In 1987, the United States Navy numbered 594 ships. On, above, and below the ocean, the Navy reigned supreme, granting the commander-in-chief a flexible tool to secure the world’s economic maritime highways and project power ashore from the sea at the time and place of the nation’s choosing.
More than a quarter century later, the Navy has shrunk to just 288 ships and sits poised to shrink still further in the coming years. The naval buildup of the 1980s was so large and so enduring that it allowed the U.S. Navy to thrive for the next three decades. But succeeding presidents and Congresses have failed to sustain the fleet that President Reagan built. As this fleet retires in the decade ahead, the Navy will begin experiencing serious shortfalls in the minimum number of attack submarines, amphibious ships, and large surface vessels required to execute its mission.
The Navy’s relative decline cannot be measured simply by numbers of ships. The last 20 years have been a hiatus in the development of key capabilities and the maintenance of important skills. Areas like anti-submarine warfare, long a specialty of the U.S. Navy, have been neglected. Anti-mine warfare, which is critical in waters like the Strait of Hormuz, has been similarly ignored. And today the rapidly modernizing Chinese navy has developed anti-ship missiles that can “out-stick” our own missiles.
With 90 percent of global trade carried by sea, and the vast majority of international financial transactions conducted via undersea cables, the U.S. Navy is the backstop for securing a stable global financial system for the U.S. economy to operate in. In addition, the Navy is a highly versatile force that can generate sovereign, forward-deployed military power to do anything from strategic nuclear deterrence to humanitarian assistance. Whether it is launching air strikes against Islamist militants in Iraq or evacuating civilians from conflict zones, this flexibility makes naval power uniquely suited to an international security environment that requires scalpels in some instances and axes in others.
Past buildups of our naval power during periods of relative international peace, from the late 19th century to the 1930s to the Reagan era, can teach us much about the process of revitalizing American seapower today. In each of these cases, a far-sighted president, aided by like-minded members of Congress, was able to undertake the investments needed to rebuild U.S. naval power, often in difficult economic times. Yet a future effort to reinvigorate the Navy, while still requiring presidential vision and congressional leadership, must also be uniquely suited to the circumstances of our time.
To begin with, our Navy must simply build more ships. The Navy says that 306 vessels is the minimum necessary to meet our national-security requirements. Outside experts, like the 2010 QDR National Defense Panel, put the number closer to 350 ships. While technology and maintenance techniques continue to improve, the demand for naval presence and the strain on military families and naval hulls from rapid deployments all place a limit on the classic mantra that the military can do “more with less.” A plan that reverses the downward spiral in ship construction is essential to stimulate a new naval renaissance.
But while numbers matter, the Navy will also need to ensure that it is prepared for the future with the right technologies, doctrine, and operating concepts. This will not be easy. Like all organizations, the Pentagon has traditionally resisted new technologies and war-fighting paradigms that threaten existing bureaucracies and ways of operating. Whether it was the transition from sail to steam in the 19th century or the rise of aircraft carriers before World War II, strong civilian leadership and forward-thinking uniformed officers have been required to ensure that our Navy is prepared for the future and not simply planning for the past.
Today, the U.S. military is on the cusp of a series of technological innovations that will do much to define the face of warfare in the 21st century. The growth of unmanned technology is poised to ensure the relevance of the aircraft carrier for decades to come. By investing in unmanned, carrier-launched aircraft capable of striking heavily defended targets at long range, the carrier’s air wing will remain a versatile and effective power-projection tool.
Advances in areas such as directed energy, shipboard lasers, and the electromagnetic rail gun promise to revolutionize the way the Navy engages surface and airborne targets. Other innovations, like unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), offer similar prospects for a technological transformation in undersea warfare. It is imperative that our Navy’s leadership encourage these innovations in the years ahead.
China’s growing assertiveness, Russia’s military resurgence, and the worsening instability in Iraq and the broader Middle East should remind Americans of the world they live in. Like Britain’s Royal Navy in centuries past, the United States Navy underwrites the global economic and security order through its forward presence, deterrent power, and, ultimately, war-fighting capabilities. Investing in a revitalization of American seapower should be among the highest priorities of any American president. In the words of Representative Carl Vinson (D., Ga.), who led the Navy’s revitalization before World War II, there is nothing more expensive than cheap armies and navies.
— John F. Lehman served as secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987. Representative J. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) chairs the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.