A test for the Navy
Can new technology replace the intimidation of war ships?
The U.S. Navy is unique. Now that Britain’s Royal Navy, which for centuries enabled Britannia to rule the waves, has declined along with the rest of the empire, America’s ships dominate the waves simply because no one can compete in every ocean sea across the globe. China would if it could, but it’s not there yet. Neither is the Russian navy.
Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy who is occupied at the moment at dismantling the fighting ability of the Marine Corps, set out the other day to take an inventory of the how and why the U.S. Navy has come to rule those unruly waves.
The Navy, he tells Time magazine, has “more firepower, more capability, and more capacity to do whatever is necessary on the world’s oceans than we did 20 or 40 or 100 years ago, and we are increasing this power dramatically because of the new ships coming into the fleet.” That’s true so far as it goes to describe the current American navy’s technological capabilities, but there may not be enough of those ships, and enough of that technology, to get the job done comfortably.
The size of the worldwide fleet, measured when Mr. Mabus took civilian command of the Navy, was 285 ships. That’s down now to 273. Twelve ships does not sound like a lot, but even before President Obama announced a “refocus” on Asia, and before China and Russia ignited a renewal of great power competition, the Navy sent to Congress a plan for an 11-carrier, 313-ship Navy. Eight years and a dramatically deteriorating security environment later, the Navy plans for 11 carriers with 308 ships. But there is growing concern that the shipbuilding program, given the demands on the budget, is not realistic.
Speculation during the last few weeks that the United States would cut back its presence in the Middle East, by leaving the region without an American aircraft carrier, suggests the size of the problem. Extended deployment of the fleet makes it necessary to return the carriers to base for important maintenance. Accumulating disaster in the Middle East requires a larger presence, not a smaller one. The problem has grown during the nine months the Obama administration negotiated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to permit the use of Turkish bases for the bombing campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS.
During this same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the administration’s “pivot to Asia.” Such a pivot requires additional air power, to answer the prospect of new tests with the Chinese, which has been busily building military bases in the South China Sea. These bases threaten one of the world’s most important sea routes. Keeping international waters free for passage is a primary goal of the U.S. Navy, which is a task beyond the ability and capacity of every navy but America’s. New arrangements with the Philippines, perhaps even a return to Subic Bay — once the largest military base in the world — could make new demands, both in numbers of ships as well as the technology that drives them. A superpower’s lot, like that of the policeman, is neither a happy nor inexpensive one. But it’s a necessary one.