On May 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a major speech about the Navy’s future to a Navy League audience. Overshadowing anything he said that day, however — and he said a lot — was the utter lack of attention his remarks received from mainstream media.
Recall the Sherlock Holmes tale about the dog that didn’t bark? The curious case here was the media’s silence about a secretary of defense telling the nation that the U.S. Navy shouldn’t worry much about its shrinking size (the Navy today is 11 percent short of the number of ships it needs).
Gates brushed this concern aside, arguing that it isn’t really an issue since the U.S. is so far ahead of everyone else in seapower. This advantage is a good thing. It exists because other navies are, at least for now, regional, while ours remains global. The numerical lead benefits us as a similar advantage once benefited England — by suppressing potential competitors. But China, a country not mentioned in Gates’ speech, is laboring to build a fleet including several new classes of submarines, is looking to deny our ships the Western Pacific, is constructing an aircraft carrier, and is seeking naval bases between the Middle East and Asia. It is important to recall that England, by a congruent process of reasoning and self-imposed budgetary restriction, lost a naval advantage similar to ours a century ago.
Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg notes that the rise of competing naval powers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. forced England to acquiesce “in the loss of its longstanding control of the world’s oceans” between 1895 and 1905. This is a short time to traverse so large a strategic distance.
Gates’ speech looked at the current balance of international naval power, but ignored trends. The Navy’s combat fleet has contracted by 20 percent over the last ten years. It possesses less than half the roughly 600 ships it fielded during the Reagan administration. But neither geography nor isolationism has diluted the United States’ need for seapower. The solitary threat of Soviet naval force has been replaced by terror, the consequences of failed states, proliferation, and a growing and traditional blue-water challenge, China. The nation’s need for naval force continues to increase as the fleet continues to dwindle.
Numbers of deployed ships haven’t changed, but the demand for them has grown. National leadership’s requirement for strike operations for Iraq and Afghanistan, protecting against piracy, preventing the entry into American waters of weapons of mass destruction, defending against ballistic missiles, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and the work of special operations forces has steadily grown. More is being demanded but there is less to answer the demand.
Continuing this trend will erode the U.S.’s ability to lead international coalitions against piracy, respond to major crises with decisive force that can deter or resolve them, assure our allies in Asia with our presence that we intend to remain a great Pacific power, assist diplomacy, and support the international system that a century of American foreign policy has sought to establish.
If Congressional Budget Office projections of federal debt approaching 100 percent of GDP within the decade are correct, there’s little hope for increased defense spending and abundant reason to expect the opposite.
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.