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

Capt. Mark Morris/US Navy

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) passes a lighthouse while entering Cartagena to begin a theater security cooperation (TSC) port visit.

Article Highlights

  • Simply being there helps the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard maintain peace and stability around the world.

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  • A Navy built to maximize presence—one designed to deter conflict and win wars—is one that must place a greater emphasis on simple numbers.

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  • Deterrence requires presence, and presence requires numbers.

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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 One instance was when the president tried to highlight Romney’s supposedly outdated understanding of how the military works.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. 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. Something 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.

 

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