The 21st century's best-known "superhighway" is the Internet. Blackham and Prins note that the two superhighways confront maritime bottlenecks. "Ninety percent of global email traffic is conveyed via undersea fiber-optic cables. These cables bunch in several critical sea areas (off New York ... the English Channel, the South China Sea ... and off the west coast of Japan)."
The geography-commerce-security linkage isn't new. Global sea commerce (modern oil tankers or a Portuguese carrack) must traverse the narrow straits and vulnerable canals that connect the seas. Iran ritually threatens to close the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz to tankers. When it does, crude prices spike and economies gag on higher gas prices. Email-delivering undersea cables also traverse threatened straits, like the Bab-al-Mandeb, between the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and the Straits of Malacca, which link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
So everyone (not just Americans) who uses the Internet, and everyone (not just Americans) whose economy benefits from international trade, has an interest in securing maritime chokepoints.
Diplomacy helps, cheap Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may assume many sea surveillance missions (and perhaps strike missions -- several naval strategists argue that a naval technological revolution is occurring), but truly securing maritime chokepoints and the high seas requires capable ships and trained sailors -- sufficient ships and crews on station to handle the likely threat, ships and crews preparing to deploy, and ships in refit (with crews taking a break).
The candidates could have explored who should provide these ships. Gentlemen, whom do you trust to defend the U.S. economy? NATO ally Turkey controls the Turkish Straits; Denmark, Norway and Sweden handle the Baltic's Skagerrak, so they're cool. But, president, governor, do either of you trust the Chinese Navy to keep the South China Sea open to free commerce? Our allies Japan and the Philippines don't.
China casts wary eyes at the Indian Navy as it extends its reach to the Straits of Malacca. All right, India and China rely on free trade -- right now. Will they in a decade? It takes 10 years to build a new fleet. We agree no one trusts Iran at Hormuz. So, candidates, is it in America's interest to have a Navy that can patrol these distant chokepoints? To project power to defend these chokepoints? To project offensive power to open these chokepoints if a hostile force applies a chokehold?
Each of these missions requires more ships and more capabilities. Which means spending more money in an era when debt itself is a strategic threat. But if a critical maritime chokepoint closes, the economy takes a broadside. Barack, Mitt: Your foreign policy and economic revival debate, and the U.S. Navy's fundamental role in both, has now begun, in earnest.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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