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The Tipping Point

Seth Cropsey

In March, the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally funded research institute published a report called, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake.” (Full disclosure: I participate with the think tank on a part-time basis.) The title pretty much says it all. 

The Navy’s think tank wanted to know at what point the U.S. Navy’s global preeminence evaporates.  Demand for U.S. naval force has increased over the past 10 years, as carrier-based aircraft played an important role in Iraq and currently conduct a large portion of strike missions in Afghanistan. More than 10,000 sailors have been assigned to shore duty in support of the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Navy SEALs have seen service in large numbers in both wars.  Cooperative efforts with other naviesfor example, in Africa, ballistic missile defense patrols, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations from Indonesia to Haiti, have increased U.S. dependence on naval forces.  At the same time the fleet is getting smaller: It has decreased by nearly 20 percent in the last decade, while the number of deployed ships has stayed about the same.

The C.N.A. report is as disturbing for the question it asks as it is for the answers it provides. The report argues that multiple causes and conditions are likely to result in a diminishing U.S. combat fleet. For these reasons, a smaller and smaller U.S. combat fleet is emerging: increasingly tight federal budgets; undiminished operational requirements; a shrinking industrial base and its depressive effects on the Navy’s future ability to respond quickly to everything from greater demand for platforms to increased flexibility in ship design; and political correctness in distributing defense budgets evenly among the military services. At the same time, the report sees uninterrupted international need for safe passage, the absence of foreign naval forces that can compete with the U.S. for global reach, and sufficient Chinese growth to sustain enlarging “involvement” in naval activity beyond the first island chain into the Western Pacific through the China Sea, Indian Ocean, and culminating in the Arabian Gulf. 

In short, current trends will persist or maybe accelerate.  The future that the document envisions looks like today, except more so.  U.S. leadership wants to continue to influence events at a distance from our borders and hemisphere but is reluctant to pay the bill and doubly reluctant to reconsider how national policy could be changed to correct the likely growth in strategic imbalance that is a consequence of dividing the defense budget evenly.  The report argues that we are painting ourselves into a corner that forces us to accept growing risk as the alternative to maintaining the international system that American policy has built since the end of World War II.

There are two noteworthy exceptions to the document’s acknowledgment of the future’s congruence with today.  The first is alliance management.  It is difficult to foresee the consequences of today’s multiplying problems with traditional overseas alliesand this is important for a maritime power that has traditionally secured safe passage across the seas as scrupulously as it has sought robust continental alliances to complement sea power in preventing the rise of a powerful peer competitor/hegemon.  At the same moment that the future strength of our sea power is becoming more and more problematic, the U.S. is experiencing serious difficulties in our relationships with important traditional allies.  Disputes over our use of Japanese bases are shaking a relationship in Northeast Asia that is critical to balancing China. New Delhi is miffed at what its leaders perceive to be the current U.S. administration’s inability to grasp the depth of India’s problems with Pakistan and their effect on the fight against the Taliban  (Indian leaders’ increased receptivity to Russian arms deals is one sign).  Cracks in the U.S. relationship with the UK and Israel are no secret.  And neither is Central European unhappiness over U.S. efforts to succor Moscow at the expense of a ballistic missile defense that was to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.  Diplomacy can repair these fissures but an extended period of rupture is likely to prove as resistant to treatment as a long stretch of naval self-disarmament. 

The second question that the Tipping Point paper steers around is the consequence of the U.S. extended and strategically unconsidered involvement in Middle Eastern/Central Asian land wars.  Their cost in dollars and lives has been reckoned and debated.  Their strategic diversion from traditional U.S. security policy of concentration on both sea power and the continental allies and alliances required to accomplish our broad foreign policy objectives has not been discussed.  Will the lack of such a national debate and the unreflective advance into greater involvement in small but expensive land wars bring the tipping point, at which the U.S. ceases to be the world’s dominant naval power, still closer? 

The C.N.A. paper tries to imagine a future in which U.S. inattention to its maritime strength generates tangible results.  One possibility is that a shrinking fleet forces an end to the U.S. current ability to project strong naval power in either the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean region or the Western Pacificor under more straitened circumstancesboth.  Another possibility is substantial cuts in large powerful combatantsfor example carriers, cruisers, and attack submarinesin favor of a larger fleet of less fearsome smaller naval vessels that maintain U.S. regional presence as they work together with the patrol navies of friends and allies to limit piracy, smuggling, terrorism, and other illicit activities that flourish in coastal areas around the world. 

The loss of a decisive U.S. naval strike force would largely abandon current allies in the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf and Asia to regional powers in each location.  In Asia, this means China.  The withering of our regional alliances would end American influence along with the current assurance that superior U.S. and friendly forces could keep potential crises from spinning out of control.  A more radical future sees a nearly total depletion of U.S. naval presence.  As in the previous example, significant numbers of major naval combatants would disappear to pay for smaller, less powerful ships based in American waters and ordered to crisis points as events dictate.  The idea of maintaining an American naval presence around the world would have almost disappeared, and U.S presidentsdepending on their view of American powerwould constantly have to calculate whether sending naval forces overseas would increase or diminish tensions that had approached the level of a crisis.

Put simply the report sees things getting worse and assumes, for the purpose of the discussion, that we cannot reverse course.  The latter is far more troubling than the former.  The report notes correctly that the shares of the defense budget the military services receive have remained constant relative to one another since the Vietnam war, except to pay for significant combat operations.  “We assume,” write the authors of the report, “that those shares will continue into the future and that the Navy cannot increase its force structure or operating budgets by prevailing over the other Services in the annual budget battles or the Quadrennial Defense Review/Quadrennial Roles and Missions processes.“ 

This assumption may prove to be right.  But if so, it shows that an alternate path exists.  We just choose not to take it.  Notwithstanding strategic consequences, the political will to maintain a trans-oceanic combat fleet is less than the political will to divide the defense budget evenly.   The same must be said about the budget itself.  If resources are unavailable to continue missions that the fleet executes today, or to provide support to use the current decades of relative geopolitical calm at sea to experiment with different platforms/weapons designs and ways of operating them, then it signals that the nation has moved on to priorities other than national defense.  There is no inevitability here, save that which is self-generated.

But is there an answer to the question of where the tipping point is, i.e. when the U.S. Navy ceases to be “the global navy?“  “We conclude,” argue the authors “that there is not a specific number at which the navy ceases to be ‘the global navy.’“  This is reasonable as an analytical tool but unhelpful as a political one.  The paper correctly observes that a more definitive answer to the question rests on threats, demand for naval forces, and political-military objectives.  But in the political world, the failure to draw lines is usually a prescription for failed policy.  An arms treaty that called for “significant reductions” in nuclear weapons would mean nothing and suffer an according political fate.  Telling Congress that there is no point at which the U.S. cannot operate its navy as a global trans-oceanic instrument provides the rationale for reducing the nation’s sea power without limit.  The paper’s authors did not intend this and should not be blamed for it.  But the Navy should be prepared. 

If the weights align as the C.N.A. paper describes, there will indeed be a tipping point.  Besides relying on unforeseeable events to make the public case for reversing decline, the Navy’s strong argument will be that it cannot do its job if it has insufficient force distributed among a given number of combat vessels.  

But the bottom line is this: The threat that the “Tipping Point” paper envisions is internal.  The issue is a question of will, not the caprice of a foreign ruler. At least for now. 

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