To hold that numbers and mass in war are unnecessary is as dangerous as believing that they are sufficient. Defense contractor Norman Augustine famously observed that at the rate fighter planes are becoming complex and expensive, soon we will be able to build just one. Neither a plane nor a ship, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at once. And if one ship that is in some ways equivalent to 100 is damaged or lost, we have lost the equivalent of 100. But, in fact, except for advances in situational awareness, missile defense, and the effect of precision-guided munitions in greatly multiplying the target coverage of carrier-launched aircraft, the Navy is significantly less capable than it was a relatively short time ago in antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, the ability to return ships to battle, and the numbers required to accomplish the tasks of deterrence or war.
For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomacy in the South China Sea is doomed to impotence because it consists entirely of declarations without the backing of sufficient naval potential, even now when China's navy is not half of what it will be in a decade. China's claims, equivalent to American expropriation of Caribbean waters all the way to the coast of Venezuela, are much like Hitler's annexations. But we no longer have bases in the area, our supply lines are attenuated across the vastness of the Pacific, we have much more than decimated our long-range aircraft, and even with a maximum carrier surge we would have to battle at least twice as many Chinese fighters.
The entire op-ed is well worth the read; as Mr. Helprin observers, not only are we facing potential Chinese superiority in ships, aircraft and missiles, we have also decimated our capabilities in such vital areas as anti-submarine warfare and mine warfare. We used the end of the Cold War as an excuse to retire hundreds of P-3 Orion airframes and the planned purchase of new P-8s won't begin to close the deficit, even with the improved capabilities of that platform.
President Obama likes to talk about capabilities, but you need a robust force in all areas to counter a growing super-power like China. That means more platforms with superior capabilities, not less. I'm not a fan of Joe Stalin, but the Soviet dictator was right when he observed that "quantity has a quality of its own." Our Navy has the quality we need (at least for now). Increasing the size of our fleet is essential, if we plan to remain the world's pre-eminent sea power for the 21st Century.