First in Harm's Way

In this business, it’s my pleasure — really — to read lots of stupid ledes. I mean: Lots. Of. Stupid. Ledes. Here’s one:

Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday urged the navy to prepare for military combat, amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a US campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.


If China really wants to engage in naval combat, I suggest they first stock up on lifejackets, rowboats, and rescue helicopters. China doesn’t have enough naval power to put up a the proverbial “nice try.” And that’s just against US 7th Fleet. Wait until one or more of the others show up. Plus our good friends in Japan and South Korea.

China’s hopes for naval power rest on non-naval power — using newfangled ICBMs with conventional warheads to make it too expensive for us to intervene, along with tons of missiles raining down on Taiwan, to muse on one “likely” scenario.

Then again, a nation’s leader isn’t supposed to go around telling his Admirals to “go on and get ready to burble.” A little saber-rattling can also have the pleasant effect of testing your opposition’s hearing. Lately though, President Obama seems to be doing just fine on Pacific relations, after a rocky start.

No, the real laffer is when Robert Saiget says there is “a US campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.”

Bobby, baby, the US has been a Pacific power for a couple hundred years now, give or take. The US Navy represents more than half the naval power in the whole world. And we have about half of that, give or take, in the Pacific. And for those familiar with the combat power of the US Air Force, it has bases all over the Pacific, including Japan. And that fabled Marine Corps, which can land a division on most any beach in the world on very little notice, while using tilt-rotor planes to rapidly secure inland bases, too? Yeah, there are Marines are in the Pacific and they are ready to move.


The US doesn’t need to assert anything, Jack.

But that does bring up an important point.

The main reason China’s navy is third-rate is, for so long it was fourth-rate. And it took a long, hard slog to make that leap to third.

Building ships takes a lot of treasure and time. Training good crews to run them takes a lot of time, treasure, and blood. It also helps a lot — and I’m not being facetious here — to fight other navies in a real-damn shooting war. The US Navy on December 6, 1941 was great. The US Navy on August 14, 1945 was awesome. And not because it had so many more ships and sailors. Our sailors were combat-hardened, our ships were battle-tested, and most importantly, we had hammered out the proper doctrine to marry the the ships, planes, and crews together into the deadliest Navy the world had ever seen.

Just as important, our veterans passed down those traditions year after year. It’s a lot of peacetime sweat, but it pays off in war. China doesn’t have those advantages.

But we could throw all ours away. Cut the Navy to too few ships? Overworked sailors won’t reenlist. Cut down training to spare tender feelings? Then everything we paid for so dearly these last 60 years might as well stay moored and rusting on the pier.


We’re in a bad moment here. We’re broke and we’re in a funk about it. But at 5% of GDP and shrinking, we can afford the military we have. Cut the fat, not the meat.

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