This must-read piece by Robert Kaplan for the Financial Times discusses the importance of a strong U.S. Navy. Kaplan points out “There is a big difference between a 346-ship US navy and [the current] 250-ship navy – the difference between one kind of world order and another.”
Read the entire article below.
The US navy fostered globalization: we still need it
By Robert Kaplan
The financial world is obsessed with stock market gyrations and bond yields. But the numbers that matter in the long run are those of US warships. Asia has been at the centre of the world economy for decades because security there can be taken for granted, and that is only because of the dominance of the US navy and air force in the western Pacific. Because 90 per cent of all commercial goods traded between continents travel by sea, the US navy, which does more than any other entity to protect these lines of communication, is responsible for globalisation as we know it.
There is no guarantee that this situation will last, however. In the 1980s era of high Reaganism, the US navy boasted close to 600 warships. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that number fell to about 350. The US navy’s current strength is 284 warships. In the short term that number may rise to 313 because of the introduction of littoral combat ships. Over time, however, it may fall to about 250, owing to cost overruns, the need to address domestic debt and the decommissioning of ageing warships in the 2020s. Meanwhile, the bipartisan quadrennial defence review last year recommended that the US move toward a 346-ship navy to fulfil its global responsibilities.
There is a big difference between a 346-ship US navy and a 250-ship navy – the difference between one kind of world order and another.
Armies respond to unexpected contingencies, but it is navies and air forces that project power. Power is relative. If other nations were not building up their own navies and air forces, these numbers would matter less than they do. In fact, the western Pacific is in the middle of an arms race. This is not a low-tech expansion of ground forces; but a high-tech acquisition of submarines, surface warships, fighter jets, missiles, and cyberwarfare capabilities. The US armed forces have rarely been needed more to preserve the balance of power, and so maintain a peaceful environment for economic interaction.
China is increasing its submarine fleet from 62 to 77 – surpassing the size, if not the quality, of America’s own undersea fleet – even as Beijing acquires hundreds of fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets. Meanwhile, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are acquiring submarines, as advances in missile technology make surface warships more vulnerable. Australia, with a population of only 23m, is expected to spend a whopping $279bn in the next two decades on new subs, destroyers and fighter planes. In all, given military modernisation programmes under way in South Korea and Japan, Asian nations are expected to purchase as many as 111 submarines by 2030, according to AMI International, a research outfit for governments and shipbuilders.
Multipolar military orders are more unstable than unipolar ones because there are more points of interaction where miscalculations can occur. Yet unless the US is able to maintain a vigorous naval and air presence in the Indo-Pacific, the future of military power arrangements will be more multipolar.
A world without US naval and air dominance will be one where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and others act more aggressively towards each other than they do now because they will all be far more insecure than they are now. Even China and Russia take advantage of secure sea lanes partly provided by the US.
An Indo-Pacific without a strong US military presence would mean the Finlandisation by China of countries in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Indeed, Beijing, with its economic might and geographical proximity, may be less benign to its southern neighbours than has been the distant and democratic US.
Now that the congressional supercommittee in Washington has failed to achieve a compromise, the debt crisis may force historic cuts on the US navy and air force, resulting in fewer warships and curtailment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. The business community should hope that it does not happen.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’