Our Navy’s—and our Country’s—Future

Mark Helprin had some thoughts a couple years ago about this administration’s Naval policy; they’re worth revisiting these days in light of the People’s Republic of China’s ongoing grab for and occupation of the South and East China Seas, and especially against the backdrop of the PRC’s decision to deny the people of Hong Kong their right to choose their own government members, in particular their Chief Executive, in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In the latter’s case, the PRC will tell the Hong Kong citizens who will be on the ballot and so for whom they’ll be permitted to “vote.”

Helprin quoted President Barack Obama in a 2012 campaign debate with Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney:

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

Helprin responded

To which one could say, like Neil Kinnock, “I know that, Prime Minister,” and go on to add that we must configure the Navy to face not the dreadnoughts of 1916 but “things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them,” and “ships that go underwater,” and also ballistic missiles, land-based aviation, and electronic warfare.

Then Helprin added a few kickers.

[I]n fact, except for advances in situational awareness, missile defense, and the effect of precision-guided munitions in greatly multiplying the target coverage of carrier-launched aircraft, the Navy is significantly less capable than it was a relatively short time ago in antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, the ability to return ships to battle, and the numbers required to accomplish the tasks of deterrence or war.


China’s claims [to the South and East China Seas], equivalent to American expropriation of Caribbean waters all the way to the coast of Venezuela, are much like Hitler’s annexations. But we no longer have bases in the area, our supply lines are attenuated across the vastness of the Pacific, we have much more than decimated our long-range aircraft, and even with a maximum carrier surge we would have to battle at least twice as many Chinese fighters.

Not until recently would China have been so aggressive in the South China Sea, but it has a plan, which is to grow; we have a plan, which is to shrink; and you get what you pay for. To wit, China is purposefully, efficiently, and successfully modernizing its forces…. And yet, to touch upon just a few examples, whereas 20 years ago it possessed one ballistic-missile submarine and the US 34, now it has three (with two more coming) and the US 14. Over the same span, China has gone from 94 to 71 submarines in total, while the US has gone from 121 to 71. As our numbers decrease at a faster pace, China is also closing the gap in quality.

The effect in principal surface warships is yet more pronounced. While China has risen from 56 to 78, the US has descended from 207 to 114. In addition to parities, China is successfully focusing on exactly what it needs—terminal ballistic missile guidance, superfast torpedoes and wave-skimming missiles, swarms of oceangoing missile craft, battle-picture blinding—to address American vulnerabilities, while our counters are insufficient or nonexistent.

And what could become the coup de grâce if we let it continue:

The trend lines are obvious and alarming, but in addition we face a potentially explosive accelerant…. That is that whereas the American Shipbuilding Association (now dissolved) counted six major yards, China has more than 100. …it can surge production and leave us as far behind as once we left the Axis and Japan. Its navy will be able to dominate the oceans and cruise in strength off our coasts, reversing roles to its pleasure and our peril—unless we attend to the Navy, in quality, numbers, and without delay.

There’s one other requirement, more critical even than correcting the deficiencies Helprin identified: that’s the need for the will to use these—and that will must be evident, not merely claimed. Nor is it enough to say, “I don’t bluff.” It’s necessary to not bluff.

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