Born from revolution in the midst of a previous era of great power competition, America’s dedication to freedom, equality, and its resulting ascendance in the world have always been challenged. And although we would not become a “great power” ourselves for a century or more, our earliest guarantor of economic and political security was decidedly rooted in a maritime strategy.
That could be because our first president was also our first navalist. “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day,” wrote George Washington, “that without a Decisive Naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it everything honourable and glorious.” And although Washington was then focused on the military campaign, others serving beside him shared his vision in support of a new American economic and naval system that would someday be truly independent of the Old World. Commerce and naval forces “by kind of a reaction, mutually beneficial, promote each other,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in “Federalist No. 11,” arguing for ratification of a new constitution that would promise to “provide and maintain a Navy.” Defending freedom of the seas meant providing the American “unequaled spirit of enterprise” a more than equal chance to compete and win.
The same is still true today. On the global stage and in the larger theater of human history, peace and prosperity through strength has yet to go out of style — and most likely it never will.
Yet, no matter where we steer our ship of state, the tide of geopolitics always rises to meet us. Today, global competition with highly capable adversaries portends perhaps greater danger to our economic, technological and financial security than ever before. The notion that all seas should be free to every people and nation is still a relatively new idea. And that idea is being challenged each and every day.
Our sailors and Marines today experience this firsthand — as Chinese ships of every build and persuasion, all connected to the Communist regime, lay protective bumpers over the side, threatening to “shoulder” American ships in international waters. Our aircraft are violently “thumped” by means of reckless flybys in international airspace, by both Chinese and Russian interceptors. Meanwhile, our allies increasingly experience encroachments against their sovereignty by Russian and Chinese actions that violate standards of international law, but which fall below the threshold of traditional military conflict. This theater of competition is real, and the stakes are real — and not just for those in uniform.
And these are just the actions we see with our own eyes. Beneath the surface of the ocean, outside the atmosphere and even more prominently in the ever-expanding domain of cyberspace, our adversaries are already engaged in battle against us. Their goals: to steal, deceive, disable, degrade and ultimately destroy our prominence as the world’s greatest defender of liberty and free commerce. Our Navy and Marine Corps forces represent that prominence on the front lines of the American way of life, far away from our shores.
But now, with 289 ships, our Navy is less than half as large as when it last faced a peer competitor. Meanwhile, U.S. gross domestic product has grown from $5 trillion in 1988 to $19.5 trillion. Our trade by sea has since tripled, from $230 billion to over $880 billion. Indeed, the entire global economy relies on the oceans: from over 3,866 million metric tons of maritime shipping 30 years ago to 10,665 today.
The changes beneath the surface of the ocean have enabled the entire global economy to be transformed. In 1988, the first fiber-optic cable was laid on the ocean floor. Today, there are over 600. Our global internet now resides almost exclusively on that system, representing 97 percent of all international communications. The data rate along those cables has grown from less than 1 terabyte per second three decades ago to 130 terabytes. Every day, over 8,300 financial institutions in over 200 countries send millions of essential messages for purchases and trades. Our own clearing house system processes over $1 trillion per day via undersea cables alone.
And when the Arctic Ocean is fully navigable, major trade routes by sea will be completely reoriented, halving the distance compared to routes using the Suez and Panama canals. Companies will save up to 12 days of time, fuel and carrying risk from the United Kingdom to East Asia. Next year, anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of China’s trade, up to almost $1 trillion worth, may transit through the Arctic. That will only increase exponentially in the future. Business models worldwide will count on those savings and invest accordingly.
Thus, with less than half of the Navy we had 30 years ago, but arguably three times the responsibility, and growing, we must reassert a decisive naval force and its relationship to American prosperity. Without consistent funding streams, a revitalized defense-industrial base and a compelling naval narrative for our citizens, we may be under-resourced to defend the nation’s extensive maritime interests. This is the same Navy-Marine Corps team that must serve as the backbone of our capability to defend our nation abroad, and the invisible means, to most Americans, of how opportunity and freedom are preserved here at home.
To fulfill these grave responsibilities in this new order of global competition, we must also grow to become a different naval force, a stronger and more agile one that supports the kind of American dynamism that continues to lead the world, and we must command the seas to do so.
Given focused engagement by Congress, the Department of Defense, our private sector partners in the shipbuilding sector, and the development of new partners with advanced technologies in unmanned systems and artificial intelligence, a 30 percent increase in ships to 355, or probably more, could have a corresponding 300 percent advance in capabilities, when built from the keel up to be distributed, networked and highly agile.
Indeed, our rallying cry for this effort should be “355-plus” because the number of ships, while important, is far less important than the mix of capabilities that those ships provide to address threats all along the broad spectrum of competition. Thus we are designing our naval capabilities with lethal purpose, but also far more. This needed growth, both in terms of capacity and creativity, would bring our maritime capabilities more in line with our national economic potential — as well as our global responsibilities to protect and extend it.
The American system, as envisioned by Hamilton and others to this very day, is fairly simple: As our markets grow, so do we. As the seas are free, our entrepreneurial and competitive edge shines. As our naval forces ensure freedom of navigation and commerce, our nation endures and thrives. It is well past time to recognize the vital nature of American sea power for what it is: the force that ensures liberty and prosperity for our own citizens, and extends it beyond our shores. It is time to substantially reinvest in naval power, as we face a future characterized by unpredictability — an unpredictability that only strong American naval forces can stabilize. To paraphrase Capt. James Lawrence and his battle cry in the War of 1812, our citizenry must recognize that we can never “give up the ship,” for if we do, we give up the nation.
Thomas B. Modly is the undersecretary of the U.S. Navy.