The U.S. Navy’s current program to modernize its fleet has only one sure outcome. It will cost a bundle. Whether it will enhance the security of the United States is anyone’s guess.
We already have just under 300 naval ships. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he wants 350.
Why? It’s not as if we’re trailing other countries.
We have 10 large amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 76 destroyers and 52 attack submarines. That is far more than any other navy in the world. In fact, to get a fleet as large as ours, you would have to put together the world’s next four largest navies.
Then there are the aircraft carriers. The new USS Gerald R. Ford was delivered to the U.S. Navy a few weeks ago. Years behind schedule, it had been under construction since 2007. It has had trouble with both launches and landings of jet planes on its deck. This despite cost overruns that brought its price tag to $13 billion.
Spending wisely does not seem to be in the U.S. Navy’s logbook. The Navy is not content with the Ford. It wants three more aircraft carriers just like it. To hazard a guess at their eventual price tag, you can start at $40 billion and count up from there.
Aircraft carriers seem formidable. But war games have demonstrated that anti-ship weaponry is getting more sophisticated. It is not clear that aircraft carriers are as safe as they used to be.
How many aircraft carriers does the United States need? Let’s say we should have more than China. We already have 10 or 11, depending on how you count. China has just one. How about Russia? It too has only one, and even that one is not counted by some experts.
One oft-stated source of concern for the U.S. Navy is China’s activity in the South China Sea. China is enlarging reefs and bringing in its military. But whatever China may be doing there, it is not clear we need fancy new ships to deal with it.
China, to be sure, is upping its production of destroyers. But it is hard to imagine a World War II style naval confrontation, regardless of how things go in the South China Sea.
The risk to our own sailors is often overlooked in discussions about naval strength. Seven sailors died when a container ship rammed the USS Fitzgerald destroyer off Japan in June. Ten more died on the USS John S. McCain destroyer when it was hit by an oil tanker near Singapore this month.
It is hard to find a reason to give their parents why the risk to these young men was worth taking.
As they cruise, our naval vessels don’t advertise their presence the way commercial ships do, so they are a hazard to civilian shipping. They try to keep other navies from seeing them but that means that commercial vessels can’t readily spot them either.
When President Trump or the Congress throw around numbers for military expenditures, they avoid saying what else could be done with that money.
The funds projected for modernizing the U.S. Navy could repair our nation’s bridges, dams and highways, and perhaps bring safe drinking water throughout the country.
We live in a world of limited resources. New Orleans and Miami are at risk of sinking, and after Hurricane Harvey, the eastern coast of Texas isn’t looking too secure either.
The Republican-led Congress does not like big government. But that attitude evaporates when it comes to military programs. They need to be assessed like any other expenditure.
John B. Quigley is a professor emeritus of law at Ohio State University and an author of numerous books on international law. Readers may write him at Moritz College of Law, 55 W. 12th Ave., Columbus, Ohio, 43210-1391.