Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Strategic Interests and American Maritime Power

Seth Cropsey, over at the Weekly Standard, argues that the United States cannot ignore its strategic interests as the world's leading maritime power:

CHINA HAS BEEN expanding the size of its naval fleet for the same length of time--about 25 years--that the U.S. has been decreasing its Navy. A Congressional Quarterly article warned ominously that China will possess nearly twice as many submarines as the U.S. in 2010, and is likely to surpass the total size of the U.S. fleet five years later--if we do nothing.

In the two years since that article appeared China has continued its decades long annual double-digit defense budget increases: we have done nothing. Notwithstanding several efforts over the past decade to stabilize the diminishing size of the U.S. Navy, the current fleet of 274 combat ships is the same size as it was on the eve of World War I. Even if shipbuilding can be sustained at 7 vessels per year, we will eventually possess a fleet whose numbers equal those achieved just after the Russo-Japanese War. The presidential debates that began half a year ago have considered expensive haircuts and federal support for the renovation of Soldier Field in Chicago. But the fact that the U.S. Navy today is less than half the size it was during the Reagan administration continues to escape serious, sustained attention at the national level.

There are lonely exceptions. The redoubtable House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, from Missouri, a state with no oceanic coast, has called current fleet numbers "shocking." Retired Army general, Barry McCaffrey, told Congress this past spring that "the monthly burn rate of $9 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused us to inadequately fund the modernization of the U.S. Air Force and Navy If this continues," he said, "we will be in terrible trouble in the coming decades when the Peoples Republic of China emerges as a global military power--which we will then face in the Pacific with inadequate deterrence."

Unfortunately, no one is listening. The long descent that our naval forces find themselves in today continues despite China's naval growth, its emphasis on modernization and training, its effort to develop a system that can wield ballistic missiles against ships at sea, and Beijing's overall objective of building a force that can deny the U.S. Navy access to the Western Pacific. More important, our national policy is blind to the element of the strategic equation that does not change, the fact that the United States is surrounded by oceans, that the future of the world's growing commerce depends on safe transit through the seas, and that one of the most fundamental measures of national power remains the strength of a nation's navy.

Cropsey's especially good at linking the balance of naval power to the fight against rogue nations and transnational terrorism:

At some point the U.S. will face the choice of maintaining naval supremacy or yielding it to others. Because decades are needed to build, train, and deploy powerful naval forces, climbing back after falling off strategically is a long process. In fact it is an historically unprecedented feat--one that would require the passive benignity of another power that had surpassed ours.

There is no inevitability to our enmity with China, but we strongly prejudice the case against a secure and balanced East Asia by encouraging a serious power vacuum in the form of our departure as the region's first naval power. Russian saber-rattling can be dismissed today. But the Russians remain an ambitious people with a yearning for the international recognition they once enjoyed. India strives to build a naval force to control the ocean bearing its name, the one through which much of the world's oil is transported. It is only a question of time until jihadists attempt to use the seas as a more effective alternative to the air routes whose assault has now been complicated by threatened nations' measures. The flexibility of powerful, wide-ranging naval forces offers protection for the civilized world against weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics armed with long-range missiles. In each case, a strong Navy protects U.S. maritime interests which are now virtually inseparable from the broadest national security interests. The sum of these interests today, and all the more so in the future, amounts to this nation's future as the world's great power.

This is an important warning, although Cropsey's discussion of China focuses too much a raw measues of comparative naval tonnage, rather than the balance of technological sophistication. For some perspective, check out Barry Posen's pathbreaking article on America's enduring strategic primacy in the air, land, sea, and space: "The Command of the Commons." Posen argues that "Unipolarity and U.S. hegemony will be around for some time."

Also, on the unfavorable trends in China's balance of demographic power relative to the United States, see Mark Haas, "A Geriatric Peace? The Future of U.S. Power in a World of Aging Populations."