“This stadium reminds us of the great battles in which those who came before you fought to defend democracy. Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Inchon. But what you don’t see here is all the battles that never occurred, all the wars that never erupted — because American Sailors and Marines showed up. They deterred conflict. They kept the watch.”
— Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. Naval Academy commencement, 2023
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, wants you to be as alarmed as he is about this: If deterrence, which failed regarding Ukraine, fails regarding Taiwan, this might be because adversaries understand that U.S. leaders have allowed the nation’s defense industrial base to become shockingly short of capacities commensurate with the world’s multiplying threats.
The U.S. Navy — the nation’s principal means of power projection; the answer to the “tyranny of distance” in the Indo-Pacific — is Wicker’s foremost concern. Production of stealthy, lethal attack submarines, which Wicker calls “the crown jewels of U.S. military power,” should, he says, be doubled. The Navy has only 49, and Wicker says nearly 40 percent cannot be deployed because of maintenance delays. So, crews endure grueling operation tempos. Retention falls.
Just to fulfill the 2021 AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) commitment without reducing the U.S. supply of attack submarines, U.S. production would have to be 2.3 to 2.5 submarines a year. Since before the AUKUS agreement, Congress has been providing funds for two a year, but only 1.2 are being built.
Today’s total U.S. fleet is not quite 300 ships. The fleet has generally been under that number for 20 years. A 355-ship fleet, the fleet size at the end of the Obama administration, is a statutory aspiration, but would be 100 too few. A just-published study by Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain now with the Sagamore Institute, notes that although a Biden administration document endorses 381 ships, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is consistently much too low to meet proclaimed goals.
A ship’s life is about 30 years. More than half the Navy’s battle force has been in the water for more than 20 years. This, Hendrix writes, “drives dramatically increased costs to maintain the fleet in good repair. Thus, despite increased budgets, maintenance has crowded out money for new construction.”
Shipbuilding facilities sufficient to fulfill the aspirations do not exist and cannot be quickly created. China, Wicker says, has more productive capacity in one shipyard than exists in all U.S. shipyards combined. Such is the U.S. maintenance backlog, one attack submarine was idled for five years. Another, after a 2021 accident in the South China Sea, probably will not be operational until 2026.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wicker and former senator Phil Gramm (Tex.) note: “Like David’s smooth stone that slew Goliath, two Ukrainian Neptune missiles sank the flagship of the Russian navy in the Black Sea. With 400 U.S. Harpoon missiles, costing only 0.3 percent of its GDP, Taiwan could imperil any Chinese warship in the Taiwan Strait.” But munitions inventories are radically inadequate to sustain high-intensity warfighting.
The U.S. military is experiencing the worst recruiting shortfall in 50 years. Wicker thinks this is related to “the injection of hyperpolitical culture into our fighting forces.” Imagine what the Chinese military thinks when a Navy secretary says climate change is as important a challenge as recruiting. (The Navy missed this year’s recruiting goal by 7,000 sailors.) The word “climate” appeared 63 times in the Biden administration’s 48-page 2022 National Security Strategy. The military’s alarming material deficits are perhaps matched by intellectual ones.
President Xi Jinping has reportedly directed China’s military to be able to attack, blockade or otherwise subdue Taiwan by 2027. Unless the defense industrial base is urgently enlarged, America’s military will be, as some policy experts have observed, like a great football team that can play only through the first quarter. Hence, Wicker’s conclusion: “We are in our most dangerous security moment since World War II.”
Winston Churchill wrote that early in 1942, “the foundation of all our hopes and schemes was the immense shipbuilding programme of the United States.” “Immense” is no longer applicable. The ubiquity of wars throughout history, and the menacing nature of this moment, strongly suggest that we are living in what historians will describe as yet another span of “interwar years.” History will not kindly judge national leaders who, while complacently producing $2 trillion annual budget deficits, were parsimonious regarding the preparations for war that are necessary, if not always sufficient, for preventing war.
George Will’s email address is at firstname.lastname@example.org