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October 21, 2012

War in a Narrow Place

By

It was a war like no other. One belligerent, not even an enemy of ours, attacked a U.S. Navy frigate, killing 37 sailors. Later, an American cruiser mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner, killing 290 innocents. In between, two other U.S. warships nearly sunk after striking mines.

The U.S. never even called it a war. But as then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger admitted, it was "certainly not peace either."

It was, in fact, a bloody conflict between Iran and Iraq. Tehran had mined the Straits of Hormuz in an effort to stop the passage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. On July 24, 1987, President Reagan launched Operation Earnest Will, dispatching U.S. forces to the straits with orders to keep the trade lanes open.

America's military had never seen a struggle like this before. Commercial ships and planes plied the same waters and skies as enemies armed to the teeth. Oil platforms were outfitted like fortresses. Surface-to-ship missiles crossed paths with air-to-ground rockets. And mines were everywhere.

Even after almost a decade of rebuilding, the Navy was not prepared for this kind of war. The most combat-ready minesweepers available were Korean War-era wooden bottom vessels. Crews needed a crash course in damage control. Radars had to be recalibrated for weapons the Navy had never faced before.

Twenty-five years later, the U.S. military could well be on its way to such unpreparedness for the next "Tanker War." That may sound alarmist, considering that the Navy just last month finished a massive mine sweeping exercise in the Gulf -- a not-so-subtle warning to the mullahs in Iran that they should not let their actions get as hot as their rhetoric.

But the fact that the U.S. can muster combat power now is no guarantee that it will be able to do so in the future. Today, the Straits of Hormuz are, if anything, a less forgiving place to try to enforce freedom of the seas than they were 25 years ago, when the Pentagon dove into the middle of a "guerilla war at sea."

Already there are signs that naval readiness is flagging. According to information provided to the House Armed Services Committee, about 12 percent of the Navy's fleet had a degraded ability to serve in 2009. That percentage doubled the follow year. Last year, about half of the Navy's ships weren't fully "mission capable."

Under President Obama's long-range budget projection, defense spending never reaches even fiscal 2010 levels in the next 10 years. That puts defense last in the president's budget priorities behind entitlements, interest on the debt and other domestic spending.

Under the president's long-range budget, the Navy will not only be less ready but also smaller. According to Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, current plans show "a fleet averaging a size of roughly 298 ships over the next three decades, down from 306 ships, in a plan the administration released only six months ago. The new plan kills the Navy's long-standing goal for a 313-ship fleet, the size considered the floor by the last CNO [Chief of Naval Operations]."

Ships will also be replaced at a slower rate, pushing the average age of the Navy's rapidly aging fleet even higher.

"To be prepared for war," George Washington said, "is one of the most effective means of preserving peace." The White House seems to have forgotten this maxim. If America's Navy isn't ready for the next war, it might just tempt an enemy into starting one.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Examiner.

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