Navy Nears Tipping Point As New Threats Rise

By William R. Hawkins

Last month, the Center for Naval Analyses (which now prefers to simply go by its initials CNA) published the disturbing study The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake? by Daniel Whiteneck, Michael Price, Neil Jenkins, and Peter Swartz. It warned that at its present size, the U.S. Navy cannot sustain its current level of global operations. CNA is a federally funded research and development center serving the Department of the Navy and other defense agencies. The views of its authors do not represent USN or Defense Department policy, but they do seek to inform policy-makers.   …  

CNA was created during World War II. It was that conflict that established the United States as the world’s leading power and committed the U.S. Navy to a global “forward presence” posture to project American influence. In the years since, the USN has varied in size, though the trend has been rapidly downward in recent decades.

In 1947, the fleet still had 842 ships despite demobilization. The dawn of the Cold War brought an expansion to 1,122 ships by the end of the Korean War in 1953. When U.S. combat operations in Vietnam came to a halt in 1973, the fleet was down to 641 ships, with further cuts to 530 ships by 1979. The Reagan administration rebuilt the military, including setting a target for a 600-ship fleet. This effort peaked in 1988 at 594 ships. By 2001, post-Cold War cuts had reduced the Navy to 337 ships. A decade of war, which should have swept away any notion that the new century would be a peaceful one, did not lead to an expansion of naval force levels. By 2009, the Navy had only 286 ships, substantially less than the 315-ship fleet the admirals had set as the minimum needed to fulfill the many missions the Navy is assigned as the country’s “first responder.”

The CNA report states,

The Navy has defined its global presence as sustaining combat credibility in two hubs (WESTPAC and the Mediterranean throughout the Cold War and WESTPAC and the North Arabian Sea/Arabian Gulf since Desert Storm). In Asia, China asserts more influence over regional issues from Korea around to the South China Sea. In the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, Iran is an opportunistic regional power threatening Western-aligned states and Western interests.

To deter a major regional power like Iran or a rising great power like China will require the Navy to possess a dominant set of high-end capabilities against which the enemy knows it cannot prevail. The Navy holds such a position at the moment, but Iran and China are both working to improve their capabilities and change the balance of power.

The just released Defense Intelligence Agency report to Congress on Iran’s Military Power states,

Iran’s military strategy is designed to defend against external or ‘hard’ threats from the United States and Israel. Its principles of military strategy include deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare. Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is an essential part of its deterrent strategy. Iran can conduct limited offensive operations with its strategic ballistic missile program and naval forces.

Tehran’s deterrent strategy is not defensive in any strategic sense, as it is meant to protect the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region. Its use of state-sponsored terrorism in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq requires protection of the theocratic state.

The CNA notes, the Middle East “is still the source of global oil and natural gas resources and reserves for America, its allies, and its adversaries. It is at the geographic center for radical Islamic terrorists and state sponsors who aim to attack the U.S. and its allies. It is the potential ground for WMD proliferation if Iran continues its nuclear program and Arab regional actors reply. In this environment, U.S. allies will continue to demand visible and credible signs of U.S. commitment to regional stability.”

In Asia “the United States remains the guarantor of regional stability for its allies (Japan, South Korea, and Australia) and is engaged in developing relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries eager to balance a growing Chinese power. On the other side of the Straits of Malacca, the U.S. and India are engaged in greater cooperation and coordination on economic, political, and military aspects of the relationship.” says the CNA. China is placing a high priority on developing naval as well as air and space power to make it harder for the U.S. to fulfill its security guarantees.

The April issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine has China as its theme. In his essay “Scanning the Horizon for New Historical Missions” Nan Li, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, writes, “China has considered construction of aircraft carriers, and openly debated the establishment of overseas bases for maintaining a naval presence in the ‘far oceans.’” Retired Cmdr. Peter Dutton, a specialist in international law, looks at Beijing’s attempts to establish a jurisdiction akin to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, an area that runs from Malaysia to Taiwan and from the Philippines to Vietnam. It is a major transit route for oil shipments and other trade. Strategic thinkers Craig Hooper and Christopher Albon discuss China’s development of anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to attack aircraft carriers or other high-value naval targets. They believe “Precise, conventionally armed ballistic missiles are poised to become important components of the global arsenal. They are very dangerous” because they are “no-notice, first-strike enabling weapons.” The accuracy of Chinese ASBM and cruise missiles will be greatly enhanced by the satellite surveillance systems discussed by Andrew Erickson of the NWC’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Other innovative Chinese weapons are examined in other essays.

The economic and technological resources available to the United States still exceed what is available to America’s adversaries, but the CNA doubts that sufficient funds will be made available to turn potential strength into real power.

The first and largest constraint is the future of the federal budget, highlighted by expanding social spending, high deficits, and the need to rein in all discretionary spending….Within that broad limit, the Navy will find that the downward pressure on ship numbers will be serious….The ability to rapidly create a force structure is also hampered because the lower budgets mean a shrinking industrial base to support a larger fleet.

The industrial base issue is particularly serious. The U.S. has only a handful of shipyards capable of constructing warships, and low build rates have put several of them in financial jeopardy. Though America conducts the largest seaborne trade in the world, both exports and imports, it has allowed foreign ships to take control of it. The U.S. thus does not have a commercial shipbuilding industry to provide a reserve industrial capacity for naval mobilization. In contrast, China has set the goal of creating the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, using its state-owned shipping line as an economic foundation. In so doing, Beijing is simply following the pattern of other great maritime powers in history who understood how the control of trade and the control of the seas work to reinforce each other. As the CNA report states,

China’s economic growth will continue to underwrite military/naval modernization and increases in capacity. China is behaving exactly as every growing nation has behaved since the dawn of the Maritime Age in the 1400s. Countries with growing economies and greater political power have translated this into larger and more modern navies as a sign of their power and intent to play a prominent role in global politics.

The point the CNA argues is that “When you are no longer present in one or two areas of vital national interest with dominant maritime forces, you are at the ‘tipping point.’” The shrinking size of the U.S. Navy over the last 20 years calls into question whether there are enough fleet assets to maintain two “hubs” in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific with the dominant forces necessary to overawe the rising power of Iran and China. The CNA authors already believe that some reductions are inevitable because the fleet is stretched too thin and deployments have become too long between ship rotations. If the Navy is forced to downsize further, then major combat units will have to be withdrawn from one or both “hub” regions because the Navy will not have the bench strength to keep them on station.

A decline in American forward-deployed naval power will call into question Washington’s credibility. It will also open opportunities for rival powers to move into the vacuum left by a U.S. retreat. Most damaging, both allies and adversaries will know that America is not being forced to fall back, but is choosing to fall back. The United States is still the richest, most advanced nation on the planet, but if its leaders act like the country is weak and irresolute, other governments will not hesitate to treat America accordingly. Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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