James Holmes

If Romney Wins, Does the U.S. Navy Expand?

A recent interview suggests a Romney win could see an expansion of the U.S. Navy. Can he convince the public?

Defense News is running an interview between reporter Chris Cavas and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman that’s well worth your time. Now a senior advisor to the Mitt Romney campaign, Lehman presided over the expansion of the U.S. Navy to almost 600 ships during the 1980s. The chief takeaway from the interview is a number: 350. That’s the number of ships that Romney & Co. believe should comprise the future fleet. The campaign has apparently embraced the vision put forward by a blue-ribbon panel that evaluated the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s official view of the strategic environment and the best methods for coping with it. The QDR panel recommended fielding a 346-ship fleet. The navy’s goal stood at 313 ships from 2006 until earlier this year, when naval officials dialed the total back to “about 300.”

Two things to ponder about this. First, the fleet currently stands at 287 ships. A massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier counts as one of those hulls; so does a dainty minesweeper. One ship is not like another. Which leads to the question: which 63 ships would the Romney team add to reach the target figure? The new administration would step up shipbuilding rates by about two-thirds, from nine to “approximately fifteen” new hulls per year. Some of Lehman’s observations are boilerplate, such as sustaining a fleet of eleven aircraft carriers and pressing ahead with destroyer construction. More intriguingly, he floats the idea of building a new class of guided-missile frigates to replace the workhorse Perry-class FFGs, which are going to their reward after three decades of service. That would reverse the trend toward substituting single-mission-at-a-time Littoral Combat Ships for multi-mission FFGs—and thereby attenuating the fleet’s overall combat strength. The LCS has its uses, as Lehman points out, but it is not a battle-force ship. LCS construction will continue should the White House change hands—but not as a substitute for higher-end combatants.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, how would the politics of a 20-plus-percent buildup of U.S. naval strength play out? Today’s strategic setting differs markedly from the early 1980s, when Secretary Lehman oversaw the Reagan buildup. Then, the United States confronted an overbearing adversary, the Soviet Union, with the “hollow” post-Vietnam military—a chronically overworked, undermanned, underfunded force. Under such duress, it was relatively easy to make the case for restoring U.S. military power. But how would a President Romney make his pitch? Is China, or Iran, a catalyst of Soviet proportions? If not, the electorate might see a reinvigorated, more expensive U.S. Navy as a wasting asset—never a healthy thing in a liberal society. If Romney wants to superintend a naval renaissance, he must convincingly explain America’s larger strategic purposes, and how a more muscular fleet will help the republic match purpose with power. That could be a challenge.

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