As the sizable cast of GOP presidential candidates prepare for Thursday night’s debate, it would do them well to remember the teachings of a man who once held the chair they seek to fill. John Adams famously wrote to his wife Abigail that he studied politics and war so that his sons might study mathematics and philosophy, and his grandsons might study the arts. We live in a world filled with regional actors who don’t share this view. The “reset” with Russia didn’t work because Putin seeks dominion, not peace. U.S. disengagement from the Middle East has encouraged neither stability nor calm. Iran, her terrorist clients and ISIS see peace as the triumph of religious zealotry, not individual liberty. We are in this mess in part because the current administration has lost sight of Adams’ admonishment, laboring under the incorrect assumption that peace can be brought about by policy wrangling.
The next president can begin to reverse international disrespect for the U.S. by understanding how our potential adversaries see power. The rulers of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, as well as terror groups, regard war and peace as means to ends that are profoundly different from the democratic ideal of a thriving, diverse, tolerant international community that settles differences justly. Our new Commander in Chief will find that much of the solution lies in the world’s seas.
The U.S. is a maritime power, surrounded by water on three sides. Our naval capacity connects us with our allies, safeguards the U.S. at great distances, and protects the unmolested passage on the high seas on which our increasingly global trade rests. Because of its mobility and sheer range of abilities—deterrence, presence, crisis response, and combat to name a few—seapower is the most strategic of a maritime state’s instruments of hard power.
But while early Americans were all-too-aware of the role seapower played in establishing the early Republic’s independence from the British, it is largely invisible to Americans today. We have come to assume that naval superiority requires neither additional resources nor better management. If the next president does not remind us that this assumption is wrong, we are in deep trouble. Defense budget cuts, a failure to resolve the political issue of sequestration, the rising cost of shipbuilding, unaccountable and overly centralized management of defense procurement, and a shrunken industrial base all threaten America’s future. The U.S. can resolve its indebtedness, reassert itself internationally, and breathe life into a listless economy. But it cannot survive as a great power if it loses its dominant seapower. Such a loss means surrender to either chaos or an order imposed by a stronger seapower.
China is the most likely contender to replace U.S. dominance on the seas. Islamist fanatics will come and go. Iran’s nuclear capability makes her more influential on the world stage than her zealous Sunni adversaries, but she lacks the strategic heft to shift the tides of international power. Russia’s substantial energy revenues mean she will be hard pressed to return her military to Soviet levels. But China’s size, wealth, geography, ambition, and growing military power can re-order the global balance of power—against us.
China’s navy is key to this re-ordering. The coastal, and insular regions of the Asia-Pacific—including Australia—as well as oceanic routes to the Middle East’s oil make the seas the fulcrum of this vast region’s power. If Chinese hegemony is to be avoided and balance achieved in the Asia-Pacific it will require superior U.S. forces designed to accomplish the purposes of a regional partnership strategy which has yet to be articulated.
It’s not too late; America has a precedent for making intelligent long-term strategy. President Eisenhower established and regularly met with a small group of senior civilian officials and military officers to give him options for dealing with the Soviet Union. The result was the containment strategy that guided U.S. strategy during the Cold War. The next president’s personal attention is required to make and execute a long-term U.S. strategy for China.
At the same time that strategy is crafted, the next president should take immediate action to reverse the Navy’s declining objectives for future fleet size, establish a more realistic one, and provide it with the necessary money. The fleet today is about 280 ships. This is less than half its size at the end of the Reagan buildup. The ships constructed back then are nearing the end of their service lives. Modernized replacements are necessary if the U.S. is to remain dominant at sea. Five years ago, before many of China’s advances in denying large areas of battle space to U.S. combatants, a bipartisan congressionally-mandated independent panel of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review recommended a U.S. fleet of 346 combatants. This is the absolute minimum size that the next president should set as a goal. Included in this goal is a minimum fleet of 12 aircraft carriers. These are needed to guarantee the continuous presence of a single carrier in the three areas of greatest American strategic interest: the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the waters of East Asia.
There are other places where robust seapower is required if the U.S. is to remain a great power. From Iran to Africa’s north coast the Muslim world is in uproar as Sunnis and Shia contend, civil wars flourish, and the power of religious fanatics grows. The region’s religious divide splits the Persian Gulf lengthwise and the likely success of Iran’s nuclear weapons program promises nuclear proliferation in the Sunni states.
Amidst these upheavals including ISIS’s military successes, the current U.S. administration decided to withdraw the Navy’s only carrier in the Middle East for as long as two months this fall. The official reason offered was to reduce the lengthy deployments caused by fewer ships and more commitments. Occurring fewer than four weeks before the deadline on reaching a deal with Iran, the likelihood is that the administration wanted to signal its benign intent to Iran. But extended ship deployments and their morale-corroding effect on sailors are real whether intended as signals to Iran or not.
If the next president is unable to reassert consistent and persistent naval power in the Persian Gulf the likelihood of conflict will continue rising. Naval power protects shipping, our Gulf friends, and keeps the Strait of Hormuz open. Hostilities in the Gulf would have a disastrous effect on the world price of oil. At $300 dollars per barrel the jolt to the world economy would far surpass the benefits of the U.S.’s increasing energy independence. The next president will help re-assert American interest in the Middle East and help prevent shocks to the global economy by restoring robust naval forces to the Mediterranean—where they no longer exist—and a powerful persistent naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
There is a host of other seapower issues that a new administration will need to address not the least of which is how to pay for modernizing the ballistic missile submarine fleet without drying up resources for combatants that perform naval—rather than national—missions, or adapting ship types and design to potential enemies’ advances in satellite technologies and over-the-horizon radars.
A second issue that requires sustained presidential attention is the Defense Department’s management. Tied down by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, over-centralized, unwieldly, and unaccountable, the Defense Department’s procurement system is characterized by huge cost-overruns and delays in fielding major systems. It is wholly unsuited to exploit today’s pace of technological advance. There is a very small number of people who understand politics, the Pentagon, and the commercial world well enough to make the major changes needed to resolve DoD’s procurement system. The next president will save money and improve the U.S.’s combat effectiveness to pick one of them to run the department.
The U.S. is still the world’s largest seapower. Other states, in particular, China, are working doggedly to replace us while we take our dominance for granted. The challenge is to preserve and extend our current lead which the lack of strategy, financial neglect, and deficient management have all undercut. By addressing these challenges the next American president may not achieve John Adams’ idea of peace. But the U.S. will be safer as will other free nations.