In what purports to be a strategic statement, Sec.of Navy Ray Mabus recently presented what we hope is simply a disingenuous piece of public relations. It cannot represent the U.S. Navy Establishment in our current dilemma facing the exercise of American sea power. The statement is all the more contradictory and unsatisfying because Mabus has waged a rearguard action within the Obama Administration against abandonment of the long-held concept of the need for overwhelming U.S. Navy superiority.
Mabus [in a well documented Time article] maintains that the U.S. Navy has “more firepower, more capability, and more capacity to do whatever is necessary on the world’s oceans than we did 20 or 40 or 100 years ago, and we are increasing this power dramatically because of the new ships coming into the fleet.” That statement is undoubtedly true in so far as it goes to describe the current American navy technological capabilities.
What Mabus refuses to confirm publicly is the growing disparity between the sheer numbers of ships in the fleet and the deteriorating world situation. As Mabus acknowleges, there is an all important issue of “presence”. He describes it incisively: “…there is no ‘next best thing’ for building trust other than being there. Maintaining that presence requires gray hulls on the horizon.” And, of course, that is why the total number of ships in the fleet acquires an importance almost equal to if not superior to their capabilities.
The Fleet size measured on Mabus’ taking command was 285 but now [Sept. 1, 2015] stands at 273. Before the Obama Administration’s announced refocus on Asia, and most importantly, before China and Russia re-ignited great power competition, the Navy sent the Congress a plan for an 11 Carrier, 313-ship Navy. Eight years and a dramatically deteriorating security environment later, the Navy plans for 11 Carriers with 308 ships. But there is growing concern that the shipbuilding program is unrealistic.
Speculation during the last few weeks that the U.S. would leave the Middle East region without a carrier for months epitomizes the problem. Overextended deployment makes it necessary to return the carriers to base in order to relieve personnel and for maintenance. Yet it came at the very moment that the whole disaster in the Middle East might require additional access to the carrier’s aircraft. That had, in fact, gone on for nine months while the Obama Administration negotiated with Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to permit the use of Turkish bases for a bombing campaign against Daesh [ISIL], the newest threat in the region.
But at the same time that the Mideast crisis was deepening, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had announced the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia”. That had to include if not additional air power, the possibility of new tests for the Fleet with the Chinese building a series of military bases in the South China Sea, threatening the security of one of the world’s most important sea routes. As Mabus argued in his article, keeping the world’s international waters free is a primary goal of the U.S. Navy, one which only the American fleet could perform. New arrangements with the Philippines, perhaps even returning to Subic Bay, once the largest military base in the world, could make new demands on numbers of ships as well as its technology.
Mabus presents a picture of how the Navy Department has revamped its acquisition methods to make economies in the face of cutbacks in the growth of the overall military budget. But the fundamental problem of the need for an expanding navy at a time of a straightened economy must remain a top priority for policy makers – not the least for the new president after 2016.