U.S. military power can be an overwhelming instrument of national policy. Just ask — if you could — Mullah Omar, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. However, it can be challenging for political leaders and combatant commanders to deploy that power rapidly and without extensive logistical and basing support.
This is one reason why decision makers and defense planners find naval forces a particularly valuable, flexible and responsive tool for both diplomatic and military purposes. Naval forces have total freedom to operate in the global commons. They can move rapidly to where they are needed without needing basing agreements with foreign governments, hold their positions for long periods of time, respond to a wide range of demands and, if necessary, deliver an enormous military punch. Naval platforms such as nuclear attack submarines and large deck amphibious combatants also are very well-suited to meeting non-combat missions such as intelligence collection and humanitarian assistance.
So, it was not surprising to read recent reports that the CENTCOM commander, General James Mattis, confronted by an increasingly belligerent Iran, had requested a third nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) to be deployed to the Persian Gulf region, augmenting the two that were deployed in the region with the Fifth Fleet. A third CVN would permit Fifth Fleet to conduct around the clock air operations. It would serve also as a visible signal to Iranian leaders that the United States had both the will and the means to defeat any attempt by Teheran to close the Strait of Hormuz or threaten international shipping.
However, according to these same reports, Mattis’ request was turned down by the Obama Administration. The alleged reason was because it complicated efforts to demonstrate a “pivot” in U.S. military deployments to the Asia-Pacific theater.
In reality, this incident sheds light on the most serious problem confronting U.S. national security: the growing mismatch between the demand for and the supply of military power. The Obama Administration has steadily been moving away from the requirement that U.S. forces be of a sufficient size and possess sufficient specialized capabilities so as to be able to fight two major theater wars at approximately the same time. The New Defense Strategy, published in January of this year, now requires the U.S. military to be able to decisively fight and win only one major conflict while limiting the mission in a second region to somehow “defeating aggression” or “denying an aggressor his objectives.” It seems that General Mattis had the bad luck to be designated as the second, lesser, region of conflict.
The U.S. Navy is on a course to shrink to its smallest size since before the start of World War Two. At the same time, the demand for naval forces is increasing. So too are the threats to U.S. national security. The Iranian leaders are not the only ones to threaten to attack U.S. forces abroad. Recently, the Chief of the Russian General Staff warned that his country might preemptively strike U.S. theater missile defense installations on NATO territory in a period of rising tensions. In an era in which land-based facilities are increasingly scarce and those that remain will be more vulnerable, greater demand is going to be placed on U.S. naval forces.
The United States needs a larger Navy, one capable of supporting two major wars in geographically distant theaters. This means increasing the shipbuilding program to acquire more combatants such as the Ford-class CVN, LHA-6 amphibious assault ship, Virginia-class nuclear submarine, advanced DDG 51 destroyer and Littoral Combat Ship. It also means acquiring new aircraft such as the carrier and STOVL variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the E-2D Hawkeye airborne surveillance system.
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