A test for the Navy

Can new tech­nol­ogy re­place the in­tim­i­da­tion of war ships?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

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.

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