Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute has written twice in the last few weeks (here and here) on a topic integral to U.S. national security: our declining naval dominance. His point at Pajamas Media on Tuesday — that Defense Secretary Gates’s May 3 call for a smaller navy got little attention or criticism in the press — resonates with me. Americans have trouble remembering that we are, most fundamentally, a maritime trading nation. Naval power is a core element of our own national security as well as of the global stability we seek to promote. We can maintain naval dominance or we can fight to get it back, but our position and character as a nation are impossible without it.
The proximate reason for the current debate is the ongoing shrinkage of the U.S. Navy, which has declined nearly 20 percent in the last decade while other navies are expanding and modernizing. China has had a very successful naval expansion program during this period. Russia and Iran have accelerated their efforts at modernization and new construction. Nations from Vietnam to India to Saudi Arabia and Algeria are making major investments in naval weapon systems.
Moreover, the navies of Russia, China, and India are operating in distant waters and cultivating their images as “power projection” forces. Russia has resumed visiting its Cold War-era haunts in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Western hemisphere. China’s navy conducted its largest and farthest-flung fleet exercise ever in March and April 2010, twice operating provocatively in a Japanese strait. India dispatched a naval task force in 2009 to conduct unprecedented joint drills with European navies in the Atlantic. All three of these navies are now operating in the international antipiracy effort off of Somalia, as are navies like Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s, which formerly kept to their own coastal waters.
Nations don’t expand their navies or the scope of their operations because they are satisfied with the status quo. Although the Somali piracy problem has been a key catalyst for unprecedented naval deployments, there is no question that the fastest-growing navies — those of China, Russia, India, and Iran — are being enlarged because their political leaders envision an alternative to U.S. maritime dominance.