Is America Still Born to Rule the Seas?
Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America that America “was born to rule the seas.” America achieved that, but nothing lasts forever. We hear a lot of talk about when China’s military will overtake the U.S. military, but when looking at navies, this has already happened: China now floats the world’s largest navy.
Today, only 25 percent of America’s 114 commissioned surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships) are less than a decade old. By comparison more than 80 percent of China’s 141 destroyers, frigates, and corvettes have been commissioned in the past decade. In the same time period, the United States commissioned 30 surface combatants. Earlier this year, the Navy began decommissioning some of the littoral combat ships. China, by contrast, mass-produced 120 surface combatants. U.S. ships are operating, in some cases, with decades-old technology.
China is no longer simply a regional naval power. It has extended its sea legs in consistent, distant operations enabling it to train, learn, and operate. Since 2009, China has sent 39 counter-piracy naval task groups to the Gulf of Aden, each comprised of two surface combatants and a replenishment ship at least, gaining vital operational experience, even though piracy in that region has abated compared to a decade ago. The pace of China’s shipbuilding output has meant that ships have rarely needed to deploy more than once. Its growing fleet has allowed China to do more without degrading its ships. Conversely, the United States has struggled to maintain its ships, which are deploying at a higher rate for longer periods. The nearly 600-ship Navy of the late 1980s deployed only 15 percent of the fleet on average. Today, with fewer than 300 ships, the U.S. Navy deploys more than 35 percent to service its global missions, contributing to a material death spiral.
The comparative state between American and Chinese surface forces is only one element of naval capability, but not an insignificant one. The surface fleet is, arguably, the heart of the U.S. Navy — the most visible, most useful, and most used. An aging U.S. fleet requires more money for maintenance, longer shipyard periods for increasingly complex repairs, and less time to exercise and experiment with tactics to deter or fight a significant opponent. China’s young fleet continues to grow as the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates its commitment to enhancing the capabilities of its world’s largest, globally deployed navy. While China builds its fleet at a rapid pace, lead ships of new U.S. Navy classes have had lengthy delays. To provide perspective, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Japan was 1,375 days. As of Nov. 29, 2021, it has been 1,885 days since Zumwalt was commissioned and 1,601 days since Ford was commissioned and neither has deployed.
The U.S. military has arrived at this point for the same reasons that it could not or would not see its failure in Afghanistan: a belief in its own marketing and the lack of an achievable strategy. For example, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “certainly we have the most capable and dominant navy in the world, and it will continue to be so going forward.” While the secretary’s support of the Navy is laudable, this statement is contrary to quantifiable trends and the future based on the continuing shipbuilding gap.
It is natural for any organization to claim that it is the best business, sports team, or school. It is understandable that public affairs officers build Potemkin-like propaganda machines to support their established organizational narratives and promote their brands regardless of what it is. However, rose-colored statements that ignore addressing challenges actually weaken the military and its goals. There is a place for a military organization to raise the morale of its soldiers, sailors, or airmen, but it is more important to temper motivation with reality in the same way Navy leadership advances core values yet was subject to the whims of Fat Leonard. The nation and its military need to operate on facts, not hyperbole. The same joint culture that produced optimistic projections regarding the Afghan National Army and its efficacy now threatens to undermine its justification to the administration and Congress for a sufficiently sized U.S. Navy. The trend is unlikely to reverse itself given the decisions by military leaders, the president who submits the budget, and Congress which funds it under Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. After Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker prioritized between modernization of aircraft, ships, and submarines, Sen. James Inhofe criticized the decision: “[China does] not have these false choices. They are rapidly modernizing capabilities in all domains.”
Part of the narrative that must be dispelled is China’s navy as a “rising power” — it is already risen. Announcements that “all is well” echo the same mindset displayed by the Spanish Minister of Marine Segismundo Bermejo in 1898, when he sent Adm. Pascual Cervera to face the U.S. Navy off Santiago during the Spanish-American War. The minister believed that the Spanish fleet was qualitatively better than the American ships. Cervera disagreed but did his duty as ordered. Nonetheless, he lost every ship under his command.
Because of China’s vision and commitment, it surged past the United States in the scale of its shipbuilding industrial base, merchant fleet, and navy. While China built a massive shipbuilding industrial base, the United States lost its lead long ago. Efforts to repair what it has continue to have tepid support from the administration and languish on Capitol Hill. In April, both the House and Senate introduced the SHIPYARD Act (Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks). The bill would have provided for $25 billion for the four public shipyards in Virginia, Hawaii, Maine, and Washington as well as for private new construction shipyards and private repair shipyards. Subsequently, in August, Sens. Inhofe, Richard Shelby, and Roger Wicker introduced an amendment that would create a defense infrastructure fund containing $50.2 billion, including the following: $25.35 billion for shipyards, effectively attempting to give everyone a piece of the pie rather than focus on the greatest need. A variety of factors may have led to the original bill failing to advance, such as division over which committee ought to have jurisdiction or, as Inhofe suggested, that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not want it as an amendment to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Regardless of the reason, absent significant vision from the executive branch, funding from the legislative branch, and support from senior Navy leadership, the United States ought to recognize that it has made a choice and live with those consequences. Lawmakers on the House side, such as co-sponsor Representative Elaine Luria, have also pushed for a Shipyard Act that would invest in public and private shipyards as well as the Coast Guard.
The United States ought to channel its shock from Afghanistan’s collapse to the years of overly optimistic testimony and speeches on our naval capabilities and require its policymakers to invest in that Navy and merchant fleet. If America wishes to guarantee global access and trade while preserving the interests of itself and its allies around the world, it ought to rise above pollyannish public narratives, recognize challenges, demand accountability, and invest in the shipbuilding gap. The U.S. Navy will not regain its numerical superiority in the foreseeable future, and China’s navy will retain a comfortable advantage. Lobbying by contractors and advocacy by interest groups will only succeed in addressing the symptoms and not the disease behind America’s slowly eroding seapower, or what Robert Kaplan once referred to as “elegant decline.” The only way to do so is for a prioritization by a presidential administration and supported by a critical mass of key members of Congress and senators on key committees — a “Build Back Better” for the Navy. Otherwise, nearly two centuries after de Tocqueville’s work, another observer may write that America was born to rule the seas, matured in World War II and the Cold War, but grew old, gray, tired, and treated with indifference by its national family in the 21st century. Instead, it was China’s time to rule the seas.
Claude Berube, Ph.D., is a naval historian who has 30 years of experience in navy research & development, acquisition, intelligence, and education. He also worked for two U.S. Senators and a member of Congress. His latest book is On Wide Seas: The US Navy in the Jacksonian Era (University of Alabama Press, December 2021).