American Seapower: A Global Navy for a Global Mission
Why does the United States maintain such a robust Navy? It's a fundamental question we should be asking because the answer has both major economic and national security implications. Many assume we have a strong Navy simply because others states that may do us harm also have strong Navies or because the U.S. is flanked by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, waterways potential enemies may use to bring war to our shores. But if we maintained a Navy just to defend our coasts than our current battle force fleet of 285 ships would be more than sufficient for the task.
A better question, then, might be to ask what the Nation expects its Navy to provide. A number of enduring American interests present themselves. First, and most importantly, Americans expect to be safe and secure in their homeland. Our Navy provides this direct security through what one naval commentator called an extended "defensive perimeter" each and every day. From just off our shores to distant regions of the world, the Navy provides a flexible and scalable means of protecting American core interest of security here at home. Specifically, it performs drug interdictions in the Gulf Coast, provides sea-based ballistic missile defense against rogue states, counters weapons of mass destruction from proliferating, prevents hostile states from operating off our shores, and maintains a sea-based nuclear deterrent against the possibility of great power conflict.
Second, Americans seek prosperity and economic stability, both at home and abroad. Our globalized economy is driven by the free-flow of trade across the seas, or what a famous American naval theorist from the early 20th century once called "a great highway... a wide common." In fact, roughly 80% of the world's trade travels by sea. Massive container ships carrying everything from computers and televisions to petroleum and other essential commodities transit the world's oceans and critical sea lanes each day. Because the stability of America's economy is indelibly linked to the stability of the global economy, our Navy is sized to protect American shipping as well as the flow of global commerce. This occurs at the low end of the spectrum, where the U.S. Navy has worked with other partner nations to prevent scourges like piracy that can drive up maritime insurance costs. It is also the case at the high end, where states like Iran threaten to close the Straits of Hormuz and raise world oil prices or China seeks to alter the current rules-based order at sea by intimidating its neighbors over disputed territorial claims. Of course, America can work with its allies and partner nations to help support this monumental task, but it can never trust the health of its economy to any other Nation. A day when Iran determines which ships can transit the Strait of Hormuz or China dictates commercial passage through the South China Sea is simply unacceptable to American interests. The U.S. Navy exists to ensure that day never comes.
Finally, Americans want to remain confident and effective leaders of the international system. This doesn't mean that our commitments need be endless or that we should seek to involve ourselves in areas that we have no economic interest, but it does require the U.S. to remain actively engaged on the world stage. Seapower offers the most flexible and economical means to accomplish this task. At the most basic level, Naval forces bolster conventional deterrence, helping to reassure allies and put potential adversaries on notice of our ability to respond decisively to aggression. More importantly, and unlike air or land-power, our Navy and Marine Corps team is a highly versatile force that can be tailored to convey different diplomatic messages depending on the situation. In peacetime, naval forces can operate forward, sustaining a regional presence that sends a latent and durable message of deterrence, improve interoperability with foreign Navies through exercises, and help respond to humanitarian disasters. In a crisis, Naval forces can conduct robust military exercises to signal Washington's intentions and build different packages of military power that are scalable to different circumstances. One minor situation may demand a small surface combatant performing a presence mission and flying the flag, while a more serious crisis could call for an entire Carrier Strike Group conducting training exercises with partner nations. It is this flexibility of response that makes naval power uniquely suited to an international security environment that requires scalpels in some instances and axes in others.
Building American Seapower to meet our global interests demands a Navy of sufficient quality and quantity. Unfortunately, our Navy is currently under-resourced and undersized to meet its core tasks. The unrelenting decline of America's battle force fleet over the last two decades has now bottomed-out at 285 ships (the Navy's requirement, which has never been met, has ranged from 306-313 ships), and could be reduced to the 240-ship range if $500 billion in sequestration cuts remain in effect. In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the Commander of Pacific Command (PACOM) asserted that "285 (ships) is not meeting the global demand for the world we find ourselves in today." Even worse, a reduced fleet size coupled with an increased operational tempo has only pushed fleet maintenance and our volunteer force of Sailors and Marines further to the ragged edge. To remedy this shortfall, an independent panel of defense experts called for a fleet of 346 ships in 2010. But while we certainly need more ships, we also need to build a Navy with the right ships. Simply growing the fleet to a larger size with small surface combatants or auxiliary ships is not sufficient. We must prioritize growing our attack submarine, destroyer, and amphibious fleets, while also sustaining a fleet of 11 carriers. These platforms are the core workhorses of the battle force fleet.
In addition, we need to work to revitalize our sea control capabilities. Sea control is our ability to control important sea-lanes and drive enemy ships from the sea where and when necessary. The current era where the U.S. Navy finds itself "out-sticked" by Chinese anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) must be reversed. Complicating this challenge further, since 2000 the Navy has built DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers (32 destroyers and counting now) without canisters for launching its Harpoon ASCM. Developing a new offensive anti-surface weapon (OASuW) with more range and enabling our DDGs to carry the next-generation Harpoon are critical priorities for enabling effective, credible sea-control in the future. The Navy also needs to extend the range of the Littoral Combat Ship's (LCS) anti-surface missiles.
Finally, the Navy should continue to invest in its ability to project power ashore. Ultimately, Navies exist to affect decisions where they are made - on the land. The most direct means they have to do this is by projecting power onto "the beach" using land-attack cruise missiles, naval surface fire-support, or facilitating the flow of Marines and/or material to the shore for a range of peacetime and wartime missions. To sustain its power projection capabilities to more confidently operate in the anti-access/area-denial maritime zones of the future, the Navy should focus on extending the range of the carrier air wing (CVW) with unmanned strike platforms, invest in the the quantity and quality of its stand-off weapons, and build a balanced amphibious fleet capable of meeting the requirements we set for it.
The U.S. Navy remains the surest vehicle for protecting American interests and securing global stability. Its unique breadth of capabilities give policymakers the flexibility to skillfully manage the emerging threats of the 21st century, whether deterring aggression or responding to natural disasters. No other instrument of national power offers U.S. leaders the range and scope of options available through Seapower. As we seek to prioritize defense spending in a difficult fiscal environment, Washington would do well to remember Theodore Roosevelt's admonition that a powerful Navy is "not a provocation to war... it is the surest guaranty of peace."