Recently, the United States has disengaged from large-scale ground operations, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the country’s armed forces are still insufficient given the multiple security challenges they face. The Defense Department’s draft 2018 budget, adopted by Congress this week, could correct this situation.
At around $700 billion, the budget will help increase the number of Army and Marine troops, allow for the acquisition of new equipment, and unlock new funds to develop a missile defense shield. However, the U.S. Navy appears to be the big winner in this substantial fiscal effort.
The Navy currently has 279 ships. The budget submitted for President Trump’s approval states that it should have at least 355. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump made building naval capacity a key element of his proposed defense policy. He could therefore only rejoice at this budget, even if the obstacles to realizing these ambitions are significant.
Responding to Beijing
As a key principle of U.S. foreign and defense policy, defending free movement on the seas is the U.S. Navy’s responsibility. During the two decades following the end of the Cold War, this role was unchallenged due to the absence of rival countries and American technological superiority. In the last few years, the situation has changed dramatically with the spread of advanced technology and, above all, China’s increasingly assertive willingness to question Washington’s predominance in the maritime sphere.
This shift in the strategic environment has raised serious concerns in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, Japan and South Korea, whose economies depend strongly on free ocean travel, fear the prospect of a more coercive Chinese navy. Beyond East Asia, it is in the South China Sea that Beijing’s maritime ambitions are creating the most tension. Indeed, this maritime area is the site of competing territorial claims among bordering states. It is a key fishing zone for China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. It also contains coveted oil and gas resources. Finally, it’s a transit route through which nearly one third of world trade passes.
In 2012, the Obama administration suspended naval and air patrols in the South China Sea in the hope of reaching a diplomatic dispute settlement in the region. This approach has not been fruitful. Indeed, China has used this opportunity to increase its influence by building large-scale military infrastructures in the Spratly Archipelago and deploying radar and other missile batteries. At last month’s Chinese Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping was quite pleased that Beijing had managed to impose this state of affairs, asserting a new balance of power over other countries bordering the South China Sea.
A To-Be-Defined US Strategy
In the fall of 2015, President Obama decided to resume the “freedom of navigation” patrols conducted by the U.S. Navy, and these have multiplied with Donald Trump’s arrival to the White House. These patrols are essential to challenging Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea and to reaffirming the importance of the principle of free ocean navigation throughout the Asia-Pacific region. However, they are putting considerable and dangerous pressure on U.S. Navy operations, as evidenced by the fatal accidents that occurred with two Navy ships earlier this year.
In this context, the significant increase in resources allocated to the Navy is quite relevant. However, it won’t materialize overnight. Achieving the goal of 355 ships is expected to take between 18 and 30 years. Worse, the cost of running such a navy would be more than $100 billion a year, a sum that the U.S. can’t really afford, given its budget deficit, its debt and the fact that Republicans want to massively reduce taxes. Finally, material capabilities are of little use without a strategy. However, as evidenced by Trump’s displacement in Asia, for the moment, strategic thinking appears largely non-existent within the White House.