February 2, 2012: After ten years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. Department of Defense is bracing itself for a decade of budget cuts. The U.S. Navy (USN) is faced with some particularly difficult problems. The main one is that the U.S. Navy controls as much naval power as all the other navies on the planet combined. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, in part because there are so many different ways to measure the value of a navy. But most of these metrics (measurements) favor the USN.
In terms of tonnage (displacement tons) the U.S. Navy accounts for most of the warship tonnage. In terms of ready-to-fire missiles carried (mainly in VLS, or Vertical Launch System containers) the United States is again far in the lead. In terms of training and experience the U.S. Navy is also in the lead (although several other nations are very close). In terms of ship and weapons quality the U.S. is also in a leading position. The U.S. lags in the number of warships, largely because so many nations can only afford smaller warships, often including a lot of patrol boats.
Finally, in terms of warship cost America is also in the lead. That last distinction is actually a serious liability. Even without budget cuts the U.S. cannot afford to replace all of the current fleet (310 warships). With expected budget cuts even fewer ships will be replaced.
All this feeds the debate over just how large a fleet does the United States need. For 70 years now the U.S. has been the premier naval power on the planet. When the Cold War ended in 1991 the only serious challenger to American naval supremacy, the Russian fleet, rapidly disappeared. China has been building up its fleet but very slowly.
For most of the last 70 years you could justify the size of the American fleet by the fact that the United States constituted up to 32 percent (in 1985) of the world's economy and was the largest importer and exporter. That 32 percent has fallen to under 25 percent and China is rapidly gaining. So it should be no surprise that China is keen on having its warships guaranteeing security on maritime shipping routes. During the Cold War Europe and Japan, despite having combined GDPs similar to that of the United States, did not maintain similar naval power. They left the job of maritime security to the United States. Now the U.S. finds that it cannot afford to do the job alone is unhappy about China taking up the slack.
The age of American naval superiority isn’t over but it will definitely not be as dominate as it was during the last 70 years.