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.

Nor has the Navy always helped its cause in pressing for a stable and appropriately-sized fleet. Amidst uncertainty and national attention deficit disorder, the best course would be clear, consistent, well-articulated goals with fixed target numbers for fleet size. The Navy has offered the opposite: shifting objectives for overall ship numbers, arguing for a fleet of indeterminate size between significantly different numbers, and presenting reasonable--if arcane--justifications for why platforms matter less than warfare capabilities; in all, confusing a public that is pre-occupied with the immediate problems of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Various intelligent ideas continue to be advanced to address the problem of a shrinking fleet. Surging ships from their homeports, shifting fleets, cross-decking crews, building on old alliances and crafting new ones--there must be dozens more innovations that can compensate for self-initiated and gradual unilateral naval disarmament. But fixes can only go so far. Spot-welding can repair a ship: it wouldn't make a very good one. At some point the U.S. will face the choice of maintaining naval supremacy or yielding it to others. Because decades are needed to build, train, and deploy powerful naval forces, climbing back after falling off strategically is a long process. In fact it is an historically unprecedented feat--one that would require the passive benignity of another power that had surpassed ours.

There is no inevitability to our enmity with China, but we strongly prejudice the case against a secure and balanced East Asia by encouraging a serious power vacuum in the form of our departure as the region's first naval power. Russian saber-rattling can be dismissed today. But the Russians remain an ambitious people with a yearning for the international recognition they once enjoyed. India strives to build a naval force to control the ocean bearing its name, the one through which much of the world's oil is transported. It is only a question of time until jihadists attempt to use the seas as a more effective alternative to the air routes whose assault has now been complicated by threatened nations' measures. The flexibility of powerful, wide-ranging naval forces offers protection for the civilized world against weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics armed with long-range missiles. In each case, a strong Navy protects U.S. maritime interests which are now virtually inseparable from the broadest national security interests. The sum of these interests today, and all the more so in the future, amounts to this nation's future as the world's great power. Our current naval trajectory leads away from this future.

Others have descended the same avertable route. Disregarding the preeminent Athenian statesman, Pericles' intelligent strategy, Athens forsook her maritime supremacy and challenged Sparta at the point of that armed city's strength, her army--and eventually paid for this poor judgment by losing her position as a great power. Nearly two millennia later, another formidable maritime power, Venice, found the continental disputes of her warring city-state neighbors irresistible. She meddled in these while the growing power of the Ottoman navy attacked her bases and degraded her strategic and economic access to the eastern Mediterranean. Both Athens and Venice suffered a fall from power that could have been avoided by remembering their strategic dependence on maritime superiority.

We are following a parallel course. One voice raised against it is--finally--the Navy's. Its renewed interest in maritime strategy acknowledges the power of ideas in the absent debate over the nation's maritime defense. The ideas that must be re-placed before the public are that the global strategic environment is changing as Asia's rise in military spending flows inexorably into the space created by Europe's parallel decrease; that our international burdens require us to prosecute the Long War without ignoring our enduring strategic interests as a maritime power; that the future of the U.S. as a great nation depends on a large, healthy, world-class Navy; that this requires modernization and growth, the control of shipbuilding costs, the rejuvenation of the industry; and the intellect to create and execute intelligent strategy. The alternative--naval decay--is well-known to history.

If this is the course Americans want to set, it should be a deliberate one, not the unconsidered and un-debated one on which we are currently embarked.

Seth Cropsey is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

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