The Fujian, China’s newest aircraft carrier, is at sea. The world’s largest navy now boasts three aircraft carriers. This week China’s Ministry of National Defense proudly released new images of its latest carrier conducting sea trials.

Like nearly every aspect of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is growing at a startling pace. China is on track to spend $1.4 trillion on weapons between 2024 and 2028, according to GlobalData. China’s military spending is growing—officially—at 6 percent. Unofficially, analysts know China is sandbagging those figures and its spending is closing in on the U.S. Buying power makes a big difference: $1.4 trillion buys a lot more Chinese hardware than American steel. Reppublican Sen. Dan Sullivan of estimates the real Chinese defense budget at more like $700 billion per year.

Since joining the U.S. Navy as a reservist in 1999, I’ve watched my beloved sea service slip further and further behind. When I raised my right hand as a new ensign, the U.S. Navy was the world’s only “blue water” fleet. Most nations only floated navies capable of guarding the brown littoral waters around their shorelines. The Russians could barely get out of port and the thought of a great Chinese fleet was laughable. When China kicked off a crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 1996, President Clinton humbled the Chinese by sending not one, but two, American aircraft carriers, the USS Independence and the USS Nimitzinto the fray. The ChiComs backed off.

Unmatched, the U.S. sadly neglected its Navy for 20 years while Uncle Sam funded nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emphasis was placed on building our special forces, counter-insurgency operations, and the U.S. Army. The U.S. fleet steadily shrank from 336 ships the year I joined to less than 300 today.

The result is the 2024 U.S. Navy is the smallest fleet since 1917.  We have just as much top brass as we did at the height of the Cold War, which means our Navy boasts more admirals than warships. A shameful 40% of our attack submarines are out of commission. Beleaguered by an eroding culture of discipline, military bearing, and fitness, the U.S. Navy’s warfighting ethos is being scuttled by the Pentagon’s diversity mandarins.

It’s all about as threatening as the USNS Harvey Milk.

While the U.S. Navy is still far ahead of China in gross tonnage, advanced maritime capabilities, and a glorious nautical legacy of tactics and training, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is moving all ahead full to catch up.  China’s shipbuilding industry outproduces America’s shipyards 232 to 1, according to a US Navy intelligence brief leaked last year. Plus, China’s bristling gun cabinet of anti-ship missiles would quickly put a U.S. Navy carrier battle group in hot water within 1,000 miles of Taiwan.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take a Chinese carrier battle group sailing between Florida and our first island chain to wake up the average American to the threat.

America’s Navy is the guardian of the world’s seas. It remains the most advanced and highly-trained maritime force on earth. Without reservation, I can attest that my fellow shipmates are the finest people I’ve ever worked with in any industry.

Yet any young officer I swear into our Navy today will face much different headwinds than those during my career. For the U.S. Navy to rule the waves for another generation, Congress must boost American shipbuilding.

We can find the money. Instead of pouring another $185 billion into Ukraine or $153 billion into student loan forgiveness, those dollars would be better spent on increasing the work-load at America’s shipyards. For perspective, $300 billion could boost the U.S.N. up to the formidable fleet size we need: 500 ships.

A 500-ship U.S. Navy could command the seas and protect our nation for generations to come.

The time to start is now. There’s an old adage in the Navy that one president buys a fleet for the next. Due to long lead times, the wisdom holds true today.  President Biden’s latest budget once again recklessly cuts the Navy and Department of Defense. America’s next commander in chief will have to paddle twice as hard to keep our Navy afloat.

Morgan Murphy is military thought leader, captain in the U.S. Navy reserve, and former press secretary to the Secretary of Defense and national security advisor in the U.S. Senate.

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