Don’t give up the ship

Published 11:01 am Saturday, January 23, 2016

The year 2016 will be challenging for the United States Navy. The New Year finds our Navy confronting a daunting range of challenges and choices. Since 2011, the sea service has been running itself ragged trying to meet regional commanders’ growing demand for forces with a shrinking budget and a fleet whose size has barely been holding steady. Indeed, over the course of last year, the Navy seemed closer than ever to the point at which it can no longer fulfill the global responsibilities the world has placed upon it.

As challenging as recent years have been, 2016 could indeed be worse. Already, the Navy has had to sacrifice “presence” to restore “posture,” a trade that has created gaps in our fleet’s ability to keep ships deployed where they are needed. This year, fiscal constraints could force the Navy to make similarly painful choices between equally valid priorities, such as shipbuilding and aircraft acquisition. Looming over everything is the prospect of dysfunction in Congress and discord within the Pentagon. As a result, well-known naval analyst Bryan Clark expects “rough seas” and “heavy rolls” ahead. While these are appropriate metaphors for the challenges we face, there are at least three reasons that proponents of American sea power should not give up the ship.

First, people across the country — not just in Washington. D.C. — seem to understand the need for a strong Navy more now than at any point since the Cold War. In recent months, ISIS, the threat of terrorism, and the aggressive actions of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all reminded Americans of the need for a strong military and proactive foreign policies. At the same time, another upswing in our aversion to putting “boots on the ground” and fighting land wars in Asia has generated support for projecting power from the sea. As a result, the public has shown increasing support for American sea power.

In Washington, recognition of Asia’s growing geostrategic importance has shifted attention to the forces and capabilities needed for a predominantly maritime theater. At the same time, the actions of China, Russia, and Iran are reminding Wall Street that “90 percent of everything,” including 63 percent of the world’s oil and 95 percent of all financial transactions, moves over or under the sea. And last but certainly not least, in living rooms around the country, footage of Navy fighters carrying out the first 54 days of strikes against ISIS and images of our flag flying defiantly in disputed waters remind us what our Navy does on a daily basis — and why it matters.

Second, the Navy is more focused than ever on solving the strategic, operational, and tactical challenges before it. For years, keen observers have watched as China, Russia, and Iran have fielded capabilities that could undermine our Navy’s freedom of maneuver and deprive us of our command of the seas. Alongside these “anti-access and area-denial capabilities,” we have seen China start investing in “blue-water” power-projection platforms akin to our own. An American response has been regrettably slow in coming. But now, after two decades of post–Cold War complacency, our Navy is finally alert to the challenges to our maritime superiority, and it’s taking steps to overcome them.

This new clarity of task and purpose is evident in the new Chief of Naval Operations’ first vision document, released this month. Entitled “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” it does a good job of succinctly stating what we need to do and why need to do it. The details on how the Navy intends to maintain its advantages are mostly classified, but in 2016, they should continue falling into place. Across the Navy, personnel are now actively solving issues that have been neglected or even even taboo to mention. At the same time, 2016 will see the unveiling and implementation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s “Third Offset” strategy, in which advanced naval capabilities should play an important role.

Third, a stronger Navy features prominently in the platforms of many 2016 presidential candidates, and could be a priority for our next commander-in-chief. Indeed, presidential candidates have devoted more time in speeches and prime-time debates to discussing the size of the fleet than any other element of our military-force structure. Almost all the Republican candidates have called for a larger fleet, usually in the 323-to-346-ship range endorsed by the bipartisan National Defense Panel, and many have gone into further detail. Carly Fiorina, for example, has repeatedly said that we must restore the Sixth Fleet in Europe. Jeb Bush wants to increase submarine production. Marco Rubio has laid out a well-informed plan for restoring our military strength in Asia and even weighed in on esoteric issues such as the number of amphibious ships and the freedom of navigation operations.

In short, both the public and the candidates are discussing the future of the Navy more frequently and in greater detail than in any presidential campaign since 1980 — and that matters. Mitt Romney in 2012 drew unprecedented national attention to the shrunken size of our fleet. The 2016 campaign should sustain public interest in the Navy; and, with the help of knowledgeable journalists and moderators such as Hugh Hewitt, it will raise awareness of such detailed issues as the logic behind the nuclear triad and the upcoming costs of its modernization. Come November, of course, we could have a president-elect who has resolved to restore American sea power.

We should all be concerned about the future of our Navy. The good news is that, to an unprecedented extent, people are. So while there will be plenty of turmoil in the months ahead, the winds appear to be shifting, and conditions could soon be right for a renaissance of American sea power.

RANDY FORBES represents Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. For contact information, see