There are so many ways to criticize President Obama’s now-infamous “horses and bayonets” comment from last night’s foreign policy debate that one hardly knows where to start. The snarky attitude alone is worth a column. What is Obama, a blog troll? If he has a case to make about having a smaller Navy, he could surely have made it without being snide, specious, and condescending.
At any rate, there are the obvious points, such as the fact that the US military still uses bayonets. Some of the first U.S. military and intelligence personnel into Afghanistan operated in the prohibitive mountainous terrain on horseback. Horse cavalry may be a thing of the (recent) past for classic battlefield engagements, but terrain and local living patterns are dictatorial when it comes to military operations. For some applications, you need a horse.
The key question implied in all this is what kind of operation you envision, as you consider which military forces to develop and buy. (In August 2011, no one envisioned the US military needing horses for special operations in Afghanistan.)
The president’s statements about our inventory of naval combat ships imply much the same question. Obama’s statement suggests that aircraft carriers and submarines (“ships that go underwater”) have made the surface combatant – the cruiser, destroyer, and frigate – less necessary. If we have only as many of them as we had in 1916, that’s not a problem, in Obama’s formulation, because technology changes.
But what is it we are trying to do with these naval forces? Mitt Romney’s approach is to assume that we intend to exercise control of our ocean bastions – the Atlantic and Pacific – and effectively resume our position as the primary naval influence on the world’s strategic chokepoints: the approaches to Central America; the maritime space of Northwestern Europe; the Mediterranean; the chokepoint-belt from the Suez Canal to the Strait of Hormuz; and the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea. Being well briefed, Romney no doubt has in mind as well the increasingly maritime confrontation space of the Arctic, where Russia and Canada are competing, but the US – with our own Arctic claims – has in recent years been passive.
Romney thus sees the Navy as a core element of our enduring strategic posture. For national defense and for the protection of trade, the United States has from the beginning sought to operate in freedom on the seas, and, where necessary, to exercise control of them. We are a maritime nation, with extremely long, shipping-friendly coastlines in the temperate zone and an unprecedented control of the world’s most traveled oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific.
We have also chosen, since our irruption on the world geopolitical stage a century or so ago, to project power abroad as much as possible through expeditionary operations and offshore influence. Indeed, seeking the most effective balance between stand-off approaches, temporary incursions, and boots-on-the-ground combat and occupation has been a perennial tension in our national politics and our concepts of war throughout the life of our Republic. We have always naturally favored offshore influence and quick-resolution campaigns, from which we can extricate ourselves just as quickly.
The character of these preferences and military problems has changed with the passage of time – but in comparison to the United States in 1916, they are all bigger today, as well as faster-moving and more likely to be our problem than, say, Great Britain’s.
In the modern world, America’s favored posture requires the sea services: the Navy and Marine Corps. It also requires the Air Force, in virtually any theater where we might operate. That said, in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Navy was able to put strike-fighters into Afghanistan from carriers in the Arabian Sea, while the Air Force didn’t have a base close enough to get strike-fighters into the fight at the time. That situation is rare, and was soon corrected, but it does highlight the point that the Navy can get tactical assets in, even where we have no bases close to the tactical battlespace.
For completeness, we should note that in addition to its greater depth of air assets, the Air Force can get long-range bombers into a fight anywhere from the continental United States. For full effectiveness, that capability does depend on the ability to recover and refuel abroad (e.g., in Guam, Diego Garcia, the UK). But the B-2 or B-52 strategic bomber brings a different order of combat power to a fight. The differing capabilities of the Navy and Air Force are complementary, for the most part, rather than being in competition.
As silly, parochial, and partisan as the infighting gets over defense planning and procurement, there is a reason why we have the forces we have, and it maps back to the basic, enduring strategy of the United States. We intend to control the seas that directly affect us and deter hostile control over the world’s other key chokepoints. And to do that, we need surface combatants.
What Obama would know if he paid attention to how our armed forces work
That reality of sea control hasn’t changed since the ancient Romans locked down the Mediterranean, and it’s not clear that it ever will. As an environment for power and confrontation, the sea is sui generis. Modern threats from the air and under the sea have not made the surface combatant obsolete; they have merely driven it to adapt.
And the surface combatant has adapted, transformed from a platform that was largely about bringing guns to a fight into a platform whose effective purpose is to multitask 100% of the time. The US cruiser or destroyer can fire Tomahawk missiles hundreds of miles inland; it can deploy helicopters for a variety of missions; it can use guns large and small, and anti-ship missiles, against other surface ships; it can hunt submarines (if not as effectively as US Naval forces did during the Cold War), and attack them if it identifies them; and it can manage maritime air space for any combat purpose and shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles.
The surface combatant creates an envelope of multi-use combat power that moves around with it and acts variously as reassurance or a deterrent. There is a sense in which the aircraft carrier does that too, but from the maritime power perspective, the carrier doesn’t do all the things the surface combatant does – and that means it requires a protection provided by the surface combatant. If you want survivable, effective carriers, you need escorts.
Today’s carrier doesn’t have any antisubmarine warfare capability, nor can it reliably defend itself against a barrage of enemy missiles. Its close-in defenses are not the equal of the Aegis combatant’s anti-air or anti-missile capabilities. Nor can the carrier launch an anti-ship or Tomahawk cruise missile. The carrier is there to launch and recover aircraft. Its power envelope is singular; the surface combatant’s is multifaceted. The carrier’s air wing has a key role in maritime combat, but that role – like the Air Force’s – is complementary; it can’t replace the surface combatant, which remains the basic unit of naval power.
The submarine is a tremendously capable platform – in a face-off between a US submarine and a surface combatant I’d back the submarine every day of the week – but the sub’s role is also limited. In a geopolitical world in which “gray hulls” often exert their most proximate influence through sheer, obvious presence, the submarine’s purpose is to be invisible. The fear of a sub you can’t find is a more powerful motivator than the sight of a sub you can see, which is the opposite of the surface combatant’s effect. The attack submarine can collect intelligence, launch Tomahawk missiles, and hunt other submarines – and is by far the most effective anti-ship platform known to man. What it doesn’t do is integrate influence in all the dimensions of naval warfare – subsurface, surface, air, space, the littoral interface, geopolitics, and suasion – as the surface combatant does.
If you want to control the seas, you still need surface combatants. And since the seas are the pathway to most of what we do outside our borders, there is no such situation as one in which we will only need to do what aircraft carriers do, or only what submarines do, or only what minesweepers or oilers or merchant ships do. If we do not control the seas, we do not control our security conditions or our strategic options.
Numbers and priorities
How many surface combatants do we need? Romney proposes a number – a total of 328 ships (the current total is 284), of which surface combatants would represent about 130 – and backs it up with reasoning about a strategic purpose.
Obama’s approach has been budgetary. Under the constraints of the defense budget reductions proposed by Obama – $487 billion through 2022 – the Navy proposed decommissioning 11 ships in 2013, including four Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers whose service life has another 10-15 years left. Three additional cruisers with more than a decade of service life remaining are to be decommissioned in 2014. As noted at the Navy-oriented Information Dissemination blog, when the proposed cuts were first outlined in late 2011, the decommissioning plan will take out of service cruisers that can be upgraded with the ballistic missile defense (BMD) package – now a core capability for the Navy – while keeping five cruisers that cannot receive the BMD upgrade.
Other ships to be decommissioned include two Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, or LSDs, which transport the Marines and support their amphibious operations. With the planned decommissioning of USS Peleliu, a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship – although the date is now pending – the loss in capability would amount to the loss of an amphibious ready group, the combat formation in which a Marine Expeditionary Unit deploys. The loss of Peleliu, a “big deck,” which anchors an amphibious group, would drop the number of big decks from nine to eight.
Congress has moved to rescue the four cruisers proposed for decommissioning next year – and has also (see last link) stepped in to ensure the full funding of aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s nuclear-plant refueling overhaul. Theodore Roosevelt has about 8 months left in the 3.5-year overhaul, but the lack of a federal budget in the last three years has jeopardized her funding. With the decommissioning of USS Enterprise in 2013, and USS Abraham Lincoln’s scheduled entry into a refueling overhaul in December, the combat-ready carrier force will be down to eight in a few weeks.
In the end, the difference between Romney’s approach and Obama’s isn’t a difference between buying a 328-ship force and having no Navy at all. It never is; the difference is always between one policy and another. Obama’s policy is to cut defense spending, even when that leads to the decommissioning of some of our best ships. Yet in 2010, the Navy could only fulfill 53% of the requirements for presence and missions levied by the combatant commanders (e.g., CENTCOM, PACOM). Cutting this Navy will reduce further its ability to fill warfighter requirements.
Given the constraints of Obama’s budgetary priorities, DOD envisions eventually sustaining a Navy whose size averages 298 ships through 2042. Romney has articulated a national-security policy that emphasizes building faster and having a larger Navy, one that can better meet the requirements of US policy and the combatant commanders for naval power. Obama has used sophomoric sarcasm to imply that Romney’s approach is ignorant and outdated. That pretty much sums up the choice the voters have between them.