China’s maritime power and aggressive posture is rising while the size of the U.S. Navy continues to shrink.
During the recent foreign policy debate, the president presumed to instruct his opponent: “Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Yes, the Army’s horses have been superseded by tanks and helicopters, and its bayonets rendered mainly ceremonial by armor and long-range, automatic fire, but what, precisely, has superseded ships in the Navy? The commander in chief patronizingly shared his epiphany that the ships of today could beat the hell out of those of 1916. To which one could say, like Neil Kinnock, “I know that, Prime Minister,” and go on to add that we must configure the Navy to face not the dreadnoughts of 1916 but “things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them,” and “ships that go underwater,” and also ballistic missiles, land-based aviation, and electronic warfare.
To hold that numbers and mass in war are unnecessary is as dangerous as believing that they are sufficient. Defense contractor Norman Augustine famously observed that at the rate fighter planes are becoming complex and expensive, soon we will be able to build just one. Neither a plane nor a ship, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at once. And if one ship that is in some ways equivalent to 100 is damaged or lost, we have lost the equivalent of 100. But, in fact, except for advances in situational awareness, missile defense, and the effect of precision-guided munitions in greatly multiplying the target coverage of carrier-launched aircraft, the Navy is significantly less capable than it was a relatively short time ago in antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, the ability to return ships to battle, and the numbers required to accomplish the tasks of deterrence or war.
For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomacy in the South China Sea is doomed to impotence because it consists entirely of declarations without the backing of sufficient naval potential, even now when China’s navy is not half of what it will be in a decade. China’s claims, equivalent to American expropriation of Caribbean waters all the way to the coast of Venezuela, are much like Hitler’s annexations. But we no longer have bases in the area, our supply lines are attenuated across the vastness of the Pacific, we have much more than decimated our long-range aircraft, and even with a maximum carrier surge we would have to battle at least twice as many Chinese fighters.