North Korea Threat Grows; Fewer US Navy Ships for Asia-Pacific

North Korea's latest nuclear blast, whether an actual hydrogen bomb test or something short of that, reminds the world that, for all the jokes about him, the unpredictable dictator in Pyongyang is no joke.

Kim Jong-un's threats and increasingly capable weaponry are waking up civilized nations to the need to counter the nuclear unimaginable. The United Nations took only a matter of hours to condemn the nuclear bomb test and to signal for tighter sanctions. Hopefully, that body and our elected leadership will follow through with action.

Japan, already within range of current North Korea missiles, is now preparing to integrate its anti-missile operations with the U.S. Navy and to take a more active part in its own national defense. Updated U.S.-Japan defense guidelines and historic legislation enacted in Tokyo last year give Japan much greater flexibility to work seamlessly with its allies.

Such coordination is promising. It means, for example, that if North Korea launches a missile, U.S. and Japanese forces will be looking at the same radar data on their computer screens and sharing information instantly so the threat can be tracked and engaged with greater accuracy.

We also have new reason for hope that a trilateral alliance of three powerful democracies--the United States, Japan and South Korea--will provide a more unified defense in the region. After years of strained tension, Japan and South Korea have taken major steps in recent weeks to strengthen their relationship.

But amid such signs of regional cooperation, a troubling factor remains. For decades, America's maritime presence has played a central role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia Pacific's vast expanse of ocean and its critical shipping routes, which are so important to the world's economy and which are now under growing pressure.

As North Korea menacingly tests and fires its weaponry, China is rattling the nerves of its neighbors by claiming contested maritime areas, building artificial island military bases, and increasing military budgets at an alarming rate.

Despite these troubling challenges, the U.S. Navy's fleet is undergoing a decline in numbers and capability amid strained defense budgets, and we are losing the confident advantage we had in the 1990s. China launched more Navy ships than any other country in 2013 and 2014, the Pentagon said in its Asia-Pacific security strategy report last August. Their build-up has produced a Chinese fleet of 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.

By contrast, the U.S. Pacific fleet is actually being reduced and now stands at about 190 ships, some 10 fewer than two decades ago. Even more concerning, the drop is part of an overall decline of the Navy's overall battle force, which means that when ships are sent to safeguard the Pacific, fewer are available to patrol other crucial regions, such as the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.

The threats out of Pyongyang are having a sobering effect in many capitals, and it's time for Washington to take a long hard look and begin to restore our naval strength. A returned strong U.S. presence on the seas is essential for maintaining peace and prosperity both abroad and at home.