Specialization brings great benefits and higher standards of living, but it also brings dependencies that span the globe. Nations are dependent on suppliers for the necessities of life from every continent: energy resources from Africa and South America as well as from the Middle East; raw materials from South America, Africa, and Australia; finished products from China, and food stuffs from North America. Of this world trade, fully 90 percent of it is transported by sea.
The more dispersed nature of today's world trade patterns has major implications for our view of maritime security. For much of the 20th century, the United States and Great Britain — as the preeminent sea powers of the day — maintained freedom of the seas by focusing on three major choke points — the Suez and Panama canals and the Strait of Gibraltar.
Those days are gone.
We can no longer afford to focus on a few specific areas or choke points. With today's global economy, the maritime security of much of the world's coastlines have a claim on our attention.
Not only are trade patterns and dependencies global, but the world economy has become leaner, with limited inventories, precisely coordinated timelines, and smaller margins for error throughout the global distribution system. This greater sophistication brings many benefits — more efficiency, faster delivery, and lower prices.
But the system is so carefully optimized that minor shocks and interruptions can have dramatic, instantaneous effects that reverberate worldwide. For example, an unsuccessful terrorist attack on an oil platform in the North Arabian Gulf in April 2004 sent world oil prices and insurance rates soaring — almost immediately — costing the world's economy billions of dollars, even though no damage was done. Indeed, Lloyd's List showed that hull insurance rates immediately spiked to more than three times the prior rate.
Today, unrest and instability in the Gulf of Guinea and in the Nigerian Delta are adding to the growing cost of oil. The lesson is clear — the security of critical resources is prey to a variety of threats, from piracy to the frequently-voiced threats made by terrorists and rogue nations. And all of these threats can have a worldwide impact on those who depend on these resources.
We Need Partners
All of these conditions affecting the global economy have driven us to put a higher premium on maritime security around the globe and the need to increase our worldwide presence. But we cannot maintain global maritime security by ourselves. We will need to form maritime partnerships.
We are advocating more cooperation among nations that share a common stake in international commerce, safety, security, and freedom of the seas. Maritime partnerships and cooperation will promote global maritime security. However, even if we achieve great success in establishing partnerships, we will need to increase presence to develop and maintain those partnerships.
This need for presence to foster maritime security — particularly in the littorals — presents us with a dilemma. The value of presence has been repeatedly demonstrated. Therefore, one of the key questions that we face in support of our maritime strategy is the following: How do we expand the Fleet to have the presence we want while still meeting the broad array of security challenges that may face us in the future?
Fortunately, not all presence requirements are equal. We need to have the right match of capabilities to the requirements. We do not need high-end capability ships to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia or the Gulf of Guinea, and it is reasonable to accept some degree of risk in assigning lower capability ships to many regions of the world.
We do need warships to respond to crises and some threats, but we do not need a carrier strike group in all cases. We have an aircraft carrier homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. We no longer have one in Naples, Italy. At the same time, no carrier strike group is assigned to the recently re-established Fourth Fleet. The Fourth Fleet demonstrates the Navy's commitment to the region by creating presence in support of combined training operations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response. And this can be done, in most cases, without using a carrier battle group.
We should also remember that it is sometimes more effective to have a smaller combatant that can access many of the littoral areas where we need to go. Smaller platforms such as the littoral combat ship (LCS) are often better suited for training, as they are more compatible with many of the navies with which we will be operating. Such ships are also far less expensive than major combatants, and they are essential to our efforts to make our portfolio of ships affordable.
An Affordable Fleet
The challenge is finding a way to meet all of our requirements in an affordable manner. Some try to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the solution is simply to add more money to the Navy's budget. The reality is that it is unrealistic to expect the Navy budget to increase significantly at the present time. With increasing pressures on the federal budget elsewhere, and with political changes that may result in different investment strategies for federal dollars, it is likely that the Navy budget will be steady to declining in future years.
We are currently allocating as much to shipbuilding as we can, given other pressing needs of the Navy such as the ever-rising personnel and operational costs driven by the war on terrorism and the price of fuel. The truth is, there is no silver bullet solution to this financial problem. We must figure out how to build a more cost-effective Fleet. Crew size, availability, and the cost of maintenance are also significant factors in maintaining the Navy.
A long-term investment strategy on the part of industry and the Navy will help us build this more cost-effective Fleet. Efficiency can be improved by investing in design for manufacturing, which can produce significant cost reductions, as we have seen with Virginia -class submarines. Investing in shipboard automation to permit reduced crew size also offers potential savings in manpower costs. We have achieved success in that regard with programs as diverse as the LCS and CVN-21.
We also need industry to invest in shipyard plant, processes, and people. For example, investments in the Ultra Hull Facility at Bath Iron Works, the panel line at Ingalls Shipbuilding, and the Apprenticeship School in Newport News will help us build ships more efficiently.
The Right Ships
Building a more cost-effective Fleet through wiser investment will help us with the financial challenges we face, but it is only one part of the equation. The second part is figuring out what we need to buy, how to better choose the types of ships we need, and how many ships of each type we need to build. The key question for strategists and national security scholars to consider is, therefore, the following: How do we optimally match what we buy with the most likely threats we see in the future?
Answering this question requires an assessment of the risks we are likely to face, and an assessment by military and political leadership as to what levels of risk are acceptable. The right portfolio of ships will reflect these assessments. The Navy must constantly calculate and mitigate risk due to competing demands and resource constraints. Many important questions arise from this discussion of risks, to include: Are we prepared for all of the unknowns? Are we well-prepared for potential small-scale engagements that we might face? Is it wise or prudent to adopt a strategy of taking more risk in large conflicts that are of low probability? Where do we need increased capabilities, and where can we take a risk by maintaining them at current levels? Can we afford to continue funding the support components of the force necessary to carry out humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, cooperative engagement, or localized conflicts before they become regional combat operations?
Defending the Peace
All of these are important strategic questions that will directly affect the decisions we make about the future Fleet. We cannot predict the future. Threats could take the form of rogue nations, aspiring world powers, non-state actors, states that secretly support terrorist organizations, and even pirates who prey on the defenseless at sea. No nation is immune to such threats, and a prudent nation cannot afford to assume that its security will be respected.
These realities, coupled with the long lead times necessary in shipbuilding, leave us no choice but to invest in a broad portfolio of capabilities to ensure that we can defeat future threats. The American people — through their representatives in Congress — must support shipbuilding in peacetime, years before threats come fully into view. That means that we must invest now in the Fleet. The history of mankind has been one in which threats to peace, unfortunately, are rarely far away. Peace must be defended and preserved through strength and military preparedness. Our task is to defend that peace, and a strong Navy and Marine Corps will lead the way.