The United States is at a crossroads, and the American people must consider carefully an issue that has been creeping up on us for two decades. For most of the past 70 years, America enjoyed unquestioned naval global superiority, and we could be confident that the U.S. Navy could establish and sustain maritime dominance wherever and whenever needed.
However, since the early 1990s, America's Navy has been in decline with our fleet shrinking from almost 600 ships to just 283 ships by the end of 2012. Now in 2013, President Obama has announced a new defense strategy for America that threatens to accelerate the continued decline of U.S. naval power, particularly relative to a burgeoning Chinese fleet.
We don't have to look far for a cautionary tale. Two year ago, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article entitled "Sun Setting on British Power: From Ruling the Waves to Waving Goodbye." The article documented the path of Great Britain from "an island whose forces once dominated continents and ruled the waves to a nation with an army, navy and air force no longer capable of "full spectrum" military operations."
In the years after World War II, Great Britain's military declined to a point where the British Army and the Royal Navy were (and remain) a shadow of what they used to be. Great Britain's power and influence around the world waned in parallel, and the once-feared Royal Navy atrophied into what can perhaps best be described as a coastal defense force.
Is the United States headed down the same path today? Like Great Britain, America is under tremendous fiscal pressure and, as in Great Britain, powerful voices are pushing for drastic cuts in defense spending — some in order to avoid drastic reductions in social spending and others in order to stem further expansion of our national debt.
Great Britain's loss of world-power status has already taken place, and the defense-spending debate there is really about how to manage further military decline. For America, however, we are not yet at the point of surrendering global naval-power status. Nevertheless, we are moving in that direction, having halved the size of our Navy over the past two decades just as international instability has surged.
Today, the U.S. Navy simply doesn't have enough surface ships, aircraft carriers and submarines to cover the regional hot spots of a volatile world. One recent sign of America's weakened status is that the U.S. Navy had no aircraft carrier or even an Amphibious Ready Group anywhere in the Mediterranean on Sept. 11 when al Qaeda-linked terrorists attacked and firebombed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Despite it being the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and despite multiple urgent requests for greater protection by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. military had no forces in the entire eastern Mediterranean at the time of the attack. The result was that American sovereign territory was attacked and our consulate was overrun with four Americans killed, including the ambassador.
The question is: Will America wake from its slumber and realize that our nation's naval power is slipping away? We may still have the largest and most capable Navy in the world, but the important issue is whether our Navy can meet the demands of defending American interests around the world.
We have a choice. We can follow the dictates of the Constitution and provide for the common defense as a first priority, or we can ignore them and see American naval power decline. It is time for an honest debate — we can step up, or we can continue to reduce the size of our Navy and see our nation's power diminish even as other military powers, such as China, continue to grow in capability and reach.
America has vital interests at stake. China's military power is on the rise; North Korea is threatening nuclear war against the United States; and Iran is quickly achieving nuclear capability. Syria's civil war is getting more violent and radical Islamic jihadists have spread their terrorism into Africa. America's allies see the warning signs of America's declining military power, and they have read about the declining readiness of America's military forces owing to the ongoing budget cuts and sequestration. Allowing America's military power to decline further would be a costly mistake for the United States and for much of the rest of the world as well.
Over the course of history, great military powers have come and gone, but as the noted historian Colin Gray tells us no "sea power, or maritime coalition, has ever been defeated in any of the great military struggles of modern times." The question before the American people is: Shall we willingly surrender our global leadership by allowing our military power to decline in these dangerous times?
Our Navy and our military forces are in decline, and our national interests are increasingly at risk. It's time for our president and Congress to tell the truth and to lead.
Christopher M. Lehman was a special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan from 1983 to 1985.