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The Tipping Point

The strength of the U.S. Navy is declining. But it’s a choice.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2010 • By SETH CROPSEY
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In March, the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally funded research institute published a report called, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake.” (Full disclosure: I participate with the think tank on a part-time basis.) The title pretty much says it all. 

The Tipping Point

The Navy’s think tank wanted to know at what point the U.S. Navy’s global preeminence evaporates.  Demand for U.S. naval force has increased over the past 10 years, as carrier-based aircraft played an important role in Iraq and currently conduct a large portion of strike missions in Afghanistan. More than 10,000 sailors have been assigned to shore duty in support of the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Navy SEALs have seen service in large numbers in both wars.  Cooperative efforts with other navies—for example, in Africa, ballistic missile defense patrols, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations from Indonesia to Haiti, have increased U.S. dependence on naval forces.  At the same time the fleet is getting smaller: It has decreased by nearly 20 percent in the last decade, while the number of deployed ships has stayed about the same.

The C.N.A. report is as disturbing for the question it asks as it is for the answers it provides. The report argues that multiple causes and conditions are likely to result in a diminishing U.S. combat fleet. For these reasons, a smaller and smaller U.S. combat fleet is emerging: increasingly tight federal budgets; undiminished operational requirements; a shrinking industrial base and its depressive effects on the Navy’s future ability to respond quickly to everything from greater demand for platforms to increased flexibility in ship design; and political correctness in distributing defense budgets evenly among the military services. At the same time, the report sees uninterrupted international need for safe passage, the absence of foreign naval forces that can compete with the U.S. for global reach, and sufficient Chinese growth to sustain enlarging “involvement” in naval activity beyond the first island chain into the Western Pacific through the China Sea, Indian Ocean, and culminating in the Arabian Gulf. 

In short, current trends will persist or maybe accelerate.  The future that the document envisions looks like today, except more so.  U.S. leadership wants to continue to influence events at a distance from our borders and hemisphere but is reluctant to pay the bill and doubly reluctant to reconsider how national policy could be changed to correct the likely growth in strategic imbalance that is a consequence of dividing the defense budget evenly.  The report argues that we are painting ourselves into a corner that forces us to accept growing risk as the alternative to maintaining the international system that American policy has built since the end of World War II.

There are two noteworthy exceptions to the document’s acknowledgment of the future’s congruence with today.  The first is alliance management.  It is difficult to foresee the consequences of today’s multiplying problems with traditional overseas allies—and this is important for a maritime power that has traditionally secured safe passage across the seas as scrupulously as it has sought robust continental alliances to complement sea power in preventing the rise of a powerful peer competitor/hegemon.  At the same moment that the future strength of our sea power is becoming more and more problematic, the U.S. is experiencing serious difficulties in our relationships with important traditional allies.  Disputes over our use of Japanese bases are shaking a relationship in Northeast Asia that is critical to balancing China. New Delhi is miffed at what its leaders perceive to be the current U.S. administration’s inability to grasp the depth of India’s problems with Pakistan and their effect on the fight against the Taliban  (Indian leaders’ increased receptivity to Russian arms deals is one sign).  Cracks in the U.S. relationship with the UK and Israel are no secret.  And neither is Central European unhappiness over U.S. efforts to succor Moscow at the expense of a ballistic missile defense that was to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.  Diplomacy can repair these fissures but an extended period of rupture is likely to prove as resistant to treatment as a long stretch of naval self-disarmament. 

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