ANBOUND’s Observation: From America First to U.S. Navy First
Joe Biden has been in office for a year, and the four major American priorities he promised before taking office, including controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, recovering the economy, reuniting the nation, and eliminating racial discrimination, fail to produce impressive achievements. On the contrary, the political environment and atmosphere in the United States are getting worse: anti-vaccine and anti-mask politicization, unresolved racial rifts, increased antagonism between the two parties on all fronts, and increased risk of future political violence. The United States of America, as some media noted, is moving towards the direction of the Divided States of America. Like several weak Presidents in the past, the Biden administration needs to constantly shift the focus of attention at home and score points on issues that are relatively bipartisan, such as confronting China and Russia. In recent months, the Ukraine issue has become the focus of the western front, while the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea issue has become the focus of the eastern front.
The Biden administration’s policy priorities have shifted from domestic to foreign, and now it is going to add U.S. Navy First. However, the underlying rational thinking and the key point is that suppressing or defeating others does not make them stronger. Rather it is more likely to be a lose-lose situation, or even shooting themselves in the foot. This situation could be like the war in Afghanistan, which cost USD 2 trillion and 2,500 lives, only to learn 20 years later of the failure and folly of their national policies.
In order to focus its efforts and resources on competing and confronting China in the Asia-Pacific region, the Biden administration pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in shambles. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear to the Biden administration that the Pacific Ocean is too big and too far from the United States, and that the Navy is the primary military unit in its geo-strategic political game and great power competition with China. During military exercises and planning in the second half of last year, the U.S. Marine Corps has prepared to return to maritime and sea operations, and two aircraft carriers and two amphibious assault ships were equipped with F-35B and F-35C to better compete for air supremacy at sea. Of course, the excessive use of limited forces and resources resulted in a nuclear submarine crashing into a mountain late last year and an F-35C crashing into the sea early this year. It also illustrates how difficult and costly it is for the U.S. Navy to maintain an effective presence and deployment on the Western Pacific frontier.
A growing number of top American think-tanks, military and political elites believe that the first thing the United States must do is to eliminate and abandon as much as possible the vast and expensive legacy platform system that has been developed over the past nearly 40 years. For example, the littoral combat ship (LCS), the three DDG-1000 Zumwalt Stealth warships that cost more than USD 7 billion, and various types of nuclear attack submarines designed during the Cold War. These flashy, high-maintenance warships cost nearly half of the U.S. Navy’s budget each year, and legacy weapon systems are of limited combat and deterrence effects.
What’s more, the U.S. economy and fiscal revenue declined significantly as the country was hit hard by the pandemic from the end of 2019. The government’s budget deficit is rising, and the Biden administration last year approved USD 760 billion in military spending for the 2022 fiscal year. How much of that money has been printed and borrowed is unknown, but it is clear that America is running out of money and living beyond its means, and that it is unsustainable. An increase in the money supply of nearly USD 7 trillion over two years from January 2020 eventually led to a spike in inflation. More likely, all of America’s national debt will not be paid off over the next few generations.
As war in Ukraine looms, land warfare is suddenly front and center again in discussions of U.S. national security. But whatever happens in Ukraine, America’s strategic imperative is at the sea. The U.S. will need to focus entirely on maritime competition and conflict with China. Biden’s first defense budget, seeking USD 740 billion for the Department of Defense, was business as usual. The department initially requested USD 207 billion for the Navy (the Marine Corps included), USD 204 billion for the Air Force, and USD 174 billion for the Army, not quite the “rule of thirds,” but close enough. Yet, it is no longer time for business as usual.
The federal government has spent more than USD 3.54 trillion to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and stabilize the economy, leading to record budget deficits. Despite this geyser of money, the U.S. defense budget is running into hard fiscal realities. A multitude of domestic issues, including declining birth rates, rising health care costs, and soaring inflation, will pose significant challenges for U.S. policymakers in the years to come. There is no easy way out. Some propose the Department of Defense “divest to invest”, i.e., phasing out older programs and weapon systems immediately to free up funds for modernization. Such a strategy, however, reduces current U.S. operational and deterrence capabilities. Divest to invest may invite unacceptable short-to-medium term risk.
The U.S. must put its navy first and “sacrifice” its army
Luckily, America is physically secure thanks to its geography, with friendly and weak neighbors to the north and south and immense oceans to the east and west. A large active-duty army is not needed to protect the United States. Given the geography of the Indo-Pacific and the reality of future spending constraints, ensuring U.S. naval supremacy over China will require prudent increases to the Navy’s budget at the expense of the Army. Unfortunately, the United States Navy has, to put it starkly, squandered 40 years of peace. Faced with no major peer competitor for most of that period, a generation of civilian and uniformed Navy leadership indulged in transformational fantasies that yielded neither game-changing technologies nor affordable ships that could fight. The bill has now come due. The failures of the Littoral Combat Ship and DDG-1000 programs, and the serial overwork of an aircraft carrier fleet that may be en route to obsolescence, have yielded a shrinking and increasingly worn-out fleet.
Though the U.S. Navy still possesses the world’s most capable fleet, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is closing the gap. China’s navy has already surpassed America’s in size.
Any conceivable major war with China would be fought in the Western Pacific, where Chinese aircraft, drones, and the roughly 2,000 ballistic missiles of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force would be major factors. America’s Pacific allies would likely be a factor in any fight, but the volume and accuracy of Chinese missiles could change the balance of power in Asia.
The United States Navy is also confronting a second foe every bit as dangerous as China: the defense budget. The Navy has now entered what one retired officer has termed “the Terrible Twenties:” a wholly foreseeable period of declining U.S. naval strength, due to a perfect storm of an aging population, legacy platform retirements, and the recapitalization of the Navy’s strategic deterrent force. There is another major factor to consider: a navy, more so than any other instrument of military power, cannot be built overnight. It takes time to cut steel and lay keels, never mind build nuclear reactors and train the men to safely run them. The time for temporizing is over. America’s national interests, geography, and fiscal situation point to the urgent necessity for a new maritime strategy. If the Biden administration is committed to checking China’s ambitions and preventing the rise of a hostile Pacific hegemon, it is running out of time to put the Navy first.
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