February 13, 2020 | By Matthew Dalton

Exploring the US Navy’s Global Role and the Challenge to Remain Supreme

Located in Lake County, Illinois just 40 miles from the heart of Chicago is Naval Station Great Lakes, home to the United States Navy’s only boot camp. But despite seeing the young recruits coming in and out of the airport or the occasional Sailor in the city, do Chicagoans truly understand the important role the US Navy plays around the world and the increasing challenges to its previously unimpeded supremacy of the seas?

For decades maritime power has been an essential tool for America’s national defense, international influence, and the security of global trade. Yet, against the backdrop of today’s great-power competition, the rise of sophisticated new military technologies, and an ever-challenged budgetary environment, the Navy is at a crossroads. 

What is the Navy’s value to the nation?

Since the ocean covers about 70% of the earth, America’s Navy is the critical means whereby power is projected far from the homeland. The United States is one of only a few countries in the world that have what is known as a blue-water navy. Essentially, our maritime force can move its warships anywhere in the world within days in order to respond to changing international situations or to respond to crises. In contrast, countries without a blue-water fleet – whether due to a lack of resources or capabilities, or geographical constraints – can only operate in their coastal areas, estuaries, or rivers. 

Moreover, the Navy is key to ensuring freedom of navigation in order to provide for the conduct of global trade and ensure the Navy’s ability to provide logistics support for land-based operations, whether combat or humanitarian assistance or anything in between.

Where is the U.S. Navy currently operating and why?

The US Navy is deployed in the Middle East, off the coast of Africa, in the Black Sea, around South America, and throughout the Indo-Pacific. Its official mission is “to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.” To accomplish this mission, the Navy conducts various operations to include strategic presence, deterrence, sea control, Ballistic Missile Defense, maritime security, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and counter-piracy. At the same time, the maritime forces conduct various bilateral and multilateral exercises with allies and partners to strengthen relationships and build operational capacity. 

The Navy must always be well positioned to react to crises abroad so that conflict does not come home to American shores. And when it comes to the great-power competitors, namely China and Russia, the goal of our nation’s maritime force is to protect America’s interests and a rules-based order, support the nation’s global influence, and deter any actions that might upset the geopolitical world balance.  

How does maritime power influence foreign policy?

During peacetime the US Navy can be used for diplomatic purposes to reassure and support allies and partners or to deter and influence the behaviors of competitors and adversaries. This is sometimes referred to by the historical term, “gunboat diplomacy.” Naval actions in this regard include training and exercises with other countries, port calls, freedom of navigation operations, and strait transits. Even increasing or decreasing the amount of ships positioned forward in certain regions, like former president Obama’s strategy to “shift to the Pacific,” can have major diplomatic effects.

A powerful example of using the US Navy to influence diplomatic situations is when the US conducted tri-carrier operations along with several South Korean warships near the Korean Peninsula in 2017 to show North Korea that the United States and allies are not deterred by its aggressive pursuit of various offensive-weapons capabilities. More routine examples include the transit of a US warship through the Taiwan Strait a week after the January 2020 Taiwan presidential elections and various freedom of navigation operations in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.  

What are the US Navy’s challenges?

With the rise of great-power competitors’ military capabilities, the Navy must ensure it maintains the fleet necessary to keep critical international seas and sea lanes open around the world. Although the US Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers far outnumber those of the closest competitors— China has two and Russia only one— the pace at which these countries are closing the gap is rapid. China already has a larger fleet in mere numbers of combat ships and is on schedule to have at least four aircraft carriers by 2025.  

Additionally, the great-power competitors have developed advanced long-range missile systems. China has built an extremely advanced anti-access area denial system complete with artificial islands in the South China Sea and advanced ballistic and hypersonic missiles. These weapons can travel five times the speed of sound, challenging US firepower and missile defenses. China uses its fleet, islands, and missiles to threaten many coastal states and assert excessive maritime claims over critical trade routes and resource-rich waters. And this is only one theater where naval operations are critical. The global impact if Iran were to shut down the Strait of Hormuz would be equally grave. These reasons (and others) illustrate why Congress signed into law a schedule for the US Navy to grow to 355-ships as soon as feasible.  

Furthermore, due to the new era of advanced warfare, the Navy is quickly developing new unmanned platforms (and warfighting tactics to match) that will provide for the distribution of more vessels over a larger area, making targeting solutions more difficult for a high-end adversary.
The essential problem implicated in all these issues is the inadequacy of the Navy’s top-line budget to pay for the maintenance and operations of its current fleet along with the necessary research, development, and construction of the future fleet. And with the just released proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget that starts the Navy down the path of this force restructuring, there likely will be much debate among Congressional lawmakers. Hard choices lie ahead.  

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Dalton, US Navy, is the Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  He has conducted intelligence and cyberspace operations focused on multiple theaters throughout the world.  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, US Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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