GRANT: The dangerous decline in America’s maritime might

Threats on the open seas require more and better ships

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The threats to peace and order on the global seas are growing.

China’s authoritarian government launched 17 new warships in 2013 and is in the process of producing 30 more this year. One of the country’s aircraft carriers nearly grazed a U.S. missile cruiser off the Chinese coastline in December, prompting U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Harry Harris to bemoan China’s “increasingly assertive behavior in the region.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s maritime military presence is also on the upswing. Earlier this year, a Russian fighter jet brazenly harassed one of our destroyers, the USS Donald G. Cook, in the Black Sea for 90 minutes. In addition, an Iranian admiral recently openly acknowledged his forces were preparing to target U.S. aircraft carriers because they’re “a symbol of America’s might.”

This trend cannot be allowed to continue apace. These are dangerous countries bent on disrupting the international order America and her allies have worked so hard to uphold.

Unfortunately, national policymakers have not responded well to these mounting challenges.

Amid tightening budgets, many of the development projects for new, more effective weapons and ships have been scaled back or canceled entirely. Pentagon officials are moving to mothball half the existing cruisers. There’s been serious talk of decommissioning an aircraft carrier, and the Navy is rushing to design a new frigate-sized ship in hopes of shoring up savings.

As a result of policymakers’ inaction and apathy, America’s naval capacities are fading. As Samuel Locklear, the admiral in charge of U.S. Pacific Command, recently put it, the “historic dominance that most of us in our careers have enjoyed is diminishing.”

A big part of the problem is that policymakers thought the Navy would be operating mainly in friendly waters close to the coast — the “littorals,” as the sailors say. The Navy started designing a littoral combat ship back in 2001 and planned to restock the fleet with 50 of these low-cost, smaller ships. So far there are just four.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to change course and restore America’s maritime might. The Navy must be prepared to meet force on force with the ships, aircraft and technologies geared to combat rising threats.

To start, our military needs to prepare for contested seas. The long-range shipbuilding plan is the place to do it. That plan should hold fast to the tough ships, such as carriers, destroyers and amphibious ships that operate well anywhere and are constantly called when trouble breaks out. Legislators need to be talking about how to afford new ships in light of fiscal tightening. The Navy is planning to purchase several new types of vessels all at once starting around 2018, at an estimated tab of $18 billion to $24 billion per year. Appropriately prioritizing will be crucial.

The top priority needs to be the production and improvement of aircraft carriers. as they’re particularly effective at combating the maritime technologies being developed by hostile regimes. Specifically, carriers need to add advanced planes such as the F-35 strike fighter and E-2D radar plane.

Officials also need to critically examine the existing fleet of littoral combat ships. The Pentagon has proposed cutting the buy for such vessels from 54 to 32 out of concerns for their ability to defend themselves against more advanced military adversaries in the Asia-Pacific.

Finally, the “DDG-51 Burke” class of destroyers — the defining characteristic of which is robust, multidimensional firepower — needs to play a bigger role in our naval operations. The Burke DDGs are uniquely equipped to counter the diversity of threats now posed on the open seas.

Plans to improve and expand our national naval capacities need to come back to the center of the international security debate. Russia, China and Iran are all heavily investing in their maritime military capabilities. U.S. commanders from the Pacific to the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf are demanding more and better ships.

If the United States doesn’t heed their request, the Navy’s power to combat foreign threats and back up diplomatic outreach in once-peaceful waters will continue to dwindle.

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