Most Americans have no idea their country is defenseless against incoming nuclear missiles. Even fewer, perhaps, realize the once-great U.S. Navy — a critical component of the U.S. defense against conventional military threats around the globe — is virtually extinct.

A high priority for the Reagan administration in 1981 was rebuilding and modernizing a fleet that had been neglected and dry-docked during the Carter years.

It was considered a near-crisis in 1979 when the U.S. Navy consisted of only 479 fighting ships. Less than a decade earlier, the Navy had maintained 931 combat-ready vessels.

Well, guess what folks? Former Navy Secretary James Webb told me recently that we are well on our way to a 200-ship Navy.

Maybe you don’t think we need a Navy in today’s “peaceful” world climate. Webb disagrees.

“The end of the Cold War brought very few changes to the obligations faced by the Navy,” explains Webb. “It must operate continuously in today’s low-threat conditions, and it must be capable of doing even more at the turn of a switch. Its presence around the world on the calmest of days is a signal of global stability, a message that the U.S. is looking after its economic and security interests. Its ability to maneuver and respond at crisis points is the single most important measure of America’s day-to-day credibility.”

A day barely goes by in the late 1990s when President Clinton doesn’t call on the Navy to move a carrier here, a battle group there, as a show of force. But with fewer and fewer fighting ships available, these moves appear to our potential enemies more like meaningless saber-rattling and temporal toothless bluffs than legitimate and bold strategic moves.

Webb quit as secretary of the Navy in 1988 rather than agree to a reduction in the fleet. Now, he says, those look like the good, old days.

“I made a half-joking comment that I did not choose to be remembered as the father of the 350-ship Navy,” he recalls. “But never did I imagine that the Navy’s leadership would allow the devastation that has now resulted in a 300-ship Navy, with the numbers continuing to sink.”

Webb says that by 2001 the Navy will have reduced the size of the fleet since his resignation by 45 percent. Even since 1992, the size of the fleet has declined by 31 percent while its deployments have increased 26 percent.

“More than half the ships in the Navy are at sea on any given day, and a majority of those are forward deployed,” he says. “The aircraft mishap rate is nearly double last year’s, the highest level in the past five years. Recruitment is dramatically off, 7,000 below requirements, the worst of all the services. Enlisted retention is below requirements and all officer warfare specialties foresee serious problems ahead. Funding for ship and aircraft modernization has declined by more than 50 percent since 1990. Departing servicemen increasingly cite their disappointment in the quality of leadership as their reason for leaving.”

What’s the solution? Is there any hope with Bill Clinton presiding as commander-in-chief for two more years? And what about those politically correct admirals who continue to collect their paychecks and passively take their cues from a president who still seems to loathe the military?

“The time has come for the admirals to take the lead in educating Congress and the public regarding the strategic and operational requirements that drive the Navy’s needs,” Webb says. “Indeed, it is past time. They didn’t fight for 600 ships. They didn’t fight for 400. They have been telling their sailors that a 300-ship Navy is fine, while they may be on their way to 200.”

He’s right. But don’t hold your breath waiting for career officers to speak out in defense of their country. After all, even if Bill Clinton is an impeached, corrupt, disgraced, draft-dodger, he’s still the president

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