With the loss of a large number of important bases world-wide, if and when the U.S. projects military power it must do so most of the time from its own territory or the sea. Immune to political cross-currents, economically able to cover multiple areas, hypoallergenic to restive populations and safe from insurgencies, fleets are instruments of undeniable utility in support of allies and response to aggression. Forty percent of the world's population lives within range of modern naval gunfire, and more than two-thirds within easy reach of carrier aircraft. Nothing is better or safer than naval power and presence to preserve the often fragile reticence among nations, to protect American interests and those of our allies, and to prevent the wars attendant to imbalances of power and unrestrained adventurism.
And yet the fleet has been made to wither even in time of war. We have the smallest navy in almost a century, declining in the past 50 years to 286 from 1,000 principal combatants. Apologists may cite typical postwar diminutions, but the ongoing 17% reduction from 1998 to the present applies to a navy that unlike its wartime predecessors was not previously built up. These are reductions upon reductions. Nor can there be comfort in the fact that modern ships are more capable, for so are the ships of potential opponents. And even if the capacity of a whole navy could be packed into a small number of super ships, they could be in only a limited number of places at a time, and the loss of just a few of them would be catastrophic.
As China's navy rises and ours declines, not that far in the future the trajectories will cross. Rather than face this, we seduce ourselves with redefinitions such as the vogue concept that we can block with relative ease the straits through which the strategic materials upon which China depends must transit. But in one blink this would move us from the canonical British/American control of the sea to the insurgent model of lesser navies such as Germany's in World Wars I and II and the Soviet Union's in the Cold War. If we cast ourselves as insurgents, China will be driven even faster to construct a navy that can dominate the oceans, a complete reversal of fortune.
As we noted in a previous post, signs of our naval decline were on display in recent weeks, as the Libyan crisis began to unfold. Instead of sending a warship to rescue American citizens from that country (as the British did), the U.S. hired a commercial ferry. One reason: there was only one U.S. warship in the Mediterranean at the time, although a carrier battle group and an amphibious group were only three days away, in the Red Sea. Those assets have since re-deployed to the Med.
We neglect our Navy at our own peril. A few years back, the Royal Navy, which ruled the waves for centuries, held a review of the fleet. The Queen was there, along with most of Britain's senior defense officials. Wags said the only no-show was the British fleet; the largest vessel that passed in review that day as an oiler.
America's Navy hasn't reached that point--yet. But in an era when federal spending must be reduced, it is very easy to say we have "no peer competitors" (to use Dr. Gates's phrase) and use that as an excuse to downsize the military. A modern Navy is expensive to build and expensive to operate. Yet, it represents an essential investment, not only for the United States but for the west as a whole.
Did we mention that China is currently building five fleet carriers which will join the PLAN by 2020? Beijing is building a Navy for the future, while ours continues to decline. We've been down this road before (think Japan in the 1930s) and paid dearly for our mistakes. The next time, we may not be as lucky.