Small Wars

This Week at War: The Navy’s Pacific Problem

Does the U.S. military have the resources for an Asian century?


A March 26, Washington Post article discussed a new expansion of the military relationship between the United States and Australia. According to the piece, the U.S. Navy is seeking to expand its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean from Western Australia, which would require a major expansion to a naval base in Perth. The Pentagon also hopes to establish a long-range air reconnaissance base on the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll midway between Perth and Sri Lanka.

This expansion of U.S. military capability into the northeast Indian Ocean quickly follows last year’s agreement to permanently station a small force of U.S. Marines near Darwin on the north coast and to expand U.S. access to Australian bases and training ranges.

At the time, I noted that U.S. military power in the western Pacific is concentrated in Japan and South Korea (a legacy of the Cold War) while the emerging area of great power contention — the South China Sea — lies 2,000 miles to the south. The U.S. agreements with Australia, combined with a major expansion of military facilities on Guam, are an attempt to bolster the Pentagon’s capacity to sustain a larger ongoing presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.

The U.S. interest in the South China Sea is in maintaining free navigation through what is arguably the most important commercial shipping passage in the world. The agreements with Australia and the buildup on Guam are helpful in this regard but insufficient. Ultimately, the Navy will need to provide a sufficiently reassuring presence to the countries bordering the South China Sea in order to prevent various disputes over the sea from threatening routine commerce through it. It remains to be seen whether the Navy will have the capacity and realistic plans to accomplish this mission over the long run.

This week, the Navy sent Congress an update of its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which would continue the trend of an ever-shrinking maritime force. The new plan foresees an average of 298 ships operating over the next 30 years, down from last year’s forecast of a 306-ship average. And the plan foresees the Navy buying fewer new ships per year, reinforcing another unfavorable trend. The Congressional Budget Office’s evaluation of Navy shipbuilding found those plans underfunded and over-optimistic. A few years ago, the Navy had plans for a 313-ship fleet. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel called for a fleet of 346 ships. There are no plans to reach either of these targets.

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a January 2012 speech to the Surface Navy Association, dismissed concerns about the Navy’s shrinking ship count. Work asserted that the Navy’s robust plans for long-range air reconnaissance, conducted by new aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and a Navy version of the Global Hawk drone, will do much of the routine maritime patrolling previously done by ships. Bases in Australia, the Cocos Islands, and elsewhere in the southwest Pacific would support surveillance of the South China Sea. If ships were required to respond to problems, admirals could send them in as always. But under Work’s assumption, fewer ships will be needed for routine patrolling. And with less routine steaming, the Navy will save money and keep its ships better maintained.

The question is whether more aerial maritime reconnaissance and fewer ships making fewer port visits around the South China Sea and elsewhere will provide the reassuring and stabilizing presence that the visible presence of Navy ships has heretofore provided. Work’s air reconnaissance doctrine and the Navy’s slumping fleet size combine to form a new theory for providing a stabilizing presence in global commons such as the South China Sea. We will know that this theory is not working if the leaders of U.S. allies increase their diplomatic hedging behavior. Regional arms races, another response to a perceived decline in U.S. military power, would be another indication of failure. China’s ongoing annual double-digit increases in defense spending and a looming submarine arms race in the region are not good signs.

The Navy’s task of providing a stabilizing presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere is further complicated the growing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile threats. These threats are forcing the Navy and the Air Force to develop new ways of operating against adversaries from longer ranges, where ships and aircraft will be less vulnerable to adversary missiles. The missile threat is also encouraging the Navy and Air Force to rely more on out-of-sight platforms, such as submarines, and long-range stealthy aircraft, which purposely stay as hidden as possible. All of these trends work against the concept of a visible forward presence, which the Navy has used to deter threats to the global commons but which may increasingly become untenable due to adversary missiles.

Ships assigned to "presence duty," for example patrolling the South China Sea and making port visits in the region, will be most at risk from missile attack at the start of a conflict. This fact will increasingly encourage the Navy to hold the most capable and prestigious surface ships, such as its aircraft carriers, out of sight of allies located within adversary missile range. As the missile threat matures, the Navy’s new and modestly capable Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), a few of which will be stationed in Singapore, may perform the forward presence mission, showing the flag during peacetime and serving as expendable "trip wires" if shooting breaks out. Meanwhile, the main fleet and other long-range striking power will wait over the horizon and out of sight.

In this case, policymakers in Washington will be counting on the small, fragile, and lightly armed LCSs to inspire awe in U.S. military power. With the new expansion in its relationship with Australia, the Pentagon is groping toward a way to bolster its presence in the South China Sea. As it does so, it will have to figure out how to continue to provide a reassuring naval presence — something the Navy has done for decades — while the missile threat to that presence grows. Compounding the problem is a Navy shipbuilding budget under pressure and inadequate for even the now-reduced plans. The Navy’s leaders are attempting to devise new tactics and new structures to adapt to a deteriorating situation. But will those measures be sufficient to reassure allies and deter potential adversaries?

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