Naval State of Mind

The recent failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (JSCDR) to reach an agreement on the reduction of the federal deficit may turn into a full-blown military budget crisis with enormous, unforeseen consequences for national security if the United States does not act soon. The question is no longer whether defense cuts must be made. They are inevitable. But if cuts are made across the board, without reference to strategy, the US military will find itself woefully unprepared to deal with the potential threats posed by a number of rising regional powers, particularly China. The question then becomes: Which parts of the defense budget should Congress prioritize, and why? Since the core national security interests of the United States stem from the sea (power projection, access to energy, and promoting free commerce), the United States should move to preserve its maritime forces, while avoiding interventionist wars. America should adopt a strategy in which it reduces deployments in areas like Europe and the Middle East, rebuilds at home, and develops a response to the growing naval power of an increasingly confident and assertive China.

The US defense budget crisis began earlier this year when Washington announced that it would trim the military budget by $450 billion over the next 10 years. Now that the JSCDR has failed to make a deal, further defense cuts will kick in starting in 2013. These automatic sequestrations will range anywhere from a few hundred billion to nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the regular defense budget will be cut by an additional $450 billion between 2013 and 2021 (or from 3.4 percent of GDP to 2.7 percent or less). And if cuts are made across the board, the Navy would shrink from 288 ships to just 238, according to a report by the House Armed Services Committee’s majority staff.

For those who think that 238 ships are sufficient or that US naval dominance is so overpowering we have nothing to worry about: think again. US naval power is slowly diminishing, and America is doing nothing to reverse this decline. Washington has reduced its naval fleet from approximately 546 ships in 1990 to 288 ships today, and this number will continue dropping if Congress proceeds to make cuts across the board.

What’s worse is that our current fleet of ships is aging at a rapid rate, making Navy budget cuts even more severe. In 2011, “nearly 22 percent of the Navy’s fleet failed its yearly inspection, up from 8 percent as recently as 2007,” according to the Board of Inspection and Survey. This is a frightening jump in the percentage of ships that are considered unfit for further service, and yet we continue to deploy them. The United States has not been addressing the depreciation of the Navy’s equipment, even though the Navy’s overseas responsibilities (including anti-piracy efforts, disaster relief, and wartime deployments) have been increasing. Instead, Washington is doing the exact opposite: It is contracting the size of its overall naval capabilities. Thus, a serious gap between current capabilities and desired capabilities is being formed, and it is continuing to widen by the day.

Yet, given the current political climate, cuts are likely to be made across the board without any consideration of our overall grand strategy: to reduce deployments abroad and expand our naval capabilities. This would be devastating, because the most serious threats in the coming decades will lie at sea, and these threats will be asymmetric in nature. That is, given America’s utter dominance in most conventional measures of military strength, any potential adversary will be forced to find ways of throwing the United States off balance. This does not mean that conventional forces have become useless or outdated. The United States will still need a large standing force across the full spectrum of conflict – land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace – in order to deter potential aggressors. However, since the threats we face are meant to exploit American weaknesses and curtail our conventional superiority, we will have to fight in a smarter way and constantly adapt to new threats, while steering clear of entanglements like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the guarantor of global trade and access to international waterways, the United States must respond to any such asymmetric threats at sea, or else the foundations of the global economic order – free commerce and access to energy –

will be undermined. Furthermore, America’s reliance on the sea for power projection means that any capability that can plausibly deny maritime access to the United States is a potential game-changer. Rising regional powers are cognizant of America’s global defense strategy and the US economy’s dependence on open waterways. Consequently, their primary task is to deny US access to key sea lanes. These anti-access strategies seek to make operations difficult, forcing America to abandon its attempts to maintain a presence and conduct military and economic affairs within a region. If the United States continues down its current path of slashing the Navy’s budget, it will be severely underprepared to counter these 21st-century anti-access threats, thus threatening the national security and economic stability of not only America, but also the rest of the world.

Nowhere are anti-access threats more evident than in the case of China and the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is openly developing a strategy to counter US naval hegemony and the means to carry it out. One of the largest threats facing the US Navy in the Western Pacific is that of sea mines. Although mines have long posed a threat to the operations of US naval forces, the potential threat from all types of sea mines is still growing rapidly. Currently, more than fifty nations across the world collectively possess over 250,000 mines, and a number of nations have been investing heavily in a vast array of novel, advanced sea mines. These include advances in sensors, guidance systems, and stealthy coatings by Russia and China in types of propelled mines and sea mines deployed from underwater vehicles, according to a military report by the Lexington Institute. Both countries are expanding their inventories of sea mines and, given China’s increasing purchases of Russian defense hardware, the threat that this trend poses to the United States is becoming increasingly apparent.

In fact, China “possesses between 50,000 and 100,000 mines, consisting of over 30 varieties of contact, magnetic, acoustic, water pressure and mixed reaction sea mines, remote control sea mines, rocket-rising and mobile mines,” reports the Lexington Institute. As China develops mines in greater quantities that are more potent, harder to detect, and increasingly hard to neutralize, the US Navy’s mine countermeasures (MCM) force has not made any appreciable changes in its approach to these threats. Not only is the MCM force small in quantity, but many of its assets, which include the 14 Avenger-class ships that are deployed to counter these sea mines, are depreciating, potentially leaving the United States unable to secure key straits and sea lanes in a time of crisis.

China is also developing new anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), including the DF-21D, which can potentially sink US aircraft carriers. This is a new type of threat with huge implications, not just for the deployment of American forces, but also for the conduct of American foreign policy in general. Although the DF-21D is still in its early stage of development, it is thought that this missile can target surface ships from nearly 1000 miles away and possibly much farther. Experts believe that China will be able to produce 10,000 of these new missiles for the price of a single US aircraft carrier, so even if the missiles are not perfected, they could still wreak massive havoc. ASBMs, whose development is being coupled with China’s rapid naval modernization and an expansion of its submarine forces, are a part of China’s larger anti-access and area-denial strategy that aims to neutralize the strength of the United States and provide China significant military leverage at sea.

Although China claims it has no aggressive intentions in developing these missiles, their objective is obvious: denying the United States access to waters, namely the South China Sea, which the PLA increasingly regards as belonging to China. China hopes to expand its sphere of influence and eventually make a sovereign claim to the entirety of the South China Sea and the islands belonging to it, even though most of the sea is shared by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.

This is old news. Recently, however, China has become increasingly assertive in the region. Since February, China has overtly infiltrated Philippines-claimed territory in the South China Sea region on nine occasions. It has also had several encounters with Vietnamese vessels that Vietnam claims were intentionally rammed by Chinese fishing boats as part of China’s attempt to control disputed waters.

So why is China flexing its muscles in this region? China’s maritime expansion can be viewed from both a military and an economic dimension. Militarily speaking, the United States is currently boosting its relationship with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. This ranges from deepening military cooperation with Australia (through the deployment of US troops in Australia) to hosting joint naval drills with Vietnam to maintaining an enormous presence of nearly 50,000 troops in Japan. China views all of these relationships as US attempts to cage in China and preclude its economic, military, and political growth.

As a result, China hopes to possess a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent by introducing up to five Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic submarines coupled with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. These second-strike capabilities, if developed, could be used to deter the United States and deny it access to the South China Sea region, providing China with significant military leverage against the United States and its allies. The geopolitical implications of this situation are severe: By essentially kicking the United States out of these waters, China would be undermining the credibility of the US extended deterrent, which would reverberate throughout the Asia-Pacific region. This could strain US relationships with its allies, increase intraregional security competitions, and, given East Asia’s relative instability, potentially lead to militarization and proliferation within the region – all of which are outcomes the United States and its allies want to avoid.

Now, consider this from an economic standpoint. China’s naval expansion can be construed as a means of securing a perfect source for its unquenchable thirst for energy: the South China Sea. A US Geological Survey estimates that the South China Sea could contain “nearly twice China’s known reserves of oil and plenty of gas,” while China’s estimates are even higher. These are enormous figures, and given that its demand for energy is expected to grow 75 percent through 2035, China’s desire to claim ownership of the South China Sea and its oil reserves is understandable.

However, China may also have underhanded intentions that should be of great concern to America. If China were able to control the South China Sea, it would also be able to control nearly 50 percent of the world’s supertanker traffic, giving it an unimaginable amount of economic authority. This is problematic not only for the United States, but also for the rest of the world. Japan, for instance, is almost entirely reliant upon the South China Sea for its energy needs – nearly 90 percent of its imported oil passes through this region. This means that even if the United States were able to insulate itself directly from a threat by China to cut off oil supplies in the region, the United States could easily be drawn into such conflicts, if its allies were in danger. In this light, China could possess the ability to blackmail the United States and its allies, which would diminish America’s economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region, reduce its overall global clout, and leave it much more vulnerable in the economic world stage. This could have serious repercussions on the American economy – a scenario United States should try to avoid at all costs.

Unless the United States wants to endanger its economic health and national security, it needs to respond to the threat of military budget cuts by optimizing its military spending. That is, America must channel as much of its energy as possible into expanding its naval fleet and increasing research and development efforts, while at the same time maintaining a large but reasonable standing force across the full spectrum of conflict – land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. This is the only viable means by which the United States can hope to respond to the growing 21st-century asymmetric threats posed by China, while still patrolling the world’s seas and maintaining a world order that rests on the bedrocks of democracy and peace.