The basic gist of Helprin's op ed is that the U.S. Navy is too small. We had over 1,000 ships at the end of World War II, and now we have only 286. (I could point out that we had thousands and thousands of jeeps and propeller-powered fighter planes at the end of World War II. Now we have none. That doesn't mean that our conventional land forces and air forces are less capable today than they were in 1945.) He goes on to explain that we need a larger navy to defeat the pirates who are assaulting ships off the Horn of Africa. Russia and China, he claims, are challenging us on the high seas, or soon will do so. He repeats the tired conventional wisdom that the global trading system depends upon a single dominant power to enforce the rules and punish wrongdoers. Great Britain served that role in the 19th century; the U.S. Navy must do so now.
None of these claims are true. Piracy is a nuisance best handled by a coalition of navies contributing forces to escort vulnerable ships, and to carry out punitive raids, not a single global U.S. sheriff that treats every body of water as though it were synonymous with the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is not, as he absurdly claims, on the cusp of the "gratuitious abdication" of our naval supremacy. The U.S. Navy dwarfs any other navy, or combination of navies, both in terms of numbers of ships, and in terms of effective striking power. The global trading system is far more resilient, and far more complex, than Helprin claims; it doesn't make sense for the U.S. Navy to commit itself to policing every sea lane on the planet. The many beneficiaries of global trade should share in the costs of keeping the seas free and open.