The Navy’s operations, on which the sun never sets, are the nation’s nerve endings, connecting it with the turbulent world. Although the next president may be elected without addressing the Navy’s proper size and configuration, for four years he or she will be acutely aware of where the carriers are. Today they are at the center of a debate about their continuing centrality, even viability, in the Navy’s projection of force. Far out into the South China Sea, China is manufacturing mini-islands out of reefs, many of which used to be underwater at high tide. China is asserting sovereignty above and around these militarized specks in the congested cauldron of this sea. Through it and adjoining straits pass half the world’s seaborne tonnage; five of America’s most important 15 trading partners are in this region. Until President Trump launches his many trade wars, those partners include China, which is America’s third-largest export market and largest source of imports. The Obama administration has rejected challenging China’s audacity by not sailing through its claimed territorial waters — within twelve miles — around the new reef-islands. RELATED: The U.S. Navy Needs to Radically Reassess How It Projects Power Henry J. Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security argues that, like the battleships which carriers were originally designed to support, carriers may now be too expensive and vulnerable. China has developed land-based anti-ship missiles to force carriers to operate so far from targets that manned aircraft might become less useful than unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) operating from smaller, less expensive carriers. The newest carrier, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, to be commissioned next year, cost $12.8 billion. Add the costs of the air wing, the support of five surface-combat ships and one attack submarine, and 6,700 sailors. The bill for operating a carrier group: $2.5 million a day. China, says Hendrix, could build more than 1,200 of its premier anti-ship missiles for the cost of one Ford carrier, and one of the 1,200 could achieve “mission-kill,” removing the carrier from the fight for months. The bad news is that America’s entitlement state is devouring the federal budget. The good news might be this axiom: As money gets scarcer, people get smarter.