US Navy’s Indian Ocean Folly? (Page 5 of 5)

It’s worth asking the same hard questions about forces based in Japan, which are well within the range arc of shore-based Chinese ballistic missiles. It’s clear in Japan’s case that alternative basing arrangements are worth exploring.

At first glance, Singapore appears ideal for US strategic purposes, lying as it does at the interface between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. But the harbour is too shallow to permit big-deck aircraft carriers to berth pierside. In addition, the city-state also lies within easy striking reach of Chinese ballistic missiles, meaning that a fleet stationed there would be exposed to pre-emptive attack in port.

And it’s probably useful to add a fourth criterion to Mahan’s list—will a prospective host nation grant basing rights? This isn’t a foregone conclusion even with close allies. Despite its alliance with the United States, Singapore cherishes its independence. Indeed, government officials have welcomed foreign warships—including aircraft carriers—of all nations to call at their seaport. This means Singapore would likely be loath to antagonize Beijing by playing host to a US Navy battle fleet over the long term. However useful for providing transient logistical support, Singapore clearly represents an unpromising candidate for a standing US naval hub.

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By contrast, Australia boasts numerous advantages, occupying as it does a central position between the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific theatres, meaning forces based there could shift easily between the two oceans. For instance, Allied submarines operated from Fremantle, Western Australia, during World War II. Nor would they be forced to venture through a chokepoint to reach the high seas—a welcome contrast to the Persian Gulf hub, where all or part of the fleet could wither on the vine in wartime.

Hardened facilities along the Australian coast would also prove defensible and could be readily resupplied overland. Such seaports would likely meet the Mahanian standards of position, strength, and resources, while the Australian government—Washington’s most dependable ally in Asia, alongside Tokyo—would likely prove agreeable to such an arrangement. It‘s certainly worth exploring.

All this means that US maritime strategy may be hurtling back to the future. As in the days of Mahan, Roosevelt, and Lippmann, the naval establishment may be placing the fleet at risk by partitioning it between two remote theatres, impeding fleet detachments’ capacity for mutual support. Letting go of past commitments while refocusing tightly on the twin theatres designated in the Maritime Strategy may be the only way to achieve US strategic aims in a swiftly changing Asia.


James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here are theirs alone.

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