By Alan W. Dowd
There are many elements to American power—the dynamism of the U.S. economy, the nearly-universal appeal of American culture, the depth and breadth of America’s system of alliances, and, of course, the reach and role of America’s military. While the American people know that their military is hard at work fighting terror groups and deterring rogue regimes, less appreciated is the American military’s role in simply maintaining some semblance of international order—keeping the sea lanes open for commerce and communication, enforcing rules of the road and basic norms of behavior, serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. The U.S. Navy is central to this effort, but it lacks the assets to keep up with the demands of a dangerous world.
Before discussing those growing demands and diminishing assets, it pays to recall that America has always has been a maritime power. The notion that the United States was, once upon a time, an island blissfully isolated from the rest of the world is a fantasy. True, when the United States was young and weak, President George Washington plotted a path of studied nonintervention. But as a trading nation, a coastal nation, a mission-oriented nation, America was destined to be a maritime power—and an active one at that. Recall that John Jay, writing in The Federalist Papers, envisioned a day “when the fleets of America may engage attention.”
A mere four years after Washington left office, President Thomas Jefferson launched a war against piracy halfway around the world—in part to defend American honor, in part to promote freedom of the seas and fair play, in part to ensure America’s access to Mediterranean markets. Reversing years of appeasement, he famously concluded, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”
Piracy wasn’t confined to the Mediterranean. Between 1801 and 1870, the U.S. Navy waged a far-flung war on piracy in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and the Caribbean, Mexico, Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong, and Sumatra.
As America entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called for “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” During World War II, FDR and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter envisioned a postwar peace allowing “all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” FDR bluntly described “freedom of the seas” as an “American policy.”
Today, 90 percent of global trade, equaling more than $14 trillion, travels by sea. It doesn’t happen by accident or by magic. The burden of keeping the sea lanes open—discouraging encroachment, deterring bad actors, fighting piracy, clearing vital waterways and chokepoints—falls on the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the Navy directly challenged 36 dubious maritime claims made by 22 countries in 2017.
China is at the top of that list. Claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea based on a map drawn by Chinese cartographers in 1947, China is flouting international norms and turning reefs hundreds of miles outside its territorial waters into military outposts.
Beijing has constructed some 3,200 acres of instant islands in international waters. Beijing has deployed surface-to-air missile batteries, anti-ship missile batteries and sophisticated radar systems on some of these man-made islands. One of the islands features a 10,000-foot airstrip—long enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors. Related, China will deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020. Beijing’s goal: to control the South China Sea and muscle the United States out of the Western Pacific.
Thousands of miles away, Russia is making outlandish claims in the Arctic. Moscow lays claim to half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole. Like Beijing, Moscow has underlined its claims in a brazen military context: In 2015, Russia conducted massive Arctic military exercises involving 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships and 15 submarines. Russia has stood up six new bases north of the Arctic Circle, opened/reopened 16 ports and 13 airfields in the region, and deployed sophisticated surface-to-air missile batteries in the Arctic. Moscow is also surging into the Mediterranean.
“We, as a Navy, as a nation, have not had to confront such peer competitors since the Cold War ended nearly three decades ago,” explains Adm. Chris Grady, Fleet Forces commander. “Our sea control and our power projection, two vital elements of our national security, are being challenged by resurgent foreign powers, namely Russia and China,” he adds.
Finally, in the Middle East, Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (2011-12, 2016), routinely harassed U.S. warships in international waters (2007-08, 2016-17), and illegally seized cargo ships (2015) and a U.S. Navy vessel (2016).
This growing list of maritime challenges explains why the president and Congress recently codified into law a plan to deploy a 355-ship Navy. That may sound like a lot of ships. However, in the context of today’s challenges—and in comparison to yesterday’s Navy—it’s a modest number.
At the height of President Ronald Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When President George W. Bush launched the first counterstrokes against al Qaeda, the Navy deployed 316 warships. But today’s fleet, in a time of war and metastasizing instability, numbers just 277 active deployable ships.
While today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than its forerunners, defending a liberal international order is about presence. And the sequestration-era Navy lacks the assets to be present in all the places it’s needed.
“For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” A government-funded study concludes that the U.S. needs 14 aircraft carriers (the Navy has 10 active), 160 cruisers and destroyers (the Navy has 84), and 72 attack submarines (the Navy has 52).
These gaps have real-world implications: After Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in 2012, CENTCOM requested an extra aircraft carrier to send a strong deterrent signal. That request was denied because the carrier was needed in the Pacific. When the Obama administration ordered warplanes from USS George H.W. Bush to blunt the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014, Greenert admitted that “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so. Similarly, the Trump administration’s sleight-of-hand with the USS Carl Vinson during the North Korea crisis in 2017—trying to make one carrier do the work of two—underscored that the U.S. doesn’t have the carrier firepower it needs to dissuade foes and reassure allies.
This is what sequestration has wrought. Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. However, a couple budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” Defense Secretary James Mattis concludes. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”
Moreover, there are worrisome reports that even with the new shipbuilding plan, the Navy won’t be able to reach 355 ships until the mid-2050s. After years of too little, that will be too late.
The good news is that there are ways to increase America’s maritime strength rapidly and leverage existing maritime assets.
Let’s first look at leveraging available maritime assets.
Adm. Mike Mullen promoted the “thousand-ship navy” concept during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The United States Navy cannot, by itself, preserve the freedom and security of the entire maritime domain,” he explained. “It must count on assistance from like-minded nations interested in using the sea for lawful purposes…I envision a 1,000-ship navy—a fleet-in-being, if you will, made up of the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies of the world.”
Given the self-inflicted wounds of sequestration and the actions of hostile regimes, it’s an idea Washington should explore and perhaps formalize. Already, an ad hoc navy of navies—enfolding the combined seapower of the United States and allies in NATO, Japan, Australia, South Korea and India—is policing the seas and promoting maritime security:
- Formed in 2003 by 11 allies in North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific, the Proliferation Security Initiative today enfolds dozens of seafaring powers that collaborate “to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors.”
- The Combined Maritime Forces is a partnership of 32 nations that contribute naval and air assets to operations focused on counterterrorism (Combined Task Force 150), counterpiracy (Combined Task Force 151) and security in the Persian Gulf (Combined Task Force 152).
- To keep Russia in line, the U.S. and its close allies in NATO are conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. And several key partners have joined the U.S. in defending freedom of navigation and freedom of the seas against China’s lawlessness. Japan is expanding its naval activity in the South China Sea by conducting joint patrols with the U.S. Navy and multilateral exercises in waters China claims. Likewise, Australian, British, and French assets are transiting waterways and airspace illegally claimed by Beijing.
As to expanding the U.S. fleet rapidly, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) explains that there are three straightforward ways to do this: building and buying more ships, delaying retirements of existing ships, and/or reactivating decommissioned ships.
As noted, the procurement process is not going to hit the 355-mark quickly enough, which explains why some Navy experts advocate extending the service life of existing warships from 30 or 40 years to 50 years. With needed upgrades and maintenance, this is exceedingly doable and reasonable.
Reactivating mothballed ships is also reasonable. After all, they were mothballed (rather than scuttled) because someone had the good idea that they might be needed in the future. And here we are. The CBO points out that the U.S. reactivated 50 destroyers before U.S. entry into World War II, hundreds of ships during the Korean War, the USS New Jersey during the Vietnam War, and the USS Iowa, USS Missouri, USS Wisconsin and USS New Jersey (re-reactivated) during the Reagan rebuild. To be sure, there is a cost to reactivating warships, but it’s a fraction of the cost of building new ones. More important, a reactivated warship can enter service in a fraction of the time it takes to build a new warship.
Jerry Hendrix (a former Navy captain) and Robert O’Brien (a former U.S. representative to the United Nations) have identified 11 frigates that could be pulled out of storage and refitted with modern equipment, three mothballed cruisers that could be upgraded with new vertical launch missile systems, and two recently-mothballed amphibious assault ships. Others have urged reactivation of the aircraft carrier USS Kittyhawk.
Speaking of carriers, military leaders are considering procuring two carriers simultaneously, which would generate savings and get the Navy back to 12 or more flat-tops quickly.
There are other, more creative solutions Congress and the Pentagon could explore. The Pentagon could utilize Coast Guard and Army maritime assets to augment missions traditionally conducted by the Navy. In fact, there are plans in the works to deploy Coast Guard cutters to support freedom of navigation ops in the South China Sea. More broadly, there have been proposals in Congress and among military thinkers to shift the Coast Guard from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Defense. This would unify America’s seafaring branches and expand America’s maritime reach.
Regarding the Army’s maritime assets, many Americans are unaware that the Army deploys 300 maritime vessels. A watchword in today’s Pentagon is “jointness”—the notion that all branches must work together across all domains to detect, deter, dissuade and defeat threats. Increased Army-Navy jointness and cooperation could enable a more dynamic use of the Army’s ocean-going assets, many of which are deployed and prepositioned around the world but largely tethered near land.
In his biography of President Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris recounts the strange story of Ion Perdicaris, who was kidnapped by a Moroccan warlord. Upon his release, as he approached the coastal city of Tangier, Perdicaris caught the first glimpse of the source of his regained freedom: “the mastheads of Admiral Chadwick’s ships.” Overcome with emotion as he took in TR’s armada, Perdicaris whispered a prayer of thanks for “that flag…that people…that president…those frigates.”
Those frigates are important, for without them, as we are relearning, the world is a much more dangerous place.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.