America’s Capsizing Naval Policy By Mark Helprin

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DeM Banter: I continue to find it interesting that the “horse and bayonet” comment resonates, but lets take the politics out of this. The numbers below are very shocking and in usual DeMarco Banter…even more shocking we don’t have a strategy to match the downsizing. Well, there is the phantom pivot….We all hear the fact that we as a nation spend so much on defense, but what other nation is a “global force for good” (to quote the US Navy)? If we no longer seek to be global, the cost of our defense shrinks massively…then we can be on par with all other nations…if that is what we truly seek. It should be obvious, that being on par is truly a double edge sword that cuts both ways. Thoughts?
PS: is China the threat we make her out to be?

Wall Street Journal
October 29, 2012
Pg. 21

China’s maritime power and aggressive posture is rising while the size of the U.S. Navy continues to shrink.

During the recent foreign policy debate, the president presumed to instruct his opponent: “Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”

Yes, the Army’s horses have been superseded by tanks and helicopters, and its bayonets rendered mainly ceremonial by armor and long-range, automatic fire, but what, precisely, has superseded ships in the Navy? The commander in chief patronizingly shared his epiphany that the ships of today could beat the hell out of those of 1916. To which one could say, like Neil Kinnock, “I know that, Prime Minister,” and go on to add that we must configure the Navy to face not the dreadnoughts of 1916 but “things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them,” and “ships that go underwater,” and also ballistic missiles, land-based aviation, and electronic warfare.

To hold that numbers and mass in war are unnecessary is as dangerous as believing that they are sufficient. Defense contractor Norman Augustine famously observed that at the rate fighter planes are becoming complex and expensive, soon we will be able to build just one. Neither a plane nor a ship, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at once. And if one ship that is in some ways equivalent to 100 is damaged or lost, we have lost the equivalent of 100. But, in fact, except for advances in situational awareness, missile defense, and the effect of precision-guided munitions in greatly multiplying the target coverage of carrier-launched aircraft, the Navy is significantly less capable than it was a relatively short time ago in antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, the ability to return ships to battle, and the numbers required to accomplish the tasks of deterrence or war.

For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomacy in the South China Sea is doomed to impotence because it consists entirely of declarations without the backing of sufficient naval potential, even now when China’s navy is not half of what it will be in a decade. China’s claims, equivalent to American expropriation of Caribbean waters all the way to the coast of Venezuela, are much like Hitler’s annexations. But we no longer have bases in the area, our supply lines are attenuated across the vastness of the Pacific, we have much more than decimated our long-range aircraft, and even with a maximum carrier surge we would have to battle at least twice as many Chinese fighters.

Not until recently would China have been so aggressive in the South China Sea, but it has a plan, which is to grow; we have a plan, which is to shrink; and you get what you pay for. To wit, China is purposefully, efficiently, and successfully modernizing its forces and often accepting reductions in favor of quality. And yet, to touch upon just a few examples, whereas 20 years ago it possessed one ballistic-missile submarine and the U.S. 34, now it has three (with two more coming) and the U.S. 14. Over the same span, China has gone from 94 to 71 submarines in total, while the U.S. has gone from 121 to 71. As our numbers decrease at a faster pace, China is also closing the gap in quality.

The effect in principal surface warships is yet more pronounced. While China has risen from 56 to 78, the U.S. has descended from 207 to 114. In addition to parities, China is successfully focusing on exactly what it needs—terminal ballistic missile guidance, superfast torpedoes and wave-skimming missiles, swarms of oceangoing missile craft, battle-picture blinding—to address American vulnerabilities, while our counters are insufficient or nonexistent.

Nor is China our only potential naval adversary, and with aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles and over-the-horizon radars, the littoral countries need not have navies to assert themselves over millions of square miles of sea. Even the Somali pirates, with only outboard motors, skiffs, RPGs, and Kalashnikovs, have taxed the maritime forces of the leading naval states.

What, then, is a relatively safe number of highly capable ships appropriate for the world’s richest country and leading naval power? Not the less than 300 at present, or the 200 to which we are headed, and not 330 or 350 either, but 600, as in the 1980s. Then, we were facing the Soviet Union; but now China, better suited as a maritime power, is rising faster than this country at present is willing to face.

The trend lines are obvious and alarming, but in addition we face a potentially explosive accelerant of which the president is probably blissfully unaware, as is perhaps even his secretary of the Navy, who—as he dutifully guts his force—travels with an entourage befitting Kublai Khan, or at least Kublai Khan Jr. That is that whereas the American Shipbuilding Association (now dissolved) counted six major yards, China has more than 100. Whenever China becomes confident of the maturation of its naval weapons systems, it can surge production and leave us as far behind as once we left the Axis and Japan. Its navy will be able to dominate the oceans and cruise in strength off our coasts, reversing roles to its pleasure and our peril—unless we attend to the Navy, in quality, numbers, and without delay.

This will demand a president who, like Reagan, will damn the political torpedoes and back a secretary of the Navy who, like John Lehman, will unashamedly and with every power of rhetoric and persistence rebuild the fleets. The military balance, the poise of the international system, and the peace of the world require no less. Nor does America deserve less.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, the novels “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt) and “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt). His most recent novel, “In Sunlight and In Shadow,” was published earlier this month by Harcourt.

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2 thoughts on “America’s Capsizing Naval Policy By Mark Helprin

  1. This is an interesting read, but I think the more interesting question is what makes this article interesting? It is talking about a shifting balance of power in the Pacific- what is wrong with a rising China?

    I don’t think a rising China is an existential threat to the United States structurally, but I think that our way of life may be in peril. Much of our economy is reliant upon goods produced/mined/exported from Pacific nations. A rising China is indeed an existential threat for them. At the moment we have favorable trade relations with these nations, but China would be able to strong arm these agreements against us. The things we buy would not longer be priced as they are, and our standard of living would greatly lower (in addition to corporations profiting less, hiring less people, etc).

    So selfishly speaking, our interest in the region is only economic. There may also be a moral discussion about the relative benefit to US hegemony in the region versus Chinese hegemony. We like to see ourselves as more benevolent hegemons…

    Anyway, my 2 cents…

    • That is a problem when we focus on only China. I am not sure China is a threat myself… China has a ton of internal problem that will probably severely impact them in the next decade. More to the point, does the US want to continue being a Global Power? What does Global Power mean? Being Global is expensive, can we get others to assist in funding? We have tried, up until nations lose interest in being Global and pull funding. Remember strategy is as much about what you are NOT going to do as much as it is what you are going to do. So what do we as a nation want to do? And then fund it… Another note…what do we see as the responsibility of the Federal Government. That is another convo we need to have. If you are about everything… you are really about nothing. Right now the Fed thinks everything is their job, as such it makes it very difficult to figure out what thing you would like to make your number one priority. Is defense important? Let’s start with that question, then…. what kind of defense dept to we want? What should they be able to do? This was the basis of Wondering Where the Lions Are at Stanford.
      But… yes, on your point…. I agree… is China the only focus, are they a threat? We sure can do a lot more together… okay, that is probably five cents now…

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