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Time to refurbish our eroded sea control capabilities

"It is upon the navy under the good Providence of God that the safety, honour and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend."

 The quotation is from the preamble to 17th century Great Britain's Articles of War, published during the reign of King Charles II (1630-1685). It accurately reflected the utter dependence of a small island nation on the "wooden walls" of its navy for both its military safety and economic prosperity.

The emergence of airpower in the 20th century altered that, as World War II's Battle of Britain confirmed. For all its power, the Royal Navy couldn't prevent German bombers from wrecking London.

But it's telling that the Blitz of 1940 failed in its overriding purpose: to achieve sufficient control of the air over the English Channel to allow the safe passage of Nazi invasion forces unhindered by the Royal Navy. At the end of the day, in short, Britain's safety once again depended on control of the sea.

 Still more did its survival thereafter, as German U-boats threatened the maritime commerce on which Britain's economy relied ó indeed, threatened the outright starvation of a nation unable since the late 19th century to feed itself. The Battle of the Atlantic thus was every bit as existential as the Battle of Britain, and required considerably more effort to win. 

The U.S. of course is a continental nation. But we also have relied for much of our history on the security afforded by our maritime isolation. And while far more self-sufficient in foodstuffs than our British cousins were during World War II, we've become every bit as reliant for our continued economic prosperity as they were and still are on the unfettered use of the world's oceans.

All of which is to argue that, even in an age of missiles and drones and cyber warfare, the U.S. Navy's ability to guarantee our access to those oceans, and at need to deny that access to an enemy, remains a vital ingredient of America's military security and economic prosperity. It's a task, however, that the Navy is being asked to accomplish with fewer ships than it has disposed of since before World War II.

Skeptics will object, of course, that today's Navy is far more capable, ton for ton, than its predecessors: more agile, more versatile, more durable, and more lethal. And they also will point out ó accurately ó that, even with fewer ships, today's Navy far outnumbers any current competitor.

But of course, the real test of naval sufficiency isn't whether the Navy could defeat its previous incarnations, or even whether it could take on any single current adversary. It's whether today's Navy, still more tomorrow's, can successfully cope with the range of responsibilities in peace and war that we rely upon it to accomplish.

Far from themselves diminishing, however, those responsibilities have only expanded. Merely in terms of ocean to be safeguarded, today's Navy confronts unprecedented demands, and those demands only will increase as climate change shrinks the polar caps, making navigable previously impassable waters, and exploitable ó and potentially contestable ó previously inaccessible seabeds.

That expansion is putting growing pressure on a shrunken fleet. Thus, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk announced this week that, starting this fall, forward carrier strike group deployments will have to last longer, reducing the Navy's ability to surge carriers in a crisis ó this, even though only one carrier henceforth will be deployed to the Persian Gulf rather than two.

Meanwhile, as one senior naval leader recently pointed out, "Due to the nature of the conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the Navy, and the surface fleet specifically, have valued strike warfare over other mission areas. As a result, surface force sea control programs, skills, and capabilities have diminished and, in some cases, were eliminated."

Those, however, are precisely the capabilities most widely needed to guarantee maritime freedom of navigation, whether the threat to that freedom is political or merely piratical.

Hence, while some reactions to China's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea have been over the top, the Chinese may have done us a favor by reminding us that claims that we remain a Pacific power committed to our own and our allies' freedom of the seas are valueless unless backed by a clear and convincing ability to enforce that commitment.

As one speaker at the Surface Navy Association's recent national symposium put it, "Presence equals deterrence." But, as we learned in December 1941, presence alone means little. What matters is what capability it provides if challenged. It was, after all, the perceived incapacity of our forward naval presence that in part invited Japan to risk war.

At a time when all the military services are under fiscal pressure, the Navy can't expect a significant increase in budgetary largesse. All the more reason to insure that not a dime of its limited ship-building resources are wasted. Navy leaders should be applauded for aiming those resources at the right task.

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