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China and South Korea are expanding their submarine fleets as the U.S. Navy shrinks its own. The conservative Heritage Foundation in a report last Tuesday said that by 2025 the number of U.S. submarines in the Pacific Ocean will fall from 30 to 27 while China will have 78 submarines and South Korea 26.
China's growth is especially noteworthy. The Financial Times says that China's naval forces are already world class with 255,000 sailors, 26 destroyers, 49 frigates and 58 amphibious landing vessels. Since 1995, China has focused on submarine construction and built 31 new models by 2005. China presently has 60 submarines including six nuclear and 50 diesel-powered ones.
Australia and India feel they have no choice but to bolster their own naval warfare capabilities. Australia plans to boost the number of its submarines from six to 12 and India from 17 to 24. Meanwhile, Russia is struggling to just maintain its existing level of military capability. Pacifist Japan and North Korea with its fleet of rusting vessels are unlikely to flex much naval muscle in the region.
The shifting security environment in the Pacific Ocean and East Asia has caused serious concern among U.S. allies and friends. Several have responded by launching aggressive naval buildups, and Australia has openly tied its defense buildup to the shifting China-U.S. balance in the Pacific.
The U.S. Navy is still the most powerful navy in the world, and it has the best-trained and most capable submarine force, but its declining numbers have been stretched thin by the demands of ongoing operations and other assigned missions. The continuing decline of the U.S. submarine fleet, in particular, threatens U.S. undersea supremacy in the Pacific and therefore could seriously undermine the Navy's ability to operate effectively in East Asia and the Pacific.
Unless the U.S. rebuilds its submarine fleet and enhances the Navy's ASW capabilities, U.S. military superiority in the Pacific will continue to wane, leading to avoidable political and economic hazards for the U.S. and its friends and allies.