Under the questionable assumption that the Navy will continue to receive around $14 billion annually to replace aging ships, and with the average price of each ship being approximately $2.5 billion, the Navy will be lucky if the fleet shrinks only by another 16 percent by 2020 — to 235 ships from its current level of about 280. If the descent persists, this could result in a fleet that numbers around 200 ships in less than two decades.
Gates’ answer is to question the cost of the nation’s enduring strategic need — if we are to maintain our international preeminence — for a powerful and distributed transoceanic fleet. “Three to $6 billion is too much to spend on a destroyer,” he says. And he’s right. But will reconsideration of basic assumptions about ship design produce a cheap naval force? It hasn’t in the past. Ironclad vessels driven by steam engines with huge mechanically sophisticated guns and turrets were more expensive than sailing ships-of-the-line. And carriers bristling with high-powered aircraft are more expensive than battleships that displace half the previous generation of capital ships’ weight.
Adam Smith had good reason to note that “in modern times the great expense of fire-arms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford the expense.”
If the U.S. wants to continue to field the world’s most technologically superior military, we’re going to have to pay for it. Gates’ hope for improved security at lower cost contradicts history. His warnings that the U.S. will lack the financial resources to maintain our current level of maritime dominance are as ominous for their grave implications about the future of U.S. seapower as they are strategically askance.
Gates does not ask if our current strategy, which is digging the U.S. deeper and deeper into a commitment to indefinite and extraordinarily expensive engagement in Middle Eastern and Central Asian land wars, will cost the U.S. its dominant global naval presence. He does not consider the long-term consequences if we maintain this course. He does not question whether the equal apportionment of defense resources among America’s military services reflects the nation’s future strategic needs.
And perhaps worse, these issues lie immediately at or beneath the surface of the secretary of defense’s remarks. Yet they were ignored.