A March 26, Washington Post article discussed a new expansion of the military relationship between the United States and Australia. According to the piece, the U.S. Navy is seeking to expand its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean from Western Australia, which would require a major expansion to a naval base in Perth. The Pentagon also hopes to establish a long-range air reconnaissance base on the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll midway between Perth and Sri Lanka.
This expansion of U.S. military capability into the northeast Indian Ocean quickly follows last year's agreement to permanently station a small force of U.S. Marines near Darwin on the north coast and to expand U.S. access to Australian bases and training ranges.
At the time, I noted that U.S. military power in the western Pacific is concentrated in Japan and South Korea (a legacy of the Cold War) while the emerging area of great power contention -- the South China Sea -- lies 2,000 miles to the south. The U.S. agreements with Australia, combined with a major expansion of military facilities on Guam, are an attempt to bolster the Pentagon's capacity to sustain a larger ongoing presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.
The U.S. interest in the South China Sea is in maintaining free navigation through what is arguably the most important commercial shipping passage in the world. The agreements with Australia and the buildup on Guam are helpful in this regard but insufficient. Ultimately, the Navy will need to provide a sufficiently reassuring presence to the countries bordering the South China Sea in order to prevent various disputes over the sea from threatening routine commerce through it. It remains to be seen whether the Navy will have the capacity and realistic plans to accomplish this mission over the long run.
This week, the Navy sent Congress an update of its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which would continue the trend of an ever-shrinking maritime force. The new plan foresees an average of 298 ships operating over the next 30 years, down from last year's forecast of a 306-ship average. And the plan foresees the Navy buying fewer new ships per year, reinforcing another unfavorable trend. The Congressional Budget Office's evaluation of Navy shipbuilding found those plans underfunded and over-optimistic. A few years ago, the Navy had plans for a 313-ship fleet. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel called for a fleet of 346 ships. There are no plans to reach either of these targets.
Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a January 2012 speech to the Surface Navy Association, dismissed concerns about the Navy's shrinking ship count. Work asserted that the Navy's robust plans for long-range air reconnaissance, conducted by new aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and a Navy version of the Global Hawk drone, will do much of the routine maritime patrolling previously done by ships. Bases in Australia, the Cocos Islands, and elsewhere in the southwest Pacific would support surveillance of the South China Sea. If ships were required to respond to problems, admirals could send them in as always. But under Work's assumption, fewer ships will be needed for routine patrolling. And with less routine steaming, the Navy will save money and keep its ships better maintained.