It all began with two boats.
242 years ago, the Continental Congress authorized 2 armed vessels to search for ships supplying the British army with weapons and ammunition during the American Revolutionary War. Once the conflict concluded, the Continental Navy was disbanded until President George Washington became concerned with threats to American merchant ships from Barbary pirates. To address the threat, the Second Continental Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 creating a permanent standing U.S. Navy, which consisted of six frigates. It’s the day we now celebrate as the Navy’s official birthday: October 13th.
We’ve come a long way since then. In the centuries following, the role and responsibilities of the U.S. Navy continued to evolve. After being drawn into World War II, the United States relied on its Navy as never before for diplomatic, deterrent, and defensive purposes. With a fleet of over 1,600 warships, American naval dominance was undisputed worldwide. By 1978 though, the number of ships had dwindled to under 400. In response, President Reagan began to rebuild a modern, 600-ship Navy with the ability to engage and project power in two simultaneous conflicts along separate fronts.
Today, if you ask an American citizen to guess the number of ships in the United States Navy, many assume Reagan-era levels. They are surprised to hear we have only 274 ships today, which means our Navy fleet is among the smallest since World War I. Additionally, according to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, 2/3rds of all of our Navy’s strike fighters, the planes that are launching the entirety of the Navy’s attacks against ISIS, cannot fly. That is a staggering 67%. In 2015, the Marine Corps aviation deaths hit a five-year high as aircraft failed or pilots lacked adequate training hours. The Commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific warns that, should the United States Navy continue to shrink, we risk becoming merely a regional rather than a global power.
The erosion of strength extends to all branches of the military. According to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, of the fifty-eight Brigade Combat Teams that our nation depends on to deploy overseas and defend our freedoms we comfortably enjoy here, only three could be called upon to fight tonight. The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength found that U.S. military capabilities continued to stand still or erode as world threats proliferated during 2017, reporting: “The result is an increasingly dangerous world threatening a significantly weaker America.”
We can’t afford to take these warnings lightly. All you have to do is flip open a newspaper or scroll through breaking news alerts on Twitter to get a glimpse of the complex national security threats we face all across the globe.
An American public far removed from the frontlines might wonder why all of this matters. Can’t we just shift our focus to home? While tempting to believe, we must realize the grave reality: the lack of defense a strategy, decades of repeated defense cuts and continuous stop-gap funding have chipped away at military readiness and created vacuums. And vacuums have detrimental effects on our ability to focus at home. Vacuums embolden our adversaries, allowing them to exhibit muscle on the world stage. We’ve seen this from North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, to name a few. Vacuums force us to turn our attention abroad. Vacuums create risks – risks that, with a shrinking force, we simply cannot afford.
President Trump has been vocal in his support for reforming, repairing, and rebuilding the U.S. military. Part of that platform is a promise to rebuild the Navy to a 355-ship fleet, a number that mirrors the Navy’s recent force-structure assessment that said it needed 355 ships to meet the demands on its forces. Just last week, I was proud to join 152 of my colleagues in a letter of support for President Trump's call to restore military readiness and fully fund our national defense. As the Senate and House prepare to go to conference over the annual defense budget bill or National Defense Authorization Act, this needs to be the shared goal. We need to remember who our true adversaries are. We need to be a credible deterrent. We need to stand united against the threats we face. And we need to stand ready.
To provide for the common defense is a core constitutional duty. But we don’t build unparalleled American military power in order to be an aggressor. To the contrary, we maintain a strong defense to prevent conflict. We build a strong defense so more of our serivicemembers can stay home rather than serve across the world for multiple deployments on the front-lines. We build a strong defense so Americans can attend school, gather with friends in their backyards, go to baseball games, and tuck their children in bed at night without fear. We build a strong military – fully prepared and always ready – today so we don’t have to deploy it tomorrow.
What will future generations say about our ability to address the challenges we face today? If we continue to uphold our constitutional duty of providing for the common defense, I’m confident history will tell the story of a strong America, an America that is the sower of peace.