Foreign and Defense Policy, Defense

A game of Battleship? The great debate over US Navy fleet size

Image credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

Image credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

President Obama repeatedly sought to paint Governor Mitt Romney as a man stuck in the past at this week’s foreign policy debate. One instance was when the president tried to highlight Romney’s supposedly outdated understanding of how the military works. Mr. Obama implied that simple numerical comparisons of US forces are silly, like a game of Battleship, versus serious examination of overall capabilities.

Romney could have jumped in and asked why then some US Army aging networks are closer to Atari than the iPhone. But that would have only further detracted from a serious and legitimate discussion on substance.

President Obama was making an argument that really gained traction in the George W. Bush administration. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon sought similarly to value capabilities as changing threats became more diffuse and multi-faceted.

The numbers-don’t-matter (or at least they are not that important) argument is also one that Navy leaders have been making for years as fleet goals shrink. Total fleet size today is less important than in the past, they say, because our ships are so much more capable.

Few would dispute this obvious truth in wartime, including Governor Romney. Even casual observers of the US military might understand that ships today are far more technologically advanced than a much larger American fleet forty years ago.

But Romney’s emphasis on the importance of quantity is not an argument ignoring capability. The men and women in uniform spend the vast majority of their time at home and around the world every day engaging in operations that are not hostile conflicts. Sailors regularly conduct exercises with foreign militaries to increase interoperability, airmen often help build new runways on faraway continents to enable allies, and soldiers regularly partner with local forces to build up their internal capacity—all in an effort to build relationships and prevent an outbreak of hostilities.

Our military fights and wins the nation’s battles when needed. But they are sized, built, and funded to do much more, including deterring adversaries, supporting friends and allies, influencing global events, and supporting whole-of-government and other soft power efforts.

Ships steaming the world’s oceans, docking in foreign ports, and conducting multinational exercises offer tangible demonstrations of US military engagement, power, and presence. Simply being there helps the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard maintain peace and stability around the world along with the other services. A fact overlooked by President Obama in his sound bite this week.

A Navy built to maximize presence—one designed to prevent conflict and win wars—is one that must place a greater emphasis on simple numbers. After all, ships visiting one port cannot be docked in another.

Today’s Navy already emphasizes presence, as evidenced by the unsustainable pace of global operations, deployment schedules, and commander requirements. Currently, over 100 Navy ships are deployed worldwide, or 40% of the fleet. This includes six of America’s eleven aircraft carriers stationed in areas like the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the South China Sea. Also deployed are five of America’s amphibious assault ships, visiting ports such as Phuket, Thailand and Sepangar, Myanmar. These deployments help support combat operations in countries like Afghanistan and Libya when needed, but they more oftentimes serve to build ties with local partners, bolster key security relationships, and help maintain stability in vital areas of the globe.

Despite the increased firepower and lethality of America’s modern Navy, there is still no substitute for numbers. Seeking to have enough capability is what offers policymakers more options when they look for tools to help shape regional events and politics so that war never breaks out in the first place.

While the Navy is now quite ready to fight and win America’s wars, the most successful wars are the ones America never needs to fight. Deterrence requires presence, and presence requires numbers. This is something lost in the over-simplified comments by President Obama.

8 thoughts on “A game of Battleship? The great debate over US Navy fleet size

  1. All you need to know is this:

    and this:

    ” The first layer of antimissile defense by a modern, fully equipped aircraft carrier task force is always the long-range missile-carrying fighter planes of the aircraft carrier itself. Several fighters are kept on combat air patrol (CAP) 24 hours a day, seven days a week when at sea, and many more are put aloft when the situation warrants, such as during wartime or when a threat to the task force is detected.”

    ships without aircraft carrier air support are basically large targets for anti-ship missiles.

    the thing about this is that what Obama said is entirely true – and backed up by the Navy itself that KNOWS FULL WELL that defending against anti-ship missiles is more and more something that cannot be done unless you detect and kill the platform carrying such missiles and that platform can be a 20 foot boat.

    Romney by making his assertion basically proved how little he really knows about modern technology and strategy.

    He’s stuck in the 80′s as is his 17 neo-con advisers that came from the Bush administration.

    And Obama did not say none – he said “fewer” and if you look around at how many battles are fought with horses and bayonets.. it’s damn few… the majority are fought with modern weapons and strategy based on modern weaponry.

    • LarryG, ships project power. Ships carry soldiers places. Ships serve as floating hospitals (As in Japan after the earthquake). The Navy says it needs a certain number, that’s a baseline, it should be met.

      • ” The Navy says it needs a certain number, that’s a baseline, it should be met.”

        generally agree but having seen the inside of DOD for a number of years know just how bloated and expensive it can be.

        The bigger point is that the number of ships does not mean what it used to mean in terms of projecting force.

        yes..ships are needed for transport and other duties but combat – they are giant targets for anti-ship missiles and so number of ships is not the relevant metric it once was.

        Romney was using the number is an old way that showed he did not understand how technology and warfighting have changed since the 1980s.

        For instance, there is no more geo-political Soviet Union but there are asymmetric forces all over the place – capable of acquiring anti-ship missiles and easily taking out an Aegis Cruiser in tight quarters of the Persian Gulf or similar.

        To me it’s scary to think about Romney making decisions along these lines and being “helped” by 17 Neocons from the Bush administration.

        I think the man is smarter than that but I wonder.

      • Here’s what Romney has no clue of and his Neo Con advisers don’t care about:

        ” The key threat in modern naval combat is the airborne missile, which can be delivered from surface, subsurface or airborne platforms. With missile speeds ranging up to Mach 4, engagement time may be only seconds. The key to successful defence is thus to destroy the launch platform before it fires, thus removing a number of missile threats at once. This is not always possible …”

        ships are not the same weapon they used to be and more of them just means more targets.

        Ships have become the water-borne version of the HumVee … and the NeoCons are just fine with sending our young to be sliced and diced to assert US power.

        ROmney and the NeoCons are grotesquely ignorant of the vulnerabilities of ships in the modern tactical battlespace.

        • Where were all the modern weapons available to Obama when the cries and screams for help were denied prior to the terrorist attack?

          Libs like you can’t defend out country by driving and looking out the rear view mirror and then suddenly going AWOL when the heat is on.

          Your messiah is a feckless and incompetent coward, unfit to command the war against terrorism.

          • re: ” Where were all the modern weapons available to Obama when the cries and screams for help were denied prior to the terrorist attack?”

            they were in the same place they were when Bush had a dozen terrorist attacks plus 9-11 occur under his leadership and he was lying about renditions and torture in Iraq prisons.

            they were in the same place they were when 241 Marines died in Beirut while Ronald Reagan was telling everyone he was “out of the loop” on Iran-Contra.

  2. What good are the aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter planes, bombs, tanks and all the military might on the planet if there are…


    If you have an incompetent, flaccid, limp coward in the Oval Office, all those weapons may as well be spears and stones. Its not what you have, its how you use it.

    But the story doesn’t end there…the coverup is always worse than the crime.

    Ohio: 48-48.

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