The final debate of the 2012 general election season concentrated on foreign policy. From the perspective of a naval enthusiast the debate had some grist, but was hardly ideal . Mitt Romney repeated an easily debunkable talking point comparing the current size of the U.S. Navy to its 1917 antecedent , leading to an Obama “zinger” about horses and bayonets.
Romney and Obama discussed the U.S. relationship with China, with the conversation catching some of the complexity of the relationship. Romney, for example, pointed out that China and the United States both want stability. Indeed, if anything Obama sounded a slightly more hawkish note on China, suggesting that Beijing needed to accept that the United States remained “a Pacific power.”
As the challenger, the onus fell on Romney to argue for a change from Obama’s defense policies. While the broad strokes of policy in many cases remained similar (Romney echoes Obama’s arguments for confrontation with Iran, while at the same time supporting a shift to East Asia), the atmospherics, especially in the defense sector, have differed considerably. Nevertheless, the precise implications of Romney’s defense and naval policy remained unclear until relatively recently.
A recent Chris Cavas’ interview with Romney advisor and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman gave meat to Romney’s naval proposals. Lehman argued for a fleet of 350 ships, including various capabilities applicable to the Pacific maritime theater, such as a new dedicated missile defense ship based on the LPD-17 hull.
The most intriguing aspect of Lehman’s discussion was the idea for a new frigate, presumably to fill the capabilities gap between the littoral combat ship and the Perry class frigate. The LCS lacks the size and endurance to operate with carrier battle groups, or to perform “maritime maintenance” missions that the elderly OHP frigates have long conducted.
However, the Romney campaign has given little indication as to how it will pay for these increases. Unless it can reallocate funding from the other services, an increase in the size of the Navy will require a larger defense budget. The Romney campaign has committed to this, but increasing the budget puts Romney’s other fiscal goals in jeopardy. Indeed, Lehman’s account of Romney naval policy is notable for its failure to make any choices; new frigate, more submarines, more carrier air groups, LCS, and so forth. Responding to Cavas’ “Is there any program right now that you would cut?,” Lehman said “I wouldn’t single out any program at this time. I think there’ll be a hard look at all the programs. But that’s not something the campaign is undertaking at this point, and won’t until after the election.”
At this point, it remains difficult to predict how a Romney administration would approach fleet sizing. Promising to increase the size of the USN surely commits the administration to some activity in this area, but other promises, fiscal reality, and Congressional opposition can change even the mosty tightly cherished priorities. As suggested, the most troubling aspect of Romney’s position is the inability to forecast clear choices; the campaign can’t, or won’t, tell us what we can’t have, either in the domestic or international sphere. This leaves us guessing as to how Romney policy will actually play out.