Sea Change for American Power

Will rising world powers outmatch U.S. naval might?

Over the last 65 years, the United States has been able to maintain a liberal international order. This era has seen the spread of political and economic freedom across much of the globe. As it did for Great Britain, naval superiority has been central for the success of this system. It has allowed for freedom of the seas (and thus international trade to flourish), and has allowed the United States to project power to counter threats and maintain stability on a worldwide scale.

Today, however, this situation is changing. As with Britain--which was threatened by German naval expansion before World War I and by Japan's before World War II--external threats have emerged to challenge America's control of the seas. China is increasingly asserting its naval reach in the Western Pacific. In April 2010, and again in June 2011, large-scale exercises were held. The 2011 exercise saw 11 ships--including three missile destroyers and four frigates--transit within 110 km. of Okinawa, within Japan's Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ). Submarines and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have also been reported. Additionally, China has procured a Russian-built aircraft carrier, which in 2011 made three deployments in the Yellow Sea, off the northeast coast. While reports vary, it is possible that Su-30 fighter-bombers--comparable to the F/A-18 Hornet--could be deployed (China has 24 in service), providing an effective tool for power projection. Most importantly, China has deployed the DF-21D ballistic missile, specifically designed for use against U.S. carrier strike groups, providing a serious challenge to American superiority in the Western Pacific.

Another challenger is Russia. For more than a decade after 1991, the Russian Navy was a decrepit shadow of its Soviet predecessor. Now, however, this is changing. Some $160 billion has been allotted to refit the fleet through 2020, while four French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships will be deployed in the next few years. These will give Russia a considerable boost in power-projection capabilities. Furthermore, new supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles like the Yakhont and advanced torpedoes like the Shkival are in service, which are a major enhancement to the fleet's firepower.

Then there are the smaller fleets that, due to geopolitical and ideological factors, are most likely to be faced in a shooting war. Iran has developed a formidable naval capability in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, which U.S. naval forces would have to enter to maintain the flow of oil from the region. It has some 5,000 mines of all types, including Russian-made rocket-propelled EM53's, and 23 submarines, many of which carry torpedoes that can home in on a ship's wake. Iran also has a large force of patrol craft and corvettes with advanced anti-ship missiles, capable of swarm attacks on U.S. ships. Iran's ally Syria, while weak in sea-going forces, has acquired the Yakhont missile from Russia, extending its threat radius into the Mediterranean. North Korea likewise has a large force of missile-armed ships, and it's submarine force includes 20 midget vessels, one of which sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010.

While threats from abroad have emerged, the priorities of the Obama Administration have also served to undermine America's continued naval supremacy. As part of the plan to reduce defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade, Navy shipbuilding will be hard-hit. According to the administration's budget plan, just 41 ships will be procured over the next five years. The Navy's March 2012 shipbuilding plan is even more stark: no new ballistic missile submarines will be built until 2021, while just one more large-deck amphibious ship will be built in 2017. Not until 2018 will shipbuilding be funded above replacement levels. As John Lehman, Navy Secretary in the Reagan Administration, noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the total of ships in the U.S. Navy could decline from its current 286 to just 240-250 in the next half decade. Given that the U.S. Navy, in its 2006 plan, called for a 313-ship fleet in the 2030s, the current reductions make that prospect highly unlikely.

These developments would have a serious impact on the U.S. Navy's ability to carry out its missions. Several ships will be retired in order to maintain operational schedules, among them seven cruisers and four amphibious vessels, all modern with plenty of service life. Delays in the construction of the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of nuclear carriers, might occur. The procurement of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)--vital in areas like the Persian Gulf--could be slowed, along with that of submarines and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Indeed, the Navy might have to cancel either the F-35B or C variant of the JSF. If the F-35B is abandoned, that would mean the U.S. Marine Corps would have a much tougher time replacing its current force of AV-8B Harriers, vital for support of amphibious operations.

All this is occurring during a time of growing international tension and turmoil. Indeed, the likelihood of the United States becoming involved in large-scale war is growing, which would see a central role for naval forces. The continuing tensions in Syria and with Iran over its nuclear program are cases in point. There is also the possibility of great power confrontation, as evidenced by the Syrian crisis. Russia has deployed marines to its base at Tartus, with supporting warships. On June 18th, Russia, China and Iran announced a joint military exercise this summer in Syria. This would include as many as 90,000 personnel and 400 aircraft. China reportedly asked Egypt for permission to send 12 ships through the Suez Canal to join Russian forces at Tartus. Such a deployment of Russian and Chinese strength in the Middle East is unprecedented, signifying an ever closer alignment between Moscow and Beijing, aimed at the West. Given the Obama Administration's decision to concentrate on the Pacific as the primary focus of U.S. naval strength, this could mean that, at a time of growing danger in the Mediterranean (and considering that the NATO allies have severely reduced their power projection capabilities over the past decade and would be unlikely to take up the slack), a power vacuum could emerge, one filled by powers hostile to the Western-led international system and the values it is based upon.

A recent article in the British publication Warships International Fleet Review sums up well the danger of a diminished U.S. naval posture on the world's oceans:

"If there is one thing that has prevented another major global war it has been the...process of constant vigilance at sea, with multi-layered maritime capabilities. This has since WW2 often provided a graduated response to various crises. Once the carefully constructed naval structure is dismantled, or key elements removed, it creates a situation where conflict is more likely, not less."

Wise words, indeed.

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