Seven American aircraft- car rier strike groups are plying the world's seven seas right now in one of the biggest military exercises since the end of the Cold War.
Officially, it's the first test of the Navy's new strategy, the Fleet Response Plan (FRP). Unofficially, it puts America's potential foes on notice: The U.S. Army may be stretched pretty thin at the moment - but the U.S. Navy isn't.
It's a bold statement of U.S. power reminisent of one President Teddy Roosevelt sent in 1907 - the two-year global circumnavigation by the Great White Fleet.
Each carrier strike group (CSG) includes one carrier with 75 aircraft, 4 combat ships, a submarine, cruise missiles and 6,500 sailors. No other nation can put to sea - anywhere on earth - such an incredible display of military might.
With China holding its yearly war games off Taiwan, Iran cracking open U.N.-sealed nuclear facilities and North Korea's continued belligerent nuclear blustering, the exercise, Summer Pulse '04, couldn't come at a more important time.
This exercise is extraordinary. Rarely does the U.S. have more than two of its 12 carriers at sea at any one time. That's because American carriers operate on a two-year cycle - six months at sea, followed by 18 months in the shipyards in overhaul and in training for its next deployment.
Under the Navy's new strategy, the smaller, more responsive CSG has replaced the vaunted, behemoth aircraft-carrier battle group (which consisted of one carrier, 10 to 15 ships and subs and 10,000 sailors) as the Navy's core carrier unit.
The Pentagon wants to be able to send six CSGs anywhere in the world in less than 30 days. Moreover, it plans to have two more CSGs ready within another 90 days to reinforce the first six carriers or relieve two of them.
(Six aircraft carriers - at a minimum - would be needed for a China-Taiwan contingency or a second Korean war.)
But there's more to it than sending 45,000 sailors to sea for the summer, giving a sea trial to the new strategy or sending a shot across the bow of potential troublemakers:
Reassuring Friends and Allies: One of the biggest concerns among America's partners is that U.S. military might is over-committed and unavailable if big trouble breaks out beyond Iraq or Afghanistan. Could America's involvement in the Middle East and South Asia encourage North Korea to invade South Korea or China to coerce Taiwan?
To dispel these fears, the Navy will operate with friends and allies from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia during this groundbreaking exercise. In July, for instance, the USS Enterprise and USS Truman CSGs operated off the coast of Morocco with 10 other nations in a smaller exercise, Majestic Eagle '04.
Reviving Preemption: Some have suggested that the idea of preemption died with the revelation of the intelligence failures over 9/11 and Iraqi WMD. But word that the arrow of preemption has vanished from our quiver is just the thing our enemies, especially the terrorists, want to hear.
America must be able to strike first.
Of course, accurate intelligence is a must, but it makes no sense for this nation to take the first punch like we did on 9/11. Being able to muster the power of several aircraft carrier task forces at almost a moment's notice is a tremendous complication and deterrence to those who threaten us.
The aircraft carrier provides America's policymakers with 90,000 tons of cold-steel U.S. diplomacy. Without firing a single shot, the presence of 4.5 acres of floating, sovereign American territory off the coast has made more than one foreign leader think twice about acting foolishly. At the onset of international crises, American presidents often utter the worried words, "Where are the carriers?"
The Navy's forward-leaning FRP gives the commander-in-chief the opportunity to have naval forces available more rapidly than ever before. And though this great nation should always be slow to war, when the president needs a big stick, it's good to know the carriers will be there.
Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, is a Naval Academy grad. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First appeared in the New York Post