The United States Navy is of critical importance to the defense of this country and to maintaining freedom of the seas internationally. Freedom of navigation, as ensured by the Navy, is critical to America's ability to project power by moving men and equipment over 70 percent of the earth's surface and to maintaining world trade and commerce. The Navy's missions in this regard have expanded significantly in recent years. Simultaneously, the Navy faces a strategic challenge from China in the Pacific. Yet the number of ships in the fleet continues to fall. If this trend is not reversed quickly, American security and influence in the world will be diminished for many years to come.
Among other tasks, the U.S. Navy is supporting sustained combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean to deter Somali pirates, providing sea-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) to US forces and allied countries such as Japan and Israel, interdicting illegal arms shipments and WMD trafficking, stopping illegal narcotics and human trafficking, providing humanitarian relief in Haiti and elsewhere, performing its traditional role of maintaining the freedom of the seas and deterring attacks on the homeland and American interests abroad.
In addition to these missions, the Navy is confronting the rise of a new world power that appears intent on playing the leading role in the Pacific, an ocean once dominated by the US. Last year, China issued a new strategy "far sea defense" and is building a long-range blue water capability for its navy. An element of China's new strategy is to extend its operational reach beyond the South China Sea and the Philippines to the "second island chain" of the Pacific, where America has traditionally exercised naval supremacy.
Whereas the US views its naval role in the Pacific as a force for keeping the seas free for navigation by all, China sees things quite differently. China contends that it can control virtually any activity within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, making those waterways off limits to foreign merchant and naval vessels without Chinese permission. China also asserts the right to take democratic Taiwan by force and is rapidly developing the means to prevent America from intervening should China decide to invade or blockade the ROC. Chinese officials have plainly informed American officials that it will tolerate no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea. China's dramatic naval expansion has been so rapid as to surprise American policy makers.
To back up its strategy, China has deployed 60 submarines and 75 major warships. China has also announced its intention to build indigenous aircraft carriers to end the US monopoly of such ships in the Pacific. Over the past several years, China has acquired three former Soviet carriers and one Australian carrier, which are being studied by its naval architects. China's well established anti-ship and ballistic missile programs, its extensive submarine fleet and new carrier initiative shows that China will be a serious Pacific naval power and, if not checked, could turn much of that ocean into a "Chinese lake".
Fulfilling its multitude of missions and confronting the growing Chinese challenge is not the 600 ship Navy built by Ronald Reagan. Nor is it the 313 ship navy that the Pentagon set as the floor number of warships necessary to protect American interests just two years ago. Today, the United States Navy operates 284 warships. While current plans call for increasing the size of the Navy over time, several respected commentators suggest our current budget path will result in a Navy of a mere 215 ships in the near future if the planned 4.5 percent cut in the Navy's annual budget holds.
The consequences of the downsized Navy are not good for the United States. Without command of the seas ensured by the Navy, it will become more difficult to project American power where necessary to defeat terrorists, interdict WMDs and illegal arms trading and deter nations, including the new super power China, that might do America and its allies harm. World trade and national economies will be harmed as shipping costs soar due to critical sea lanes being restricted or choked off by hostile or ambitious coastal powers. Further, piracy and general lawlessness on the high seas will result in loses and the sharp increase of insurance premiums for shipping companies. Rapid humanitarian relief efforts will be more difficult to mobilize in response to disasters such as the Indonesian tsunami, earthquakes in Pakistan, and floods in the South Pacific islands.
Seeing the surge of the Chinese Navy into the Pacific, the former leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, gave the following warning in Washington recently: "U.S. core interests require that it remain the superior power in the Pacific ... To give up this position would diminish America's role throughout the world."
Steps that can be taken now to strengthen American sea borne defense include reversing the planned cuts in the Navy's budget and increase funding immediately to a level to appropriate to sustain a 313 ship navy with 11 carrier battle groups. Building and deploying additional destroyers and frigates specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and patrol duty should be a high priority. Such ships have been the work horses of all past major conflicts involving sea power - including both World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Likewise, building lower-cost littoral combat ships (LCS) and faster small ships such as the experimental Sea Fighter catamaran being tested by the Office of Naval Research would be a less expensive way of carrying out missions such as special operations and counter terrorism, drug interdiction and humanitarian missions that now occupy the time of larger warships better suited for blue water action.
Increasing the capacity of the United States' primary land based BMD site in Alaska and building additional BMD sites in the continental U.S. and Europe would further protect the America and its allies from North Korean, Iranian and other ballistic missile threats. The Navy could then deploy its Aegis destroyers and cruisers for missions other than sea-based BMD duty.
Raising the level of maintenance of the recently decommissioned carriers such as the John F. Kennedy, which remain in the reserve fleet, is a low cost-high impact program to give our fleet additional depth. The carriers should be kept ready to reenter the active fleet on short notice. An effective maintenance program for these mothballed carriers would send a clear message to our foes that even if they were lucky enough to sink or damage one of our active carriers with a cruise missile or torpedo, another similar platform would quickly take its place, especially if its air wing was comprised of the F-35 vertical take off and landing (VTOL) fighter-bombers.
When international conflicts flare or natural disasters strike, the first question asked by American policy makers (and friends and foes alike) is, "where are the carriers?" The ability of the United States to project power around the globe and ensure peace through strength is largely dependent on the U.S. Navy and its core carrier battle groups being the superior force in the Pacific and worldwide. In order to maintain the relevance of the foregoing question, America must immediately reverse the decline of its Navy.
Robert C. O'Brien served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly. He is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP.