On Seapower: Where Has the US Navy Gone? Radio Essay March 5, 2011

As thousands of foreign nationals were stranded in Libya, anxious governments mobilized their resources to effect the evacuation of their citizens. Some nations sent military or commercial aircraft. The Chinese diverted a warship that was patrolling the sea lanes near the pirate-laden seas off Somalia, half a world away, to evacuate Chinese nationals. That is a display of power projection.

The United States took a different approach: we hired a ferry boat. It carried about 200 people to a modicum of safety after waiting out bad weather in the harbor. What would have happened, I wonder, if Colonel Khadafy decided to block our efforts to extract our citizens? We might have had, and still might have, a hostage situation to rival the Iran crisis that brought down President Carter’s presidency in 1980.

And so I ask, “Where is the 6th Fleet?” Where are the carriers? They are so vital to US power projection that President Bill Clinton was famously quoted in a 1993 speech aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: Where’s the nearest carrier?”

An aircraft carrier is 4 ½ acres and 90,000 tons of sovereign US territory that projects power in the face of despotic regimes like no other instrument of foreign policy can.

So how did it come to pass that the best the US Navy had to offer in the Mediterranean these past weeks was a lonely destroyer?

The short answer is that the only US carrier in the Med departed through the Suez Canal to the North Arabian Sea to join two others already there. Three carriers were needed, I suppose, in the North Arabian Sea to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am certain that one of the carriers needed to be relieved to head home after a long deployment.

And that is just the point: long deployments, quick turnarounds and a smaller fleet add up to one thing: in the face of astronomical defense budgets, the US Navy is stretched entirely too thin and its’ numbers are in decline. We have 11 carriers today but at any one time, perhaps only 4 are operationally ready and underway. Three are in overhaul; four are just back from a long deployment or getting ready for one. Right now, three of those four are tied to the Persian Gulf, leaving the rest of the globe far too vulnerable.

The United States is an island nation. Some 90% of commerce sails along the ocean: everything from Nike sneakers to Saudi Arabian crude comes by sea. The world grows more fragile and our fleet is in decline. Our fleet is as small as it has been in 100 years. As recently as a decade ago, on any given day, 60 ships of the line were underway, patrolling our own waters or defending the sea lanes against tyranny. Today, that number is merely 20.

Who would think that our world is less complicated than a decade ago? The US Navy can project power to 2/3rds of the world’s population. The Air Force, with its sophisticated stealth aircraft, is confined to bases mainly in the continental US, far from the stress points in the Mediterranean and the Gulf and the Pacific.

The era of Pax Americana is only defensible with a strong and capable Navy. We face peril on the seas. Our fleet will grant to us the privilege of taking the fight to the enemy where they live only so long as they can get and remain underway.

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