Jun 20, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM Sports Media Index – Perfect for Fantasy Sports Fans.
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM Sports Media Index – Perfect for Fantasy Sports Fans. Track media mentions of your fantasy team.
National Review
National Review
6 Jan 2024
Jerry Hendrix and Jim Talent

NextImg:Politifact Gets It Wrong Again — the Navy Needs More Ships

{R} ecently, former governor Nikki Haley weighed in on the ongoing naval competition that is being waged between the United States and China. She expressed concern over the fact that China “has the largest naval fleet in the world. They have 370 ships. They’ll have 400 ships in two years. We won’t even have 350 ships in two decades.”

Haley was right to highlight the disparity, and any error on her part was in understating the problem. The United States Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I, and it’s likely to shrink more before it gets bigger, if indeed it ever expands at all. The Navy’s current plan is to reach 319, 328, or 367 ships by 2053, depending upon which option the administration chooses. But when a plan is so indefinite about the ultimate goal — and has a completion date 30 years into the future — it’s not a serious proposal; rather, it’s Washington’s way of signaling that the current generation of political leaders isn’t committed to naval expansion.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has more than 370 ships and could grow further at almost whatever rate Beijing chooses. The Chinese have the largest ship-building capacity in the world. In fact, no less an authority than the secretary of the Navy said a few months ago that China has one shipyard that possesses more construction capacity than all of America’s yards combined.

Haley isn’t the only presidential candidate worried about the size of the Navy. Ron DeSantis has expressed the same concern. But the presidential campaign isn’t really the story here; the story is that the website Politifact rated Haley’s statement as only half true, not because the numbers she cited were wrong in any respect, but because according to Politifact, “counting ships says little about military capabilities.”

That’s a relief. We had thought that Beijing was building its vast fleet for a reason — that perhaps it might give the Chinese Communist regime the ability to blockade Taiwan, threaten Japanese territory, seize maritime features from the Philippines, bully their neighbors, and enforce their claim to sovereignty over the East and South China Seas, through which a third of the world’s shipping must pass. But evidently, China’s enormous naval buildup over the last 20 years was a mistake on their part.

This is not the first time Politifact has dismissed concerns about the size of America’s Navy. In the 2016 presidential campaign, the outlet issued a similar “fact check” in response to concerns raised by several Republican candidates about the size of the fleet.

In both cases, Politifact’s argument was essentially that, because factors other than fleet size do matter in determining naval capability, fleet size doesn’t matter — that because the United States Navy still is superior to the PLAN in some missions and under certain circumstances, there is no reason for concern about Beijing’s growing preponderance in numbers.

Politifact was wrong then, it is wrong now, and it will be wrong in the future, when — because experience goes through the staff of Politifact without stopping — it will probably again dismiss the concerns of those leaders who believe that the relative size of the PLAN versus the United States Navy represents a real and proximate threat to American national security.

It’s impossible to determine the proper size of any navy without first deciding what you want it to do. The U.S. Navy, for its part, is expected to fulfill four defense objectives.

The first is to keep a consistent number of nuclear ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) at sea at any given moment to provide the nation with an assured second nuclear strike capability. This is the major part of our strategic deterrent force, and it is fulfilled by our Ohio class and soon-to-be Columbia class submarines. There is little need to explain the importance of this part of the Navy’s battle force.

The second mission is to “show the flag” — to signal the presence, power, and resolution of the United States, both to American allies and to potential aggressors. There is no greater symbol of America’s determination to protect its interests than naval presence expressed in regular visits to regional ports or patrols by naval vessels in contested waters.

When Theodore Roosevelt wanted to make clear that the United States had become a world power and would exercise global influence, he sent the “Great White Fleet” on a two-year global tour. When, during his second term, President Obama decided to “rebalance” American foreign policy toward Asia, he directed an increased naval presence in that theater — not because he had any specific warfighting scenario in mind, but as a signal of America’s growing interest in the region. Recently, the Biden administration decided to send the USS Gerald R. Ford to the eastern Mediterranean and surge the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower into the Gulf of Oman; that was necessary to show the United States’ commitment to Israeli security and stability in the Middle East.

The United States cedes influence in regions outside the Western Hemisphere where it has no persistent naval presence. The Arctic is an example. A number of nations have claims to, or interest in, the Arctic, but Russia is clearly in the lead, in part because only the Russians can operate consistently in those waters. Russia has 40 icebreakers, some of which are nuclear-powered. Others are armed with guns and missiles. The United States has one, which is conventionally powered, unarmed, nearly 50 years old, and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard — a non-Defense entity. Nobody expects to fight a naval war with icebreakers, but the Russians have an advantage in the Arctic because they can be, and are, present with their naval forces.

George Kennan, the author of America’s Cold War containment strategy, said once, “You have no idea how much it contributes to the politeness and pleasance of diplomacy when you have a little armed force in the background.” He was right, and the “armed force in the background” usually consists of naval vessels — assuming there are enough of them to be present in the hot spots of the world.

The third naval mission is to police the oceans to protect America’s vital national interest in being able to move, trade, and travel in international waters. The oceans are crisscrossed by a series of global highways that navalists call “sea lines of communication” by which global trade travels. Of the nearly $100 trillion global domestic product, nearly 80 percent by volume and 70 percent by value travels onboard an ever-expanding commercial merchant fleet, with another 5 percent of the economy — the digital portion in its character — traveling beneath the ocean via undersea cables. British naval historian Andrew Lambert has pointed out how nation-states from ancient Tyre to modern Great Britain created increasingly complex trade routes protected by their navies to generate wealth and then political power in an exponential manner.

Throughout the 20th century, the freedom of the seas was guaranteed by the two great ocean-going democracies: Britain and the United States. But since the end of the Cold War, the American Navy has lost half its ships, and the British fleet has declined from 300 vessels to around 70. It is no accident that threats to shipping and travel have grown from several quarters. Piracy appeared to peak about ten years ago, then declined after an international effort to stop it, and now may be on the rise again in the Middle East. Rogue regimes and sub-national terrorist groups often make shipping a target for political reasons; the Iranians have mined the Persian Gulf in the past and often threaten to repeat the exercise, and in the last few weeks, the Houthis in Yemen have attacked a number of merchant vessels in the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea.

China claims sovereignty over the East and South China Seas and has asserted the right to control who can trade and travel through those waters; it is for this reason that the United States runs “freedom of navigation” patrols through the South China Sea. However, these patrols have not stopped Beijing from using its naval power to occupy territory in Philippine waters, threaten the Japanese control of the Senkaku islands, and bully those of its neighbors who try to exercise their rights to extract resources under the waters they control. And why shouldn’t China throw its weight around in its near seas? Their neighbors have limited naval power, and it’s difficult for the U.S. Navy to deter them when, west of Hawaii, the United States is outnumbered 5–1 in ships.

The final mission of the Navy is warfighting; it’s the Navy’s job to win wars with adversary navies, or more precisely, to operate jointly with America’s other armed services to deter such wars if possible and win them if necessary. In naval warfare, technological superiority is important, but so are numbers. Quality matters, to be sure — but “quantity has a quality of its own,” to borrow the words of Thomas Callaghan.

It’s fair to say that in many areas, the Navy does have technological overmatch versus the PLAN. America’s aircraft carriers and attack submarines are among the deadliest conventional platforms in the world. But the carriers are highly vulnerable to China’s arsenal of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles and, in a fight over Taiwan, would be constrained in their ability to operate anywhere within the First or even Second Island Chain. The submarine fleet is far less vulnerable (China has yet to mature its anti-submarine warfare capability), but there aren’t enough of them in the fleet, with 40 percent of the boats we have laid up for maintenance, and for the next decade at least the Navy will either be retiring boats or selling them to allies, a strategic arrangement we support but nonetheless have to factor in, faster than it can produce them.

Anyone who has studied a war game over Taiwan knows that both the Navy and the PLAN would, in all likelihood, lose scores of ships in the first two weeks of fighting. The difference is that China can afford to lose those vessels because it would begin the fight with a huge numerical advantage in theater and because it has far greater industrial capacity to replace or repair the ships that it loses or that are damaged in battle.

The Chinese advantage in shipbuilding is bearing fruit every year. Currently, the Navy is procuring four to five new combatant vessels every year; China is building twelve, and they could certainly produce more if necessary.

Now, it should be obvious to any thoughtful person — and even to Politifact — that fleet size is crucial to the performance of all of these missions. The Navy cannot be present with ships it does not have; there is no such thing as “virtual presence.” Nor is it possible to police global shipping lanes unless vessels are in the theater to do the policing. There’s a lot of ocean in the world, and no ships that can travel at warp speed; it takes weeks to steam from Norfolk to the Middle East or from San Diego to the Indian Ocean.

As for warfighting: If the Navy could operate only in uncompetitive environments where survivability was not an issue, and assuming the Navy had two or three weeks to build up its forces before conflict began, fleet size would not matter very much. There are some conflicts in the Middle East, including the current one, that meet those conditions, but naval warfare in China’s near seas will not. In any conflict with China, the United States will face an adversary with the capability to strike quickly in every domain of war, including the seas, and every incentive to do so. The Navy will need redundancy — numbers — to prevail in such a conflict, as well as the industrial capacity to replace its losses, and the brute fact is that it doesn’t have either.

So how many ships should the Navy have? How big is big enough, in view of the Chinese naval buildup and the need for naval presence and policing to protect America’s global interests?

Well, history sheds some light on that question. But before delving into it, we need to explain the “3.5-to-1” principle.

It takes three or four ships in the fleet to keep one ship regularly at sea, depending upon where they are intended to operate, because while that one ship is deployed, the others are either in deep maintenance or going through training to get ready for deployment. To be sure, the Navy can “surge” a greater percentage of its vessels for short periods, but the 3.5-to-1 principle cannot be ignored for long without degrading the long-term readiness of the fleet.

Currently the Navy has 291 ships, which means that the Navy can only consistently deploy approximately 75–90 ships. In actual practice, the Navy has been operating at the upper end of that range for years, precisely because the fleet is so small relative to the need for ships, which helps explain the readiness problems the Navy is experiencing.

During the first two decades of the Cold War, the United States kept a fleet of between 700 and 900 ships; after that, the fleet gradually declined to a low point of 521 in 1981, when the Reagan administration began a naval buildup that peaked with a fleet size of 592 in 1989. Those numbers enabled the Navy to keep somewhere between 130 and 150 ships at sea on any given day during the Cold War to meet the nation’s strategic interests.

After the Cold War was won, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and the chairman of the chiefs of staff, Colin Powell, planned what the post–Cold War force should look like. They estimated that the Navy would need 435 ships to meet the demands of that period. The Clinton administration reviewed the subject in 1993 and reduced the requirement for the fleet to 346 ships.

That means that two administrations of different parties believed fleet size should be 20–60 percent higher than it is now just to protect American national interests in the 1990s. That was before China’s massive military buildup, before North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, before the Iranian nuclear program, before Russia began its pattern of aggression, and before Islamic radicalism had matured into a global threat great enough to successfully attack the American homeland in 2001.

What about today? There are six regional combatant commands in operational control of America’s armed forces around the world: European Command, Indo-Pacific Command, Northern Command, Southern Command, Central Command, and the Africa Command. The commanders of those regions have identified 18 maritime regions where the U.S. has identifiable national-security interests that require the presence of some type of naval element. To meet these requirements, the Navy would need to keep from 130 to 150 ships at sea — which would require a fleet of roughly 450 to 525 ships.

Against all this, Politifact argues that “numbers matter very little” for three reasons: The United States Navy has a two-to-one advantage in gross tonnage over the PLAN, the Navy has better ships than the PLAN, and the Navy has a global reach that the PLAN lacks.

To be fair to the staff at Politifact, much that they claim is relevant and true. The problem is that the part that is true isn’t relevant, and the part that is relevant isn’t true — or at most, it’s half true, as Politifact might say.

It’s true the Navy has a two-to-one tonnage advantage over the PLAN. But much of that tonnage advantage is held in just eleven hulls, the ten 95,000-ton Nimitz class carriers and the single 100,000-ton Ford-class carrier. The carriers are magnificent ships and the pride of our fleet, but they are of limited value in presence and policing missions because they cannot be everywhere at once, and their warfighting power depends on their ability to get within the range of targets that the aircraft they carry can hit.

That’s a problem in the East and South China Seas because China has by far the biggest and most sophisticated arsenal of anti-ship missiles on the planet. Plenty of those missiles outrange the air wings of the carriers. That means, for example, that if a carrier group were to move to break a blockade of Taiwan, the carrier could expect to be targeted by dozens of cruise and ballistic missiles all heading its way at the same time.

Yes, the carriers have anti-missile defenses, but defenses can be overwhelmed, especially by the hypersonic missiles that China is adding to its arsenal. So a president considering whether to defend Taiwan must wrestle with the following question: Do I put my carriers at risk, knowing that they cost $15 billion per copy and take at least four years to build, when one or more of them might be sunk by a missile that cost in the millions and that the Chinese can replace in a matter of months?

It’s an asymmetric equation, and America is on the wrong side of it. In that sense, the Navy’s tonnage advantage works against it. The Navy has that advantage not because it has more ships but because it has a few very large ships that it cannot afford to lose but must nonetheless expose to substantial risk in a fight with a peer competitor.

Consider how the equation would change if, by some miracle, the Navy could instantly add 100 smaller ships like the new Constellation-class frigate loaded with missiles. Thirty of those ships could be constantly deployed to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Being smaller ships, they could base out of smaller ports, operate independently, hide more easily, and present greater targeting challenges for China. If lost, they could be replaced far more quickly and at far less cost than larger vessels, and their offensive capabilities would create risk for Beijing not dissimilar to the one we now face: How many valuable Chinese assets could the frigates take out before Beijing was able to target and eliminate them?

The new frigates, if the Navy built them at scale, would vastly strengthen deterrence in USINDOPACOM. Unfortunately, the current plan is to produce only one per year for the foreseeable future.

What we have said so far is sufficient to dispose of Politifact’s other arguments — that numbers aren’t important because the Navy has better ships and greater global reach than the PLAN. Technology, like tonnage, matters less than numbers when the object is to stop piracy or show the flag, and global reach doesn’t mean global presence if the Navy is too small to be everywhere it needs to be at once.

The advantages that Politifact cites could be decisive in battle if the Navy’s only warfighting mission was to fight a classic naval conflict in the central Pacific. But nobody sees another Battle of Midway on the horizon. If there is a major naval conflict in the years ahead, it will be an away game for the United States, fought near enough to China that our largest and most capable surface vessels will be at great risk from the collective mass of PLAN ships, as well as from the anti-ship missiles China can launch from aircraft or from its coastline.

By the way, the advantages that the Navy has now may well be distinctly temporary. The ships in the PLAN, which are already good enough for Beijing’s purposes, are getting better, and the Navy’s tonnage advantage is shrinking every year as China outpaces the Navy in building more vessels. Moreover, China has global ambitions, in the service of which it is rapidly turning the PLAN into an expeditionary force. It already has three aircraft carriers and will build at least three more in the next decade. The PLAN currently has one overseas base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and is actively seeking another base on that continent.

We may well see Chinese aircraft carriers patrolling the Atlantic by the middle of the next decade. Perhaps at that point, Politifact will run out of excuses for dismissing the concerns of those who think the Navy ought to build more ships.

For the last 25 years, China has focused with energy and purpose on building a navy designed to accomplish its national objectives of excluding the United States Navy from its near seas and thereby dominating its strategic environment. They are well on the way to achieving that objective and have made a good start in turning the PLAN into a global force. Meanwhile, the United States has forgotten the lesson of history that it first took to heart over a hundred years ago: that great nations with great interests must also be oceangoing nations that control the seas; that control cannot be exercised without enough ships to maintain it.

Nothing we have said is meant to disparage the United States Navy, especially its personnel. The Navy has patriotic leaders, dedicated commanders, and the best damn sailors in the world. The problem isn’t that it’s a bad Navy. The problem is that it’s only half the Navy we need.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator from Missouri and chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy captain and a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute.