DE GRACIA: The next U.S. war will be over blue water, not desert sand

As some call for intervention in Syria, Washington should consider the bigger picture. Photo: The Navy has an important role to play in the decades to come. (U.S. Navy File Photo)

HONOLULU, July 30, 2013 ― Over the next 30 years the U.S. Navy hopes to acquire some 266 new ships, including among others six Ford-class aircraft carriers, 33 Flight-IV Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 66 littoral combat ships, 33 Virginia-class attack submarines and 12 ballistic missile submarines of a future design. The plan has been criticized by some as fiscally unreasonable, but recent geopolitical shifts may require a prioritization towards naval forces to ensure the security of U.S. interests.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, America’s military posture has chiefly revolved around the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as antiterrorism operations spread across the Middle East-North Africa region. During the last three presidential elections, candidates were judged on how “tough” they appeared against terrorists and rogue Middle Eastern regimes.


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In a political climate where America’s enemies are believed to be AK-47 toting guerillas, machete wielding warlords or insane dictators armed with 1950s rocket technology, the Navy with its aircraft carriers and boomer submarines is often perceived by Beltway pundits as clumsy, vestigial remnants of the Cold War era. But though the political class may not discern it, the world is already changing in ways that have made the post-9/11 security model obsolete.

Control of the oceans, not desert sand is the key to the next decade and beyond.

The rise of China

For the last two decades, China has aggressively developed and procured ocean area-denial platforms. Taken in the context of China’s skyrocketing fossil fuel consumption which today is second only to the U.S., China can be expected in the near future to assert itself more both in access to oil-rich ocean areas and control of shipping.


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The question of whether the Chinese PLAN and U.S. Navy will clash at sea is not a question of “if” but an inevitable “when.” Protecting Asia-Pacific allies as well as Alaska, Hawaii and the continental United States will require a Navy that can effectively cover the strategic points of the world’s largest ocean. In the event of war, fewer ships means less capability to absorb losses and more difficulty in securing a decisive victory.

Environmental warfare

In the future, climate change and possibly large natural disasters can be expected to significantly alter the environment, making access to fishing areas and use of the continental shelf extremely competitive. It is not an unreasonable possibility that entire wars may be fought over crucial areas of land and sea that provide scarce food to large populations.

The U.S. Navy’s ability to project American airpower at great distances will play an important role in the Pacific Ocean for decades to come.


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U.S. policymakers have placed a low premium on surface and antisubmarine warfare since the end of the Cold War, but planetary changes may place the Navy of the 2030s and beyond in the role of protecting the environment as a vital national interest. To accomplish that kind of mission, the Navy will require robust cyber, aerospace, surface and submarine assets. The science and research necessary to maintain technological dominance in these areas should also take top funding priority in Congress’ consideration of budgetary planning.

Three quarters of the planet is covered in water. For better or worse, whoever controls the world’s oceans and what lies beneath will control the world.  Admiral Hyman Rickover recognized the military significance of this fact when he handed President Kennedy a plaque of the Old Breton prayer “O, God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

America needs to stop playing in the sandbox and once more recognize its chief responsibility is to ensure the oceans are the domain of free nations.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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