The battle in Congress over domestic spending is over and the Republicans lost, but the battle over spending priorities to best defend America is about to begin. Those in uniform have an insatiable appetite for as much funding as possible to fight and defeat any adversary, anyplace, at anytime.
But the president as commander in chief and civilians at the Department of Defense must balance budget needs with demands made by those in uniform to equip, support and train the best combat force in the world.
Unlike mistakes involving domestic spending, which can ultimately be corrected, history shows that errors in defense budgeting, which is confusing, messy and fraught with uncertainty, can bring with them national security threats that often arrive quickly and with unpleasant surprises.
A prime example of this risk - one that will resonate for decades - involves whether to continue building a new class of Navy destroyers named for former chief of naval operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt.
The Zumwalt-class destroyer was conceived during the Clinton administration as a shallow-water destroyer with sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) systems. But construction of the first ship didn’t begin until February and now, the defense secretary plans to end the Zumwalt program prematurely in favor of modernizing the Burke-class destroyers, a proven class of deep-water warship designed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Perhaps the best guidance for policymakers trying to decide this issue comes from our adversaries - the Chinese. On March 8, five Chinese ships converged on the USNS Impeccable, which was operating in international waters in the South China Sea. The dramatic confrontation was diffused but could have easily turned ugly.
At the time of the incident, the Impeccable was gathering intelligence about 70 miles south of Hainan Island, home to China’s newest and most sophisticated submarine base. China is in the process of creating its most lethal and stealthy fleet of submarines. Through an accelerated construction program and by purchasing ultra-quiet Russian subs, the Chinese are working toward a massive naval expansion, which is expected to top 200 attack and ballistic missile subs.
When China went after the Impeccable last month, the Chinese navy (or more accurately their Coast Guard), sent a powerful and very public signal from the waters off Hainan Island that they are worried about the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine capabilities.
Chinese subs leaving port to hide in deep water must be identified and followed as they sortie out from the shallow waters. Now a significant capability of the Zumwalt-class destroyer becomes essential - the ability to defend itself with a significant punch while locating, tracking and identifying Chinese submarines in the cluttered littoral waters off Hainan Island and elsewhere.
Official Navy testimony delivered July 31 pointed out that the Zumwalt-class destroyer is “superior in littoral ASW” to the Burke-class, which has better “blue water” ASW. It the equivalent of a football coach saying the linebacker is superior at the line of scrimmage but the safety is better for deep coverage; both ship classes on the same team are hugely complementary.
Both the Burkes and Zumwalts will have the range and endurance well beyond the capability of the smaller Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). If both are combined in an ASW task force or going together in harm’s way as part of a carrier battle group, they will be mutually supporting and deadly.
Should a Chinese ballistic submarine make a run for open water in times of a building crisis, a future Zumwalt destroyer can tag it in shallow water, follow it to blue water and pass that intelligence along to a Burke destroyer and American attack submarines. This not only keeps America safer, it also keeps American sailors safer.
People can have honest disagreements over which of these two ships to support. But as China expands its submarine capabilities, there’s no doubt which American destroyer Chinese sub commanders would rather see scrapped. With superior littoral ASW capabilities designed to detect the quietest electric-powered stealth subs, the Zumwalt-class destroyer is a far greater threat to China’s growing submarine fleet.
Ed Timperlake, a Naval Academy graduate, is the co-author with Jed Babbin of “Showdown, Why China Wants War With the United States.”