The rise of other nations, prickly domestic issues, and simply the hard lessons of history are placing the future of the United States as the dominant world power in doubt. The Navy is the prime guarantor of U.S. national-security priorities around the world; its size and missions must be driven by that future.
Our global capability currently is stretched. Post–Cold War deployments of six months have now returned to a Vietnam War–era eight to nine months’ length for a fleet of 285 ships.
Chinese analysts often describe U.S. defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines as “relics of the Cold War.”1 This expresses Beijing’s ambition eventually to replace the United States as the determinant force in East Asia, but this country does need to review its treaties with these nations. Would any U.S. President want to activate our defense treaty with Japan over the five rocks and three reefs called the Senkakus by Tokyo and the Diaoyus by Beijing?
North Korea remains a threat to world peace in general—and to South Korea in particular. But after more than 60 years of U.S. military, economic, and political support, surely Seoul is capable of defending itself against its northern neighbor.2 Furthermore, a unified Korea is more likely to align itself with China than with the United States, which is deploying much-reduced military forces. People’s Liberation Army soldiers can walk to South Korea; the United States is a long distance away.
A larger U.S. security concern is ensuring that the United States and its allies are able to use the maritime commons freely. Do any of today’s threats to that capability—piracy, terrorism, international war—require the forward-deployed global presence the Navy has maintained since the 1950s? In fact, only Iran and China currently are capable of mounting a serious maritime threat.
China’s naval modernization, focused on deploying an increased number of modern conventionally and nuclear-powered submarines, is concerned primarily with establishing the capability to control events in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas.
Those bodies of water are bordered by nations with which the United States has defense treaties (South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines) and close security relationships (with Taiwan and Singapore). The three seas are the most likely, perhaps the only, maritime areas of conflict with which the U.S. Navy has to be concerned, apart from potential Iranian actions in or near the Strait of Hormuz.
This is a much narrower strategic perspective than “defending the global commons” or other such worldwide commitments, but one more fitting to the size of the current Navy and that of the immediate future. Today’s 285-ship Navy cannot meet the requirements of the 594-ship Navy tasked with executing the 1986 Maritime Strategy. That earlier force faced an existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. The United States today faces no such threat.
A Navy of 300-plus ships is not in the cards. If sequestration continues, the entire fleet may number no more than 206 ships by 2044, when China likely will have more than 350. Beijing will be focused on regional concerns—Taiwan and the three seas. Washington, however, apparently will continue focusing on the global arena, which will dramatically demonstrate the comparative disadvantage our Navy’s capabilities have to maintain presence.3
Furthermore, our Navy’s very mobility, readiness, and power contributes to possible over-employment in situations in which diplomacy, economic sanctions, or other means of pursuing policy goals may well prove successful. But having an aircraft carrier near at hand allows easy first recourse to military means in resolving such situations. The problem with the Navy’s future capability lies with the strategy dictated to it by the national command authority. The United States will not be the world’s dominant power forever; history does not work that way. The world has changed.
Expressed in several years of comments by CNOs Mike Mullen, Gary Roughead, and Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s leadership seems to understand that future and is trying to work to confront its reality. Civilian leaders unwilling or unable to utilize fully all the elements of national power are vitiating their efforts. “Where is the nearest carrier?” is not strategic thinking; it is a cop-out.
1. For instance, see statement by LTG Wang Guanzhong, May-June 2014 “Shangri La” meeting in Singapore, www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2014/08/14/95661/revisiting-the-shangri-la-dialogue-candid-and-heated-conversations-are-encouraged/.
2. Ami Sedghi and Simon Rogers, “North v South Korea,” The Guardian (April 2013), www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2013/apr/08/south-korea-v-north-korea-compared.
3. ADM Harry B. Harris Jr., USN, “Testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee,” 2 December 2014, www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/030494.