It says a lot about the parlous state of federal finances that defense secretary Robert Gates thinks the Navy can't afford to keep buying the kinds of warships that currently populate its fleet. The Navy's entire budget for shipbuilding -- about $15 billion annually -- only adds up to four days worth of federal borrowing at current rates. Do the math: 365 days divided into a projected fiscal 2011 federal deficit of $1.34 trillion equals $3.7 billion in borrowing per day. Four days at that rate is almost exactly $15 billion. Of course, that's only the borrowing to cover new debt; add the additional borrowing needed to turn over existing debt and the Navy's shipbuilding account looks even smaller.
Nonetheless, Secretary Gates told a stunned audience at the Navy League's annual sea-air-space exposition on Monday that, "we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers."
There are two obvious answers to the question he poses. The first answer is that of course we can afford it, if we are willing to make hard choices.
The second answer, though, is that any country that has to borrow billions of dollars each day to make ends meet clearly is avoiding hard choices, so we actually can't afford today's Navy. Or today's Army. Or today's Air Force. Secretary Gates thought he was talking about the sea services, but what he was really talking about was America's decline as a global power. In effect, he was saying we can no longer afford the superpower status to which we once so proudly laid claim.
At the level Gates intended his remarks -- as a discussion of sea-service budgets and requirements -- the speech was a combination of things that needed to be said and fashionable misconceptions. The thing that most needed to be said was that the cost of warships should be subjected to the same scrutiny with which aircraft programs like the F-35 fighter are managed.
Although some naval shipbuilding programs such as the Virginia-class attack submarine have shown steady progress in reducing costs, others like the LPD-17 amphibious dock ship have been managerial and budgetary disasters. Gates is right that naval shipbuilding programs need to be subjected to the same demanding oversight imposed on military aircraft and space programs.
The operational concerns that Secretary Gates expressed are less convincing. China's threat to U.S. aircraft carriers is greatly exaggerated because its homing ballistic warheads are in an embryonic state of development, its targeting systems are inadequate and vulnerable, and there are numerous measures U.S. carrier groups can take to protect themselves. Most potentially hostile nations pose little danger to U.S. seapower precisely because so much money has been invested in making warships survivable. The complaint about using billion-dollar destroyers to pursue teenage pirates is a canard, because the warships are simultaneously engaged in performing other, more important missions.
But the real significance of the Gates speech transcends its intended purpose, because the defense secretary is setting the stage for a decline in America's global military power that matches its waning economic clout.
Our weapons systems cost a lot mainly because they were designed to be better than anyone else's. Gates correctly observes that few other countries would be foolish enough to challenge America's current naval might directly, but that will not continue to be the case if we use the present diminished level of danger as an excuse for reducing naval capabilities.
Secretary Gates needs to stop destroying what others have sustained, and focus on preserving our global military power.