Horses and Bayonets
Image Credit: Flickr (Don Relyea)

Horses and Bayonets


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.  

November 28, 2012 at 21:49

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Sybille Reinke de Buitrago
November 6, 2012 at 15:42

Now that we have election day and with the first results coming out soon, much of the guessing will end and soon we should know where the next president is taking U.S. foreign policy. Regarding some of the above comments, I do not see the issue as one of having more ships, or more drones, etc. The U.S. is plenty equipped, and yes, maybe newer technology can yield more effective and precise results. But the matter is more how the U.S. can act effectively without military force. In light of tight budgets, this would also save needed money for other purposes, such as developing more civil tools in the military and civil-military cooperation mechanisms. Proclaimed values must be backed up by fitting actions, and the mere application of military force might stem some foes in the short run, but not solve long-term problems and challenges. For example, neither Russia nor China will be greatly impressed by U.S. military force. In relations with these two, it would be more important and appropriate to intensify mechanisms of trust, so that existing and future differences can be dealt with constructively. Or regarding the Middle East, military might is not a long-term solution either, as it is actually part of the problem. Also the relations with Europe and the EU would benefit from a less militarized U.S. posture. Values of liberty and democracy in the foreign policy domain and in relations with other states must thus be upheld with other than military means. While Obama has reduced the military role in some areas, he has engaged in other military activities – his track record is thus a bit different from what he set out to do before his election. So too might it be with Romney, should he be elected. And since both candidates have narrowed the gap to each other in order to appear as the most 'votable' candidate, making a choice has not become easier.

SP Dudley
October 25, 2012 at 22:00

If John Lehman, the father of the "600-ship Navy" is directing Romney's maritime strategy I have no doubt they've already worked out how to pay for it, probably by shifting money out of the USAF F-35A program (which is why it's not coming up until after the election).
The choices Lehman make for new platorms are good ones, as on retiring the Perry-class the USN is left without a dedicated ASW platform, and using the large-hull LPD-17 as an ABM system makes sense if what you're doing is regional defense of inshore locations such as cities. Going with a new class of ABM ships based on the LPD also frees up the Burke DDGs from doing that job and being better employed for surface warfare. I really look forward to what more Lehman has in store for the US Navy.

Ed Aguilar
October 25, 2012 at 02:33

Your last point here captured it entirely – a foreign policy requires 3 things missing here: consistency, continuity, and judicious choice, especailly in a itme of limits.  You can't have your cake and eat it too.

October 24, 2012 at 22:09

"Easily debunkable?"  You're quibbling over Romney's phrasing of the problem.   Instead you should be asking the President how he expects to execute a credible Pacific Pivot with the smallest US fleet in a century.  
Does anyone seriously believe the US Navy can meet its commitments in the Strait of Hormuz, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait–and it's new Sea-Based Missile Defense commitments–with a fleet that is half the size it was just 25 years ago?  Keep in mind, the current Administraion is dropping the 2 MRC force sizing requirement.  We wouldn't be lowering the bar if we believed the force was sufficient to meet the threat.

Ricardo Gray
October 24, 2012 at 22:03

This article and the comments by the Romney campaign advisor John Lehman substantiate the need to expand the US Navy by adding new ships.  The crucial point is the need to increase and vary the components of the fleet.  We cannot rely simply on carriers and submarines for all our current and future defense.  It is very important to remember that naval units – including the Marines! – are our most important elements for the capability to project power in the many areas of the globe where we do not have bases.  The Navy provides the ability to project deterrence quickly and powerfully.  A wisely chosen and constructed new fleet will give the US a whole range of possible units as determined by the military needs.  Remember the difficultly in the recent past to transfer enough supplies to where they were needed.  A stronger economy should also allow the US to have available merchant shipping for supply and re-supply needs.  And the supply lines have to be protected by a powerful US Navy.

October 24, 2012 at 21:25

Saying its "unclear" where the money is comming from is being too kind.  The combination of tax cuts and spendng increases that Romney is proposing adds up to about 60% of the entire govt's budget.  Right now the DOD is panicd over the idea of a 10% cut over the next 10 years.  Either Romney wants to make that 60% in 1 year, or turn the U.S into some kind of Army state like North Korea where the military recieves 80% of the govt budget every year.

October 24, 2012 at 13:48

The order you buld up the fleet is based on three factors.  First, where do you need help now.   We have real issues in the patrol and maritine route policing issues which means the frigites.   Short term that beams major overhauls of older ships to extend their life and putting some back in service.  Long term it means a new ships.  Second, we have to maintain the facilities that can not be replaced which are teh carrier and sub yards.  We have two sub yards and one carrier yard so we need to put in place a minimum constructin program to maintain these plants.  Third. the supply and support  logistical wing of the navy is worn out.  We need new ships to keep the fleet at sea.  In this case, some can be civilian ships purchased and upgraded which would fill immediate needs and save money.  
A fourth factor will be to address the future needs in the Pacific, but that is less of an issue today.  At this point, it may be more important to create a new stategic policy and the alliances that go along with it.  Ships can then be built based on long term needs.

Leonard R.
October 24, 2012 at 06:48

I don't know who's right about ships and bayonets. I think the US needs more missiles, drones and attack subs, mostly in the Western Pacific theater. I don't know if the US needs more ships. 
I also don't know who will win the election. But it's a safe bet the hawks will dominate China policy for years to come. And it's a safe bet the US will continue to expand its presence in the western Pacific, no matter who wins.

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