencing a renaissance of sorts—with plans for 50 new warships, eight new nuclear subs, French-built amphibious assault ships and homegrown aircraft carriers in the works. Iran’s navy ushered in 2014 by launching its first voyage to the Atlantic—this on the heels of the Iranian naval chief’s threat that closing the Strait of Hormuz would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” All the while, the Arctic is opening up; piracy plagues coastal Africa; and the East and South China Seas are turning into a cauldron. These are just fragments of the threat environment facing America’s Navy. Yet all Washington can think about is cuts.

  • The administration’s projected defense budget would cram defense spending below current levels from 2016 through 2021. As economics writer Robert Samuelson observes, when adjusted for inflation and population growth, defense spending drops by a quarter under the president’s plan.
  • The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years and had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed.
  • If sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy could be forced to mothball 38 more ships and may have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight flat-tops.
  • The Pentagon plans to temporarily dry-dock 14 ships—including half the Navy’s cruiser fleet—to save cash. Under the plan, as the U.S. Naval Institute reports, “The cruisers would be modernized, but they would not be manned.” It will be interesting to see how effective a fleet of dry-docked ships without sailors is at deterring China.
  • The Pentagon is drifting toward retiring USS George Washington less than halfway through its projected 50-year service life.
  • The Pentagon will purchase 32 littoral combat ships, rather than the planned 52.
  • At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When President Clinton dispatched two carrier battle groups to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait, the fleet totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman. At that size, America’s fleet will be equal to what she deployed in 1915. These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert,“we need a Navy of 450 ships.”

That gap has real-world implications: After Tehran raised the specter of closing the Strait of Hormuz, CENTCOM requested a third aircraft carrier to send a strong deterrent signal. That request was denied because the carrier was needed in the Pacific. Halfway around the world, USCG deploys only two operational polar icebreakers—one of which is a medium-duty vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has exceeded its 30-year lifespan. Russia deploys 25 polar icebreakers.

“Our historic dominance,” concedes Adm. Samuel Locklear, chief of Pacific Command, “is diminishing.” Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, suggests that the ships in his fleet “don’t have enough people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts and don’t have enough time to get ready to deploy.” Indeed, according to a Pentagon report, just 45 percent of the Navy’s deployed aircraft are combat ready, and one in five ships are deemed less than satisfactory or unfit for combat.

While Washington whittles away at the big stick, Beijing isn’t cutting anything from its military. On a percentage basis, the growth in military-related spending by China since 2000 is staggering: from $20 billion to as much as $215 billion. Beijing is using these resources to deploy aircraft carriers, bombers, submarines and sea-skimming missiles. As the Pentagon concludes, China wants “to become the preeminent Asian power.” That presents a problem for the current preeminent Asian power: the United States.

Yet given the U.S. Navy’s technological edge, the balance of power would still seem to favor the United States—that is, until we consider that China’s military assets and security interests are concentrated in its neighborhood, while America’s are spread around the globe.

  • Ninety percent of global trade, equaling more than $14 trillion, travels by sea. The burden of keeping the sea lanes open—discouraging encroachment, deterring bad actors, fighting piracy, sometimes using force to keep vital waterways and chokepoints clear—largely falls on the U.S. Navy. It doesn’t happen by accident.
  • As some of those bad actors acquire long-range missiles, the Navy’s missile-defense ships are in high demand. The Missile Defense Agency reports there are 16 Aegis missile-defense ships with the Pacific Fleet and 14 with the Atlantic Fleet.
  • The Strait of Hormuz carries 17 million barrels of oil every day—35 percent of the crude oil transported by sea. Without the U.S. Navy, that oil would be held hostage by Iran.
  • America’s Navy is civilization’s first responder when disaster strikes—delivering food, medicine, fresh water and triage care—and last line of defense when tyrants and terrorists lash out.
  • As America’s Navy gets smaller, the ocean is—believe it or not—getting bigger. The opening up of the Arctic Ocean will cut 4,000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel notes, “Traffic in the Northern Sea Route is reportedly expected to increase tenfold this year.” This new sea lane will require maritime monitoring.
  • Russia is flexing its muscle in the Arctic, Mediterranean, Baltic and Caribbean. To underscore the importance of naval power, it pays to recall that Washington’s initial response to Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine was to surge warships to the Med and the Black Sea.

Contrary to those who want America to turn inward, none of this is new. As a trading nation and a coastal nation, America was destined to be a maritime power. Writing in The Federalist Papers, John Jay envisioned a day “when the fleets of America may engage attention.”

When U.S. ships were harassed by Barbary pirates, President Thomas Jefferson opted to take the fight to the enemy, declaring, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”

President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” was the U.S. Navy, which he wielded adroitly to serve U.S. interests in the Caribbean, Pacific and Mediterranean. In his biography of TR, Edmund Morris recounts the story of Ion Perdicaris, who was kidnapped by a Moroccan warlord. Upon his release, as he approached the coastal city of Tangier, Perdicaris caught the first glimpse of the source of his regained freedom: “the mastheads of Admiral Chadwick’s ships.” Overcome with emotion as he took in the U.S. armada, Perdicaris whispered a quiet prayer of thanks for “that flag…that people…that president…those frigates.”

Without “those frigates,” the American people will find the world a much more difficult and dangerous place.