By GREGG EASTERBROOK
AT General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine, workers are completing a warship unlike any the world has seen. The $3.3 billion Zumwalt destroyer uses all-electric propulsion, employs stealth features, carries a huge arsenal of guided missiles, and mounts advanced cannons that can hit targets 63 miles away. Most likely it will never be tested in battle, because no other nation is even attempting to build a warship like the Zumwalt, which symbolizes the gigantic advantage the United States Navy enjoys.
The Pentagon’s new budget request asks that the Navy receive a large increase: $161 billion for the 2016 fiscal year, versus $149 billion in the current fiscal year. Last month, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the House Appropriations Committee that the Navy must get bigger — increasing to a total of at least 300 ships, versus the current 275.
Both houses of Congress are now under Republican control, with the Senate Armed Services Committee headed by John McCain, a Navy veteran. Desire for a larger, more expensive Navy has been a Republican political theme since the Reagan presidency. The Republican presidential aspirant Jeb Bush, who favors higher military spending, has called Navy budget restrictions “really severe.” Another potential Republican White House candidate, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, told the American Enterprise Institute in October that if cuts were made to the defense budget, “America will not have a global Navy anymore.”
Yet no naval expansion is needed. The Navy has 10 nuclear-powered supercarriers — 10 more than the rest of the world. No other nation is even contemplating anything like the advanced nuclear supercarriers that the United States has under construction. China possesses one outdated, conventionally powered carrier, and is believed to be building two other carriers, neither of which is a nuclear supercarrier capable of contesting the “blue water,” or deep open oceans, where the United States Navy dominates. In aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, naval aviation, surface firepower, assault ships, missiles and logistics, the United States Navy is more powerful than all other navies of the world combined.
Some commentators engage in fearmongering regarding China’s carriers, new submarines and its anti-ship ballistic missile. But the carriers are modest compared with America’s, the submarines far less capable than ours. And there’s no evidence that its anti-ship missile has had a realistic test.
China’s neighbors are unhappy that the growing Chinese Navy may back Beijing’s claims regarding the South China Sea. But Chinese naval expansion does not pose any direct threat to the national security of the United States, or to its dominance of the oceans. For the United States to think there is something sinister in China’s projecting power in its own nearby waters would be like China’s asserting there were something sinister in the fact that the United States Fourth Fleet operates in the Caribbean. South China Sea jurisdictional disputes are an issue to be resolved by negotiation. Making the United States Navy even more powerful won’t matter to such clashes.
For many centuries, naval rivalry was a central aspect of great-power relations. Yet for more than half a century there has been no great-power naval rivalry — because the United States Navy rules. The last major sea battle was at Okinawa, in 1945. Piracy still occurs, but in the main, global trade has flowered because sea lanes are open and commercial vessels ply the oceans unthreatened by warships. Free commerce upon the oceans brings nearly all nations, including developing nations, higher living standards and less poverty.
Since Navy operations take place far from home, Americans may be unaware of their country’s nautical strength and of the progressive role the Navy plays in world affairs. Many Americans have never seen an active-duty United States warship; ships can’t march in Fourth of July parades or fly over football games. But arguably, naval hegemony is among the greatest American achievements, and one that makes all nations better off. That hegemony is secured by such a dramatic margin that no naval buildup is needed.
A few years ago, I gave a lecture at the United States Naval War College, in Newport, R.I. Officers from 129 nations have graduated from the Naval War College; flags of their countries ring the grounds. I was reminded that one lesson that officers of other navies learn at the Naval War College is that there is zero chance they will ever defeat the United States in battle — so why even try? This situation is a tremendously positive development for the world, but it also means there is no reason to increase the Navy’s budget, nor for Congress to fret about how many ships we have.