President Obama’s attempt to discredit Mitt Romney’s farsighted plan to rebuild the U.S. Navy — derisively referencing “horses and bayonets” — shows his obliviousness to the real-life consequences of his leadership. A look at what this administration’s policies have meant to the U.S. Navy is both revealing and frightening.
Over the last four years, the combat strength of the U.S. Navy has been degraded to an extraordinary degree. President Obama is fond of saying that Governor Romney would spend “trillions of dollars that the military isn’t asking for.” In fact, successive chiefs of naval operations have testified before Congress that the minimum number of vessels needed to carry out current missions is 313. The fleet currently consists of 285 ships, the lowest number since before America entered World War I. Governor Romney’s plan would add 15 ships per year for the next decade, with a goal of roughly 350 ships by 2020. This would meet the Navy’s minimum threshold of vessels to carry out current requirements. Equally important, Romney is also laying the groundwork for a Navy capable of meeting the myriad challenges that will arise on the watch of presidents down the road. In planning for the future, he is exercising the type of strategic judgment this President has eschewed.
As he mocked Governor Romney’s statement that the Navy’s size has fallen to the lowest level since 1916, President Obama took pains to mention both aircraft carriers and submarines as two platforms that have transformed the nature of warfare over the last century. Unfortunately, the President’s actions don’t convey the same concern for our submarines and aircraft carriers as his rhetoric evinced last night. The U.S. Pacific Command has long stated that it requires between 16 and 18 attack submarines to fulfill operational requirements; the Navy can currently provide only 10 at any given time. This comes as the Chinese Navy has begun to outnumber the U.S. Navy’s submarine force in the Pacific, playing directly into Beijing’s “anti-access, area-denial” strategy for limiting America’s freedom of movement in the region.
The Obama administration has also been less than enthusiastic about the aircraft carrier, the most versatile tool of American power operating today. Only after the Navy’s top officers told Congress that eleven carriers were absolutely essential to American security did the administration attempt to walk back a suggestion that we should reduce the number of carriers in the fleet. Governor Romney’s plan, far from ignoring our uniformed leadership, actually calls for an eleventh carrier air wing — the Navy leadership has been requesting exactly this for years, as it would markedly enhance our ability to project power around the world.
President Obama’s expressed hostility to the two platforms he singled out in the debate is only a small element of his general neglect of American sea power. As Representative Randy Forbes (R., Va.) has noted, the president underfunded the Navy’s maintenance budget by $800 million this year. It is no surprise that more than 20 percent of the fleet failed its annual inspection in 2011, a sizeable increase over previous years. Obama has also slashed funding for research and development, failed to develop adequate replacement platforms for aging ship classes, and ignored our Marine Corps’s requirement for 39 amphibious ships, which is particularly important given the vaunted “pivot to Asia” the President has initiated but refused to adequately resource.
President Obama’s four years have been difficult ones for American sea power. As he stakes American credibility on a reengagement in Asia, he does so with a dramatically smaller, under-resourced fleet. And, despite his incessant talk of “investing for the future,” he has no plan to make the investments needed to leave his successors with a Navy capable of defending American interests around the world. For all his bluster, this president has consistently shown himself ignorant of the choices required to sustain the best tool of projecting American power in the 21stcentury: the United States Navy.
— Alexander B. Gray, who writes frequently on naval history, is a policy analyst at a Washington, D.C., think tank.