Will US naval power sink?

A strong Navy is key to America's diplomatic standing and containing an aggressive China. Yet soaring debt threatens US naval prominence. That's why maritime defense is the sleeper issue of these midterm elections.

For most Americans, naval power is like gravity. They know it's there, they know it's forceful, but they don't really feel it or understand it. So they won't be thinking about the state of US fleet readiness when they vote in midterm elections.

That's a mistake, because our commitment to naval power today will affect America's standing in the world – and its ability to contain an increasingly aggressive China – for the next half century. Yet this commitment is on shaky ground given the out-of-control national debt. And the ruling party has few hands on deck to meet this national challenge.

One gauge of a great power's military stature is the readiness of its fleet versus that of its likely foes.

Deterring an aggressive China

According to a 2009 Pentagon report, China has an estimated 260 naval vessels, all concentrated in East Asia. The United States has 288 battle-force ships with 11 carrier task forces and dozens of nuclear submarines as the crown jewels. The US fleet patrols worldwide. China's fleet has been concentrated in its home waters, but its range is rapidly extending to as far as the Middle East.

"China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in much of the Eastern Hemisphere," defense expert Robert D. Kaplan has written. As Mr. Kaplan notes, the South China Sea is a vital route for much of Asia's commercial traffic and energy needs. The US and other nations consider it an international passageway. China calls it a "core interest."

To maintain naval strength, reduce debt

To keep the US blue-water fleet the best in the world costs billions. A debtor nation eventually cuts defense spending, and big-ticket items like new ships are the first to go.

That is why maritime defense is the sleeper issue of these elections. The party that reduces national debt can maintain naval strength. The party that doesn't allows US naval prominence to sink.

Remove a nation's ability to project force from the oceans and its position in the equation of international relations diminishes, radically so for major powers. History tells us that an imbalance of navies tempts the gods of war.

Historical importance of naval power

The three great battles to establish and preserve Western civilization took place at sea:

(1) the battle of Salamis (480 BC), where the Athenian defeat of an overwhelmingly superior Persian fleet advanced a nascent democratic polity versus a despotic dynastic state;

(2) the Battle of Lepanto (1571), where Vatican, Venetian, and Spanish fleets combined to deny an Ottoman thrust at the underbelly of Europe, ending Turkish efforts to impose Islam on Christian Europe; and

(3) the Battle of Midway (1942), where US carriers destroyed four Japanese carriers (and more important, the pilots who flew the planes off those carriers). The victory secured the US West Coast from Japanese attack, permitting greater resources to defeat the Nazis and Fascists in Europe.

An emasculated naval force

Pax Britannia is just a memory. What of Pax Americana, should the Chinese escalate their aggressive territorial claims in the East China Sea or South China Sea? Will a US commander in chief be able to "send in the carriers," if the Chinese indeed have a "kill weapon" capable of taking out a US carrier with one hit, as reported by the US Naval Institute last year?

An emasculated naval force in the Pacific limits US military options to deter China. It even more greatly limits US diplomatic deterrents – which is why the midterm elections are about more than the domestic economy.

Yes, the fat boy in the canoe is jobs. But don't forget the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and what a nation must do, over time, to keep threats at bay.

Jim Bencivenga is a former teacher and Monitor staffer.

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