One main reason America is a superpower is that our Navy is still the strongest in the world. Since a majority of the world’s commerce passes through our oceans, whoever has the world’s strongest navy can protect — adversely impact — the global economy.
The Chinese and Russian navies today represent the greatest threat to our navy since the Soviet threat in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1980, the United States Navy had 434 ships. Reagan promised a 600-ship navy to counter the 775 ships in the Soviet Navy.
He managed to build 592 ships by the end of his tenure as part of his military build-up. We didn’t have to match the Soviets ship for ship because we had allies and we also had more aircraft carriers.
Early in his presidency, Reagan knew, from his intelligence reports, that Soviet defense spending was straining the Soviet economy to its limits. Ronald Reagan reasoned that if we could push the Soviets to the brink of insolvency, they would eventually come to their senses and negotiate an end to the arms race.
For that reason, President Reagan doubled the defense budget from $157.5 billion in 1981 to $303.6 billion in 1989. By the end of his first term, Reagan built a military that could keep the peace and control the world’s sea lanes.
In 1986, the USS Yorktown, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, and USS Caron, a Spruance-class destroyer, entered the Black Sea and were six miles off the southern coast of Crimea before returning home. In 1988, the Yorktown and Caron entered the Black Sea again.
Only this time, the Soviet sent their frigates on a collision course to push the U.S. ships back into international waters. Both sustained minor damage, but stayed on an even course.
After the incident, both governments sought to improve relations and to avoid any future attacks. With Reagan, the days of American retreat under Carter were over.
In 1986, the United States protected Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian ships. When the USS Samuel B. Roberts was hit by an Iranian mine, the United States launched Operation Praying Mantis.
In just one day, the United States Navy destroyed two Iranian oil platforms, and sank an Iranian frigate, a gunboat, and three armed speedboats. Another Iranian frigate, the IS Sabalan, was crippled, but the ship and crew were spared destruction in order to prevent any further escalation.
In the 1980s, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was a menace in the Middle East. Reagan knew that he had to defend the general principle of freedom of navigation against this bully.
In 1973, Gaddafi claimed more of the territorial waters in the Gulf of Sidra. He called this a “line of death” and warned foreign ships and planes not to cross it.
International law claims that international waters begin 12 nautical miles from a country’s shore. In 1973 and 1980, Gaddafi fired on American planes that crossed his line of death.
It was not until the Reagan administration that there was any response to Libya’s flagrant disregard for international law. In 1981, two Libya Su-22 fighters fired on two American F-14A Tomcats. The American pilots returned fire and quickly shot down both planes.
In March 1986, three aircraft carriers, more than twenty other naval vessels, and over 200 airplanes conducted exercises in the Gulf of Sidra. When the Libyans opened fire, the American navy sank two of their boats and damaged two others.
In April 1986, Libya was responsible for a terrorist attack on a Berlin discotheque. Three people were killed (two of them were Americans) and 229 people were wounded (79 Americans). Ten days later, the United States bombed Libya.
Just two weeks before Reagan left office, the Libyans staged one more incident in the Gulf of Sidra. In January 1989, the Libyans sent two MiG-23 Floggers to intercept two American F-14A Tomcats. The F-14s shot down both Libyan planes with no casualties on the American side.
In the 1980s, our military was able to dominate the sea and keep Iran and Libya from disrupting the freedom of navigation. Today, China is threatening to build a navy that could make it difficult for us to uphold the right of safe passage through the South China Sea.
More than $5 trillion in cargo goes through the South China Sea. Van Hipp, who once served as Deputy Secretary of the Army, and later as the Principal Deputy General Counsel of the Navy, wrote only a few months ago:
The U.S. must instead reengage itself with real leadership and a proactive strategy demonstrating American strength and resiliency to its allies in the region. The U.S. must bolster its strategic partnerships with the Alliance of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and implore regional leaders to work cohesively against the common Chinese aggressor.
I couldn’t agree more. The world is a dangerous place. Like President Reagan before him, President Trump and Congress will need to see to it that our Navy is given what it needs to sustain American control over the world’s sea lanes.