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Whither the U.S. Navy?

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By John J. Metzler

New York — “Navy Sails into New Era,” trumpeted the China Daily as it proudly announced “aircraft carrier set to enhance China’s maritime combat capability.”  The Beijing media has lauded the commissioning of the carrier Liaoning, which has entered the People’s Liberation Navy thus placing China in a new maritime league.

Weeks later in the last debate of the American presidential election, President Barack Obama mocked Gov, Mitt Romney’s  assertion that the U.S. Navy has become too small.

So since we are speaking of elections, let’s look at the famous comment of former New York Governor Al Smith; “Let’s look at the record.”

A U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeye aircraft prepares to land on the deck of the nuclear-powered USS George Washington off the southern coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea on Oct. 20. / Na Son Nguyen / AP

First the Chinese navy.  Yes, they now have a refurbished ex-Soviet carrier.  This allows Beijing entry into the elite global  “Carrier Club”  but by no means counterbalances the eleven powerful and very potent U.S. Navy carrier groups.  Moreover building a carrier and having the expertise to use it effectively is not something learned overnight. The Liaoning will pose China with a considerable learning curve for combined carrier ops.

Conversely, the psychological value of this power projection platform is not focused on the Persian Gulf or with worldwide responsibilities but closer to home. The carrier becomes a very potent platform deployable off the nearby coast of Taiwan, the disputed Daoyutai/ Senkaku islands with Japan, and potentially enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims over Philippine and Vietnamese atolls in the South China Sea.

In the context of its regional geographic neighborhood, the Liaoning emerges as a maritime game changer.

Now to the U.S. Navy.   Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney asserted that given military budget cuts by the Obama Administration, the size of the American fleet is down to the size it was in 1916.  This allowed Obama to make the snarky quip, “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed.”  Clever retort but let’s look at the record.

“The world has not gotten any smaller since 1916, and our dependencies and vulnerabilities around the world for our economy have grown exponentially broader, the Navy is just too small,” John Lehman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy told the Wall Street Journal.

Actually let me put the debate in clearer focus. The current U.S. Navy consists of  287 ships for a widely-expanded global mission. At the height of the Navy in recent years under the Reagan Administration, the size of the fleet reached nearly 600 ships.

Given the reality of a fleet roughly half the size of 1988, the Obama Administration has begun a “pivot of forces” to the Pacific, putting 60 percent of ships in Asia and 40 percent in the Atlantic.  Good concept but do we have sufficient ships resources to sustain such an expanded mission for the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific?

Without question the Navy’s mission has changed since the end of the Cold War and the challenges from the Soviet fleet.   Today however, the challenges are multi-dimensional.

Long, and lingering commitments in the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean have stretched the physical capacity for the crews. Now with new duties off East Africa on anti-piracy patrols, and treaty commitments in East Asia, the fleet is extended.

What of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean which monitors North Africa, Suez and the Middle East and Africa?  What of the number of ships in refurbishment and in rotation?

Clearly too few ships are covering too many far-flung places and potential trouble spots.

The Obama Administration views  the American military capacity as something which works magically well for the asking. True to a point.  This is precisely because that capability was built by prior administrations, honed by the exceptional skills and dedication of the men and women in uniform, and kept sharp by technological upgrades and innovation.

Given the Liaoaning’s symbolism let’s not overreact, nor underestimate. What we are witnessing in East Asia is a changing regional balance of power largely through the expansion of the well-funded Chinese military.  In the medium term, the U.S. Navy will be challenged to meet those changing realities. Thus cutting the Navy will prove counterproductive, destabilizing to U.S. regional allies in Asia, and risky for American geopolitical interests in the Pacific.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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