The idea of a world without the benefit of preponderant American seapower may sound alarmist and farfetched. Unfortunately, those who follow military cutbacks and world affairs know that it isn’t. Indeed, the following scenario is all too plausible. . . .
In 2020, several major European nations default on their debt. Contagion in the financial markets plunges the world economy into global depression. From 2020 to 2025, the U.S. economy contracts from $20 trillion to $12 trillion. During this time, two successive U.S. presidents seek and obtain deep cuts in the size of the U.S. armed forces. Homeland security becomes the main focus of the Department of Defense, with policy-makers concentrating on port and border security, land-based strategic nuclear forces, antiterrorism, and managing civil unrest.
The global implications of this retrenchment are stark. China’s claims on the South China Sea—previously disputed by virtually all nations in the region and routinely contested by U.S. and partner naval forces—are accepted as a fait accompli, effectively putting the entire expanse under Chinese hegemony. Korea, unified in 2017 after the implosion of the North, signs a mutual defense treaty with China. Japan is increasingly isolated and executes long-rumored plans to create a nuclear weapons capability.
India, recognizing that its previous role as a balancer to China has lost relevance with the pullback of the Americans, agrees to supplement Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to protect the flow of oil to Southeast Asia. China agrees to exercise increased influence over Pakistan.
Iran dominates the Persian Gulf and is a nuclear power. Its navy aggressively patrols the Gulf while the Revolutionary Guard Navy harasses shipping and oil infrastructure to force the Gulf Cooperation Council countries into Tehran’s orbit. Russia supplies Iran with a steady flow of military technology and nuclear industry expertise.
In Egypt, a decade-long experiment in participatory democracy ends with a violent seizure of power by Islamists. The United States is identified closely with the previous coalition government, and riots break out outside the U.S. embassy. Americans in Egypt hunker down and hope for the best, as there are no U.S. forces in the Mediterranean to evacuate them.
The NATO alliance falls apart. For its energy security, Europe depends on Russia and Iran, which control the main supply lines and sources of oil and gas to Western Europe. Major European nations stand down their militaries and make only limited contributions to a new EU constabulary force. No European nation maintains the ability to conduct significant out-of-area operations, and Europe as a whole maintains little airlift capacity.
The impact of the world fiscal and political crisis is devastating to the U.S. Navy, which has been in decline since the latter part of the Obama administration, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta chose to maintain proportional resourcing of the Navy, Air Force, and Army rather than make difficult choices among competing priorities.
World trade goes into steep decline. In addition, shippers avoid U.S. ports as a result of the onerous container inspection regime. As a result, American consumers face a diminished selection of goods and a lower standard of living.
By 2025, the Navy is down to 70 deployable ships (from 286 in 2011). All aircraft carriers and all but six attack submarines are sidelined, as the Navy dramatically cuts back on expensive nuclear engineers and pilots. Additionally, the Navy de-emphasizes projecting power and sea control beyond U.S. territorial waters. A fleet of four ballistic missile submarines is retained for nuclear deterrence.
With the Navy no longer seeking to project power, the carrier force is decimated; the amphibious force is cut less severely because of the flexibility of these platforms and because they are highly valued for their usefulness in defense support to civil authority missions, such as disaster relief.
All forward-deployed naval forces pull back to the bases in Norfolk and San Diego. A greatly diminished Coast Guard maintains a presence in Hawaii. All other naval bases are closed. The fleet of 70 ships consists of 6 attack submarines, 4 ballistic missile submarines, 8 aviation-capable amphibious ships, 8 other amphibious ships, 15 destroyers, and 29 small combatants. The Navy also operates 2 hospital ships, which are in heavy domestic demand. It does not operate a logistics force because all fueling, provisioning, and arming is done in port.
The Navy’s operational mandate is homeland defense, and its activities have become largely indistinguishable from those of the Coast Guard. Some members of Congress call for combining the two services.
There is one remaining private shipyard suitable for building both conventional and nuclear combatants. Specialized shipbuilding trades are in fatal decline. The ship repair business has disappeared, and all depot-level maintenance is conducted in two heavily subsidized public shipyards . . .
Back to 2011: How might we arrive at this same abysmal state of naval readiness absent a crippling world financial crisis? By continuing down the path that we are on now. Changes in world naval power tend to play out over decades, and by the time action is taken to arrest decline, it could easily be too late. Some steps that might be taken to preclude this fate include:
Recapturing innovation and a sound industrial base. Congress can still prevent the loss of innovation in defense-related research and development. Members should already be alarmed that the U.S. military has no manned aircraft under development, a first in the history of aviation. Similarly, no surface ships or attack submarines are in the design phase. With development cycles lasting 20 years or longer, elected leaders need to ensure the Defense Department is not losing access to critical skills that will be needed to imagine and build the next generation of ships, aircraft, sensors, and weapons for the U.S. Navy.
Developing a long-term research and development plan. After numerous studies and a half-dozen shipbuilding plans, Navy leaders have correctly concluded that the United States needs a larger fleet—not simply in numbers of ships and aircraft, but also in terms of increased network capability, longer range, and increased persistence. Navy leaders recognize that the United States is quickly losing its monopolies on guided weapons and the ability to project power. Precision munitions (guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles) and battle networks are proliferating, while advances in radar and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth capabilities less effective. Congress should demand long-range technology road maps, including a science and technology plan and a research and development plan for the U.S. Navy. These plans should broadly outline future investments, capabilities, and requirements.
Getting the fleet size right. Congress should direct the Navy to provide a “resource unconstrained” fleet composition appropriate to meeting the requirements of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy. The study should include an analysis of the capabilities and missions called for in the strategy and identify which are at risk, given current and planned fleet size and resources. This study should include options for additional forward stationing of U.S. Navy vessels and proposals for new classes of ships designed specifically for low-end naval presence missions.
Without this type of strategy-driven analysis by Navy leaders, Congress will continue to struggle to determine where to apply diminishing resources within the defense budget and how to justify the additional investments needed in higher-priority areas.
America is a maritime nation, and our Navy is the most visible and effective symbol of our national power and strength overseas. Washington decision-makers should recognize the impact and influence of forces that are as useful in peacetime in deterring conflict as they are in wartime while pursuing it. And they need to recognize it before it’s too late.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Weekly Standard