Ten sailors died and five sustained injuries when USS John S. McCain collided with a 600-foot merchant vessel off the coast of Singapore, east of the Straits of Malacca, on August 20. This is not the first time the Navy has struggled to keep U.S. ships afloat.
Seven sailors died and three sustained injuries when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan on June 17. By the Navy’s own admission, “the collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship.”
And these are not the only crashes this year. The USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing vessel east of the Korean peninsula on May 9, mere months after the USS Antietam ran aground during high winds and strong tides in Tokyo Bay. Neither incident resulted in causalities.
While it is the Navy’s responsibility to navigate vessels, it is lawmakers’ responsibility to ensure that our women and men in combat are adequately resourced. Right now, they are not. These incidents demonstrate a lack of readiness, as the Navy has been given inadequate resources to achieve the missions it has been asked to achieve. Our ships are crashing and our partners are losing confidence.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated in June that “for all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.” Sequestration is part of the infamous 2011 Budget Control Act, which enforced a limit on defense funding. This decrease in military spending meant less money was available for training and necessary maintenance. Fully 72 percent of the Navy’s maintenance was not completed on time between 2011 to 2014, with key ships such as the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush delayed for months. The lengths of deployments have increased, adding to the strain on our men and women in uniform. Required maintenance has also resulted in some carrier gaps, as U.S. aircraft carriers have to leave their area of operation before their replacement arrives, thereby limiting U.S. ability to project power abroad. (Sequestration causes backlogs in maintenance, forcing ships to remained docked.)
All of this undermines U.S. credibility, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. After the John S. McCain collision, the state-run Chinese newspaper, Xinhua, reported that the U.S. was operating beyond its capabilities in the region. Some Xinhua articles particularly focused on how the Navy’s recent crashes discredit U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations, which seek to ensure the freedom of the high seas in waters claimed by China, by making such operations seem dangerous (“The United States will reap the bitter fruits of its disguised ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea”).
Accidents like these discredit U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. partners in the region have been questioning America’s resolve and ability to make good on its promises.
Accidents like these discredit U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. partners in the region had been questioning America’s resolve and ability to make good on its promises: After the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, Southeast Asian nations were left wondering about its role in the region. Is the United States a reliable partner? While the United States lacks a sustained strategy in the region, China is developing strong economic relationships with Southeast Asian nations while the United States misses out on both economic opportunities and influence in the region. The Seventh Fleet, the U.S. naval fleet in the Asia-Pacific, projects American power in the region by ensuring that no hegemon controls the seas, but collisions such as the four in the past year undermine confidence in U.S. abilities.
This is a confidence that shouldn’t be undermined. Why is the USS John S. McCain near Singapore or the USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan in the first place? The U.S. maintains a presence in the Asia-Pacific to achieve both political and military objectives. Our Navy seeks to deter would-be aggressors and maintains freedom of navigation, which allows safe global shipping around the world. Over 14 percent of U.S. maritime trade passes through the South China Sea, and the presence of the U.S. Navy ensures the safety of these trade flows. U.S. presence helps strengthen our partners in the region. Freedom-of-navigation operations demonstrate U.S. resolve when countries such as China claim land that is not theirs.
In order to ensure the safety and war-fighting capability of our women and men in uniform, the United States needs to increase its defense budget and repeal the Budget Control Act. Unless stopped by an act of Congress, the Budget Control Act will require mandatory cuts to the military, further harming readiness. Rebuilding readiness is a slow process that cannot be deferred without accepting risks and incurring unnecessary costs. Instead, the United States needs to pass a defense budget and cease its reliance on continuing resolutions to fund our military. We owe it to our sailors.