Quality Over Quantity

The Navy says plans for a lean fleet will not compromise its maritime edge.

The Navy had barely unveiled its new maritime strategy in October 2007 when critics assailed it as a blueprint for the decline of the world's largest military fleet. The service's 30-year plan, which calls for a trim fleet of 313 ships, has some fearing the United States will cede control of the world's waterways to China, which is ramping up its maritime force. But officials say the Navy is poised to meet global challenges.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Dec. 13, 2007, ranking Republican Duncan Hunter of California challenged Navy chief Adm. Gary Roughead, saying the service was in danger of being eclipsed by China's ambitious maritime buildup. Hunter said the service's shipbuilding plan ignored the "emergence of communist China's naval power as a major security concern for the United States."

The Navy's strategy, titled "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power," cites an "uncertain future;" identifies potential threats to U.S. security such as religious fanaticism, drug trafficking and piracy; and maintains that no one nation has the ability to counter all emerging threats. As a result, the service plans a global maritime partnership, called metaphorically "The Thousand Ship Navy," a voluntary collaboration among the world's navies and commercial shippers to safeguard shipping lanes and ports.

Writing in the Weekly Standard in November 2007, Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy, lamented that the shrinking maritime service "is less than half the size it was during the Reagan administration," a "long descent" that continued despite China's naval growth. Robert Kaplan, journalist and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wrote last year in The Atlantic: "The relative decline of our Navy is a big, dangerous fact to which our elites appear blind." He warned that "globalization favors large navies that protect trade and tanker routes."

As Kaplan writes, at the height of the Cold War the Navy had about 600 ships. The total dropped to 350 during the 1990s and now stands at 280 major combatants. But the service is still a force to be reckoned with. "The Navy enjoys a wider margin of naval superiority than at any point since the late 1940s," Robert O. Work, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said in a November 2006 study of maritime powers.

The U.S. battle fleet is smaller than at any time in the past 70 years, but so are the rest of the world's navies, Work said. In raw warship tonnage, the U.S. battle fleet's total aggregate displacement is 2.85 million tons, he noted, which is 94 percent of the total aggregate tonnage of all warships in the world's navies combined. By comparison, China's navy comes in at 263,064 tons.

In terms of combat power, the disparity is even more striking, according to Work. The U.S. Navy owns 12 of the world's 15 full-deck aircraft carriers; twice as many nuclear-powered attack submarines as all other nations combined; and its 71 major surface combatants carry more missiles than the 366 that are in the next 17 largest navies, he said.

A single carrier strike wing-which consists of more than 70 advanced fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, anti-submarine and other aircraft-can be parked off the shores of any potential enemy and, by 2010, will be able to attack more than 1,000 targets a day with precision munitions, Work said. The Chinese navy is not currently building an aircraft carrier.

While critics such as Kaplan acknowledge that the U.S. Navy remains qualitatively superior, they contend that China is catching up. The country is rapidly building and buying modern warships-primarily from Russia-to replace its aging fleet. But much of the Chinese fleet is antiquated. Among its 55 submarines, only 28 are modern, according to a March 2007 analysis for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission by Cortez Cooper, an analyst with McLean, Va., consultancy Hicks and Associates Inc. Just nine of its 21 destroyers and 17 of its 43 frigates are newer, the report said.

The shipbuilding competition hinges on money, and the Navy has a decided advantage. The service's annual funding alone, at $137 billion in the base budget, dwarfs China's entire defense budget, which was $44 billion in 2006, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The Navy will take delivery of 11 new ships in 2008, and is building a new class of aircraft carrier, a new destroyer, the Littoral Combat Ship and the Virginia-class fast attack submarine. The Navy is modernizing its existing Aegis cruisers and guided missile destroyers and building new amphibious warfare ships. The service also is buying new F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet jets, the Joint Striker Fighter, and electronic warfare, anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft.

Roughead said the Navy's 313-ship goal for the fleet is a minimum level and the service could increase that number, according to a Jan. 9 Wall Street Journal article.

Even if China were to succeed in beefing up its naval fleet, the quality is lacking, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last March. "They are well behind us technologically," he said. "We enjoy significant advantages across the spectrum of defensive and offensive systems-in particular, undersea warfare."

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