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A Naval Makeover

Author: Greg Bruno
October 31, 2007

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Sixty-five years after World War II’s Battle of Midway, the United States remains the world’s only naval superpower. U.S. planners now face the challenge of preserving that dominance while adjusting to a new world of threats. A maritime strategy unveiled October 17—a partnership involving the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—advocates a shift from sea combat to fighting terrorism, protecting shipping routes, and providing humanitarian assistance. Naval experts say the move is intended to reposition the service from a Cold War fighting machine to a post-9/11 prevention force. Human and economic “soft power” have “been elevated to the same level as high-end naval warfare,” one Navy official told the Washington Post.

The strategic overhaul includes no details about funding or ship numbers. Some Navy officials have complained (DefenseNews.com) the document doesn’t go far enough. The makeover comes at a time of tough budgeting talk in Washington. The Pentagon counts fewer than 280 ships in its fleet, down from 350 in the 1990s. In February 2006 the Navy unveiled plans to increase its ship total to 313.

But the price is steep; the Navy estimated its plan would cost taxpayers $16.5 billion annually for the next thirty years; the Congressional Budget Office says it will cost more like $20.6 billion (PDF) a year. George Friedman, CEO of Strategic Forecasting Inc., a private intelligence firm, questions whether the payoff is worth it: “What is the value of naval power in a world in which naval battles are not fought?” For the Navy, the answer is obvious. Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Navy’s former chief of naval operations, told lawmakers in March 2007 that maritime supremacy is the most powerful U.S. deterrent (PDF) abroad.

Robert D. Kaplan, a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, writes in The Atlantic that the course change comes at a defining moment for the Navy. Most notably, he writes, China is expanding its navy as U.S. ship numbers are sinking, a shift that could have global significance. According to the Financial Times, China’s navy—which two decades ago amounted to “little more than a sleepy coastguard”—is at the heart of its drive for a return to greatness. Military analysts say the most immediate outcome of a larger Chinese navy would be a struggle over control of the Taiwan Strait with Taiwan.

Not everyone agrees U.S. maritime superiority is in jeopardy. While China has recently purchased destroyers and subs from Russia, for example, it only has one aircraft carrier. The United States has eleven. “The United States Navy will continue to dominate the world’s oceans and littorals for at least the next fifty years,” writes Robert Farley, who teaches national security at the University of Kentucky.

The final arbiter of U.S. naval strategy, of course, will be money. Some experts argue Washington should commit more resources to building more ships, and recent Joint Staff “capability assessments” conclude sea power (along with air support) could be more important (Defense News) than ground forces in fighting wars with China, North Korea, and Iran. But Robert O. Work, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent research institute, told Congress last year that domestic pressures will likely shrink (PDF) defense spending, which would mean leaner times for all the nation’s services.

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