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Unilateral Naval Disarmament

We can't ignore our enduring strategic interests as a maritime power.

12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2007 • By SETH CROPSEY
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CHINA HAS BEEN expanding the size of its naval fleet for the same length of time--about 25 years--that the U.S. has been decreasing its Navy. A Congressional Quarterly article warned ominously that China will possess nearly twice as many submarines as the U.S. in 2010, and is likely to surpass the total size of the U.S. fleet five years later--if we do nothing.

In the two years since that article appeared China has continued its decades long annual double-digit defense budget increases: we have done nothing. Notwithstanding several efforts over the past decade to stabilize the diminishing size of the U.S. Navy, the current fleet of 274 combat ships is the same size as it was on the eve of World War I. Even if shipbuilding can be sustained at 7 vessels per year, we will eventually possess a fleet whose numbers equal those achieved just after the Russo-Japanese War. The presidential debates that began half a year ago have considered expensive haircuts and federal support for the renovation of Soldier Field in Chicago. But the fact that the U.S. Navy today is less than half the size it was during the Reagan administration continues to escape serious, sustained attention at the national level.

There are lonely exceptions. The redoubtable House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, from Missouri, a state with no oceanic coast, has called current fleet numbers "shocking." Retired Army general, Barry McCaffrey, told Congress this past spring that "the monthly burn rate of $9 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused us to inadequately fund the modernization of the U.S. Air Force and Navy If this continues," he said, "we will be in terrible trouble in the coming decades when the Peoples Republic of China emerges as a global military power--which we will then face in the Pacific with inadequate deterrence."

Unfortunately, no one is listening. The long descent that our naval forces find themselves in today continues despite China's naval growth, its emphasis on modernization and training, its effort to develop a system that can wield ballistic missiles against ships at sea, and Beijing's overall objective of building a force that can deny the U.S. Navy access to the Western Pacific. More important, our national policy is blind to the element of the strategic equation that does not change, the fact that the United States is surrounded by oceans, that the future of the world's growing commerce depends on safe transit through the seas, and that one of the most fundamental measures of national power remains the strength of a nation's navy.

As chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, the newly installed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to focus national attention on the Navy by crafting a new maritime strategy. The effort is long overdue. Simply put, strategizing is more difficult today than it was during the Cold War because threats now come from both increasingly strong conventional powers and increasingly dangerous unconventional sources. The problem is that we need to address both, yet they will not yield to the same tools.

The Navy's current effort to engage experts and ordinary citizens in a dialogue about national maritime strategy might draw attention to America's naval forces. A wide-ranging, productive debate, especially one that begins during a presidential campaign, would serve the nation well. The Navy's new maritime strategy has not been published yet, but its general ideas are known. It seeks greater cooperation with other like-minded naval powers in patrolling the world's oceans, and emphasizes the ability to apply and maintain effective power at international trouble spots more readily. These are sensible ideas, and will improve the security of the United States and our friends--if politicians are listening.

If not, more decay is certain. The corrosion affects not only the Navy itself, but one essential instrument of recovery, the U.S. warship-building industry.
Diminished by corporate mergers, undisciplined by government policy, afflicted by lay-offs and sapped by the departure of skilled workers for other more reliable employment, ship-building costs continue their seemingly endless ascent as the incongruity grows between the industry's anemic condition and the nation's strategic dependence on it. Pointing to destroyers priced between $2 billion and $3 billion dollars Senator McCain questions whether the Navy can meet its most recent target of a 313-ship fleet. The point is well-taken. That's what an aircraft carrier cost during the Reagan administration.