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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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The second question that the Tipping Point paper steers around is the consequence of the U.S. extended and strategically unconsidered involvement in Middle Eastern/Central Asian land wars.  Their cost in dollars and lives has been reckoned and debated.  Their strategic diversion from traditional U.S. security policy of concentration on both sea power and the continental allies and alliances required to accomplish our broad foreign policy objectives has not been discussed.  Will the lack of such a national debate and the unreflective advance into greater involvement in small but expensive land wars bring the tipping point, at which the U.S. ceases to be the world’s dominant naval power, still closer? 

The C.N.A. paper tries to imagine a future in which U.S. inattention to its maritime strength generates tangible results.  One possibility is that a shrinking fleet forces an end to the U.S. current ability to project strong naval power in either the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean region or the Western Pacific—or under more straitened circumstances—both.  Another possibility is substantial cuts in large powerful combatants—for example carriers, cruisers, and attack submarines—in favor of a larger fleet of less fearsome smaller naval vessels that maintain U.S. regional presence as they work together with the patrol navies of friends and allies to limit piracy, smuggling, terrorism, and other illicit activities that flourish in coastal areas around the world. 

The loss of a decisive U.S. naval strike force would largely abandon current allies in the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf and Asia to regional powers in each location.  In Asia, this means China.  The withering of our regional alliances would end American influence along with the current assurance that superior U.S. and friendly forces could keep potential crises from spinning out of control.  A more radical future sees a nearly total depletion of U.S. naval presence.  As in the previous example, significant numbers of major naval combatants would disappear to pay for smaller, less powerful ships based in American waters and ordered to crisis points as events dictate.  The idea of maintaining an American naval presence around the world would have almost disappeared, and U.S presidents—depending on their view of American power—would constantly have to calculate whether sending naval forces overseas would increase or diminish tensions that had approached the level of a crisis.

Put simply the report sees things getting worse and assumes, for the purpose of the discussion, that we cannot reverse course.  The latter is far more troubling than the former.  The report notes correctly that the shares of the defense budget the military services receive have remained constant relative to one another since the Vietnam war, except to pay for significant combat operations.  “We assume,” write the authors of the report, “that those shares will continue into the future and that the Navy cannot increase its force structure or operating budgets by prevailing over the other Services in the annual budget battles or the Quadrennial Defense Review/Quadrennial Roles and Missions processes.” 

This assumption may prove to be right.  But if so, it shows that an alternate path exists.  We just choose not to take it.  Notwithstanding strategic consequences, the political will to maintain a trans-oceanic combat fleet is less than the political will to divide the defense budget evenly.   The same must be said about the budget itself.  If resources are unavailable to continue missions that the fleet executes today, or to provide support to use the current decades of relative geopolitical calm at sea to experiment with different platforms/weapons designs and ways of operating them, then it signals that the nation has moved on to priorities other than national defense.  There is no inevitability here, save that which is self-generated.

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