The US urgently needs a maritime-focused national defense strategy
The United States is at a critical juncture in our nation’s history, as we find ourselves again engaged in a great power competition with two nations who have demonstrated overt hostile intent towards our interests and values. Because each of the major powers involved in this new era of competition is equipped with strategic nuclear weapons, the focus of these competitive interactions has moved towards open “global commons” such as space, cyber-space, and most importantly, the world’s oceans. We must immediately develop a National Defense Strategy, that acknowledges and prioritizes the maritime nature of the current strategic environment.
Since our founding we have been and remain today a maritime nation — a people who understand the connection between the movement of trade and ideas to the betterment of humanity. The authors of the Constitution charged Congress “to provide and maintain a navy,” an order to provide permanent support and protection for key values such as free trade, free movement on the seas, and the defense of individual liberty. We have declared war more than once when those rights have been trampled upon. It is no accident that the ascendency of the U.S. Navy to global primacy following World War II marked the beginning of a seventy-year era which saw the greatest rise in global economic output and the sharpest decline in illiteracy and extreme poverty in the recorded history of humanity.
Today, however, those connections have begun to fray and in no small part because in the 30 years following the Cold War our participation in counter-terrorism campaigns distracted the nation strategically. We have allowed our naval force to shrink, its readiness to decline, and our supporting industrial infrastructure to rust. As we decreased our battleforce from 592 ships in 1989 to 375 in 1997 and dropping below the 300-ship barrier in 2003, we also reduced our daily global maritime presence from 150 ships to just over 100 across the same period. Meanwhile, China and Russia rushed to fill the vacuum. Piracy, the enemy of free trade, has been on the rise and the two rising competitors, seeking to take advantage of our weakened state, have advanced broad, expansive territorial waters claims over the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Such claims, if allowed to stand, could create a “cascade failure” of the interconnected global trading system where today, in an 80-plus trillion-dollar global economy, 80 percent of trade by volume and 70 percent by value travels upon the sea and a vast majority of data in our information-driven economy travels under the sea via cables. The U.S. and its allies must understand that Mare Liberum, the free sea, is a fragile, all-or-nothing, concept that must be uniformly supported if it is to survive and continue to benefit all of mankind.
A sense of urgency on the part of the Defense establishment and the administration is needed because the threat to our nation and its interests— on the seas— is proximate and real. Both the outgoing and incoming Indo-Pacific Commanders have testified that China may move militarily in the Pacific within the next six years. Before we focus on a Battleforce 2045 plan, we need a Battleforce 2025 plan — an all-hands-on deck effort with every available ship — and we need it now. We must quickly determine what ships we can build, which soon-to-be-decommissioned ships can be extended and furthermore, evaluate ships that can be reactivated to provide critical naval presence. We must also make the requisite investments in our industrial base to support these efforts.
Now is not the time to cut our defense spending — reality requires that we spend more to meet our defense needs. Today’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP does not approach the levels of the 1980s, when we built our fleet to nearly 600 ships — ultimately providing a credible, convincing deterrent to the Soviet Union. A clearly delineated and actionable plan is necessary today, similar to President Reagan’s 1984 Maritime Strategy — arguably the most successful naval strategy since World War II.
Naval presence is the foundation of our conventional deterrent and we must act rapidly to ensure we can maintain our maritime supremacy — or else we will cede it to those who do not share our values and the freedoms we uphold. Today, our fleet of just less than 300 ships is stretched to its limits, yet the demand for naval presence to meet these global threats is as great or greater than in the 1980s. We must be present protecting critical sea-lanes, providing a credible deterrent, and persistently operating in their backyard; China and Russia must understand that if clearly delineated red lines are violated, we will act to defend our allies, interests, and ultimately our values — over theirs.
We need a clear and unambiguous National Defense Strategy that is maritime in its focus, designed to protect our broad national interests, backed by the appropriate resources, and anchored by full support of our nation in order to protect the values and freedoms that define us.
Congresswoman Elaine Luria represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. She is the Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.