Downsizing the Navy's Industrial Base
There is "excess capacity" in naval shipyards due to low build rates. Profit margins are small, thus Northrop wants out of the business. Last year, Northrop was the nation's second largest defense contractor overall and number one with the Navy. Last March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked whether the country could continue to afford expensive warships like aircraft carriers and cruisers. Gates has also been pushing for years the notion that irregular wars like Afghanistan will be the main theater of combat for U.S. forces in the future, and there is not much for a battle fleet to do in such conflicts. During the period 2011-2015, the Navy will be cutting the shipbuilding budget as part of the effort to reduce the budget deficit in a Democratic administration.
With only 286 ships, the Navy has less than half the ships it had under President Ronald Reagan, and far fewer than the admirals say is the minimum needed to fulfill the fleet's global missions as the country's "first responder."
As to the cost argument, the United States is not poorer than it was 25 years ago. The 2011 naval shipbuilding budget is only $13 billion out of a total Federal budget of $2.6 trillion. Or put in another perspective, the Navy won't spend as much money building new fleet units over the next decade as was given in a lump sum to bail out the AIG insurance company. The Federal government is spending enormous amounts of money, just not on the Navy.
As to the notion that terrorists and lightly armed insurgents hiding in the periphery of the Third World are the main danger to national security, a different threat is already apparent in the waters of Northeast Asia. The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan by North Korea in March has escalated into a test of naval strength and resolve across the region. Pyongyang's allies China and Russia both held naval exercises in the area over the 4th of July weekend, and joint U.S.-ROK maneuvers are to commence July 25 in the Sea of Japan.
In an interview in the July 19 issue of Defense News, Adm. Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command, stated,
I am very interested in China's military expansion writ large, as is every nation in the region, I can assure you. The Chinese military expansion has been dramatic, especially over the past decade.
Some of the concerns we have is the level of assertiveness of maritime forces with the [Chinese Navy] in and around the South China Sea and East China Sea....There have been confrontations between PRC forces and Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Japan over these contested areas.
There have also been incidents involving the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the fact that the joint U.S.-ROK exercise will be held in the Sea of Japan, and not the Yellow Sea where the South Korean ship was sunk, is in deference to China's adamant objection to major American warships coming into what Beijing calls its "territorial seas" even if they are open waters under international law. President Barack Obama is kowtowing to Beijing as if the balance of power has already shifted.
China is quick to seize upon any sign of weakness. A July 16 editorial in the popular English-language edition of the Chinese Communist Party publication Global Times posed a threat to any future U.S. operations in the Yellow Sea,
China will be less tolerant of similar acts, though in the past the US enjoyed relatively freer passage around Chinese territorial seas. Washington should no longer underestimate Beijing's resolve to challenge US military provocations....Growing nationalistic sentiment in China will also push the authorities to act tougher.
The Chinese shipbuilding industry is close to fulfilling the goal set by Beijing to become the world's largest. It is already building more destroyers and submarines each year than is the U.S. and has plans to build aircraft carriers.
For the United States to downsize its naval industrial base at a time of rising global rivalry at sea is extremely dangerous to long-term security. As the Defense News editorial that accompanied the interview with Adm. Willard put it, "Designing and building more things is the only way to support a competitive industry." And America will soon need all the capacity it can muster if the naval supremacy that the nation has enjoyed since the end of World War II is to be maintained.