The idea of a world without the benefit of preponderant American seapower may sound alarmist and farfetched. Unfortunately, those who follow military cutbacks and world affairs know that it isn’t. Indeed, the following scenario is all too plausible. . . .
In 2020, several major European nations default on their debt. Contagion in the financial markets plunges the world economy into global depression. From 2020 to 2025, the U.S. economy contracts from $20 trillion to $12 trillion. During this time, two successive U.S. presidents seek and obtain deep cuts in the size of the U.S. armed forces. Homeland security becomes the main focus of the Department of Defense, with policy-makers concentrating on port and border security, land-based strategic nuclear forces, antiterrorism, and managing civil unrest.
The global implications of this retrenchment are stark. China’s claims on the South China Sea—previously disputed by virtually all nations in the region and routinely contested by U.S. and partner naval forces—are accepted as a fait accompli, effectively putting the entire expanse under Chinese hegemony. Korea, unified in 2017 after the implosion of the North, signs a mutual defense treaty with China. Japan is increasingly isolated and executes long-rumored plans to create a nuclear weapons capability.
India, recognizing that its previous role as a balancer to China has lost relevance with the pullback of the Americans, agrees to supplement Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to protect the flow of oil to Southeast Asia. China agrees to exercise increased influence over Pakistan.
Iran dominates the Persian Gulf and is a nuclear power. Its navy aggressively patrols the Gulf while the Revolutionary Guard Navy harasses shipping and oil infrastructure to force the Gulf Cooperation Council countries into Tehran’s orbit. Russia supplies Iran with a steady flow of military technology and nuclear industry expertise.
In Egypt, a decade-long experiment in participatory democracy ends with a violent seizure of power by Islamists. The United States is identified closely with the previous coalition government, and riots break out outside the U.S. embassy. Americans in Egypt hunker down and hope for the best, as there are no U.S. forces in the Mediterranean to evacuate them.
The NATO alliance falls apart. For its energy security, Europe depends on Russia and Iran, which control the main supply lines and sources of oil and gas to Western Europe. Major European nations stand down their militaries and make only limited contributions to a new EU constabulary force. No European nation maintains the ability to conduct significant out-of-area operations, and Europe as a whole maintains little airlift capacity.
The impact of the world fiscal and political crisis is devastating to the U.S. Navy, which has been in decline since the latter part of the Obama administration, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta chose to maintain proportional resourcing of the Navy, Air Force, and Army rather than make difficult choices among competing priorities.
World trade goes into steep decline. In addition, shippers avoid U.S. ports as a result of the onerous container inspection regime. As a result, American consumers face a diminished selection of goods and a lower standard of living.
By 2025, the Navy is down to 70 deployable ships (from 286 in 2011). All aircraft carriers and all but six attack submarines are sidelined, as the Navy dramatically cuts back on expensive nuclear engineers and pilots. Additionally, the Navy de-emphasizes projecting power and sea control beyond U.S. territorial waters. A fleet of four ballistic missile submarines is retained for nuclear deterrence.
With the Navy no longer seeking to project power, the carrier force is decimated; the amphibious force is cut less severely because of the flexibility of these platforms and because they are highly valued for their usefulness in defense support to civil authority missions, such as disaster relief.
All forward-deployed naval forces pull back to the bases in Norfolk and San Diego. A greatly diminished Coast Guard maintains a presence in Hawaii. All other naval bases are closed. The fleet of 70 ships consists of 6 attack submarines, 4 ballistic missile submarines, 8 aviation-capable amphibious ships, 8 other amphibious ships, 15 destroyers, and 29 small combatants. The Navy also operates 2 hospital ships, which are in heavy domestic demand. It does not operate a logistics force because all fueling, provisioning, and arming is done in port.
The Navy’s operational mandate is homeland defense, and its activities have become largely indistinguishable from those of the Coast Guard. Some members of Congress call for combining the two services.