President Obama declared earlier this month that national-security strategy should drive the defense budget and not vice versa. Talk is cheap. An emerging debate over the Navy's future reveals the price America will pay for slashing defense.
The Washington Times reported Monday that the Defense Department is considering cutting the aircraft-carrier fleet to as few as nine vessels. That would be down from the congressionally mandated force of 11 ships. Diminishing sea power runs counter to Mr. Obama's stated strategic priorities. The defense strategic guidance issued Jan. 5, which Mr. Obama claimed reflected his personal vision, noted that "U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities." The document announced a strategic pivot in which U.S. forces "will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region." In case the administration was unaware, that part of the world is mostly ocean.
Defense strategy should be internally consistent even in a time of austerity. Announcing that the United States is making a strategic shift to the Pacific and then cutting the blue-water fleet makes about as much sense as setting a hard deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan and then rushing to pull out whether the mission has been completed or not. At best, the twisted actions demonstrate a lack of clarity in connecting means and ends. At worst, this communicates a troubling level of disorganization and insufficient focus.
Carriers have often been declared obsolete. In 1942, two months after the classic carrier engagement at Midway, air-power advocate Alexander P. de Seversky said the ships would be useless by 1944. Submarines, nuclear weapons and successive generations of anti-ship missiles have all been cited as spelling doom for the flattops. Current proponents of cutting carriers cite a supposed contradictory status for the capital ships: They represent a force overmatch for second-rate powers in limited conflicts but are sitting ducks in a major war, ripe for targeting by enemy subs and missiles.
Despite these claims, aircraft carriers have continually proved their worth as indispensable tools for deterrence and U.S. power projection. Paradoxically, the carriers' decline in reputation has been due largely to American naval dominance. With no peer threat to contend with, the ships look like a wasteful extravagance. But this is changing. The decline of American power in the age of Obama is sparking new ambition in the Pacific Rim. Last month, the People's Liberation Army commenced sea trials for China's new carrier, and Gen. Luo Yuan of China's Academy of Military Science said in July that Beijing needs at least three such ships "so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively." India and Japan also are beefing up their naval air arms.
Given the impending shrinkage of the U.S. fleet and the rise of China, it's a smart move for Asian democracies to build up their defenses to check the red dragon. The Pacific may not be an American lake for much longer.
The Washington Times
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