On National Defense, Quantity Matters Too

No doubt, President Obama had the line of the night in the third presidential debate when he tried to dismiss Mitt Romney’s concerns about our incredible shrinking armed forces by saying:

But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.

Like a lot of clever debate lines, however, it grows less and less persuasive the more it is examined. Jonathan has already raised some sound objections. My own view is that while Obama is technically right–no question naval vessels today are a lot more potent than they were in 1916–he is wrong in the larger sense, if he is suggesting that quality can endlessly substitute for quantity.

Yes, one Navy ship today can fire more munitions farther and more accurately than a whole fleet could have done at the Battle of Jutland. But the odds of such an encounter between great fleets at sea are exceedingly small. No other nation has a blue-water navy today. But that doesn’t mean that the threats faced by our navy have diminished.

Today the U.S. Navy must prepare for two major wars–one against Iran in the Persian Gulf, the other against China in the Western Pacific–while also combating piracy off the coast of Africa, dealing with unexpected wars such as the one in Libya last year, supporting ground operations in Afghanistan and other theaters, combating drug runners in the Caribbean, and showing the flag in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and other seas. The operational tempo dictated by these requirements is terrific, as I have seen for myself in the last few years in visits to the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the 7th Fleet in Japan.

The ships we have are, when not retrofitting in port, almost constantly at sea and they are struggling to keep up with threats ranging from Chinese “aircraft-killer” ballistic missiles and submarines to Iranian mines and cruise missiles–not to mention the ever-present threat of cyberattack and terrorism (of the kind which crippled the USS Cole). Yes, the capabilities of each naval ship are greater today–but so are its range of potential missions and so are the capabilities of our potential foes. China is expanding its maritime capabilities at a rapid clip; the U.S. Navy is struggling to keep up and the balance of power in the Western Pacific is shifting against us.

That is in large part why the bipartisan Hadley-Perry Commission concluded in 2010 that the Navy should have 346 ships. Yet today it has only 282 ships–and falling. As former Navy Secretary (and Romney adviser) John Lehman noted in April: “The latest budget the administration has advanced proposes buying just 41 ships over five years. It is anything but certain that the administration’s budgets will sustain even that rate of only eight ships per year, but even if they do, the United States is headed for a Navy of 240-250 ships at best.”

That is a looming strategic disaster–and one that no amount of quips about horses and bayonets can wish away. If we don’t build more ships, our global maritime dominance–the basic underpinning of the world’s strategic and economic stability–is in real danger of slipping away.