As he showed in the final presidential debate, President Obama’s understanding of the U.S. Navy—or for that matter, any navy—is suboptimal. His explanation about Navy carriers “where planes land on them,” and “ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines,” left out the largest single group of naval combatants: surface ships. The omission is important because of surface ships’ ability to defend against ballistic missiles and their pivotal role in protecting carriers and submarines. Surface ships also carry the weight of visiting foreign ports, showing the flag, and establishing and maintaining cooperative relationships with other navies around the world. These tasks have in common the goal of reassuring allies, making new friends, and ultimately preserving an international order favorable to the self-governance and classically liberal principles for which the U.S. stands. The same tasks are all conducted during peace and deliberately aimed at preserving it.
This is hardly news. The godfather of American naval strategic thought, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, wrote in 1890 that “the workings” of the “power of the sea” are “more silent than the clash of arms.” He meant that a powerful navy’s unseen influence was at least as important in preserving peace as it was in the more dramatic job of winning a war.
The president’s suggestion that the size of the fleet doesn’t matter also directly undermines his claim in the same debate that his policies have allowed “us to rebuild alliances and make friends around the world to combat future threats.” Regardless of the fleet’s firepower, its quantity of ships determines how many foreign states the U.S. Navy can visit, the breadth and depth of our working relations with other navies, our ability to be and to be perceived as a protector of allies, and ultimately the future of the U.S. as a trans-oceanic seapower. A declining fleet complicates, diminishes, and eventually negates the U.S. Navy’s silent ability to preserve peace. Obama seems not to realize the strong link between a large naval force and helping allies and friends preserve peace.
But the Navy also has a war-fighting mission, and here, too, the president’s remarks were misleading. His suggestion that increased firepower makes the question of fleet size irrelevant—the bayonets and horses remark—is as unfounded as it is conceptually implausible. Although it’s true that today’s naval networking, its ability to conduct electronic warfare, and its communications are better than they were 25 years ago, the fleet is less than half the size it was then and has less firepower. Then we had half again as many aircraft carriers as today. Their aircraft possessed greater range and payload than the Navy’s current tactical fighter/bombers. Cruisers and battleships carried formidable firepower for which a replacement neither currently exists nor is planned.
Does the decreasing number of ships and reduced firepower of the entire fleet matter? Yes. It’s true that such technical improvements of the last quarter century as smart missiles and tactical intelligence in addition to those mentioned immediately above extend the range and accuracy of naval combatants. But they do not extend infinitely. With the exception of ballistic missiles launched from a submarine, a ship patrolling in the western Mediterranean can have little affect on events in the Persian Gulf or the Bab-el-Mandeb, where the Red Sea empties into the Gulf of Aden. No matter how capable a ship is, at least for the foreseeable future, it must be within range of its target if it is to be regarded seriously by a potential enemy. Notwithstanding their increased capability, ship numbers, despite Obama’s attempt to pooh-pooh the question, remain very important.
And the prospects for ship numbers under the Navy’s current long-range plans are dim. From fiscal year 2012 to 2013, the Navy, under the pressure of more budget cuts reduced the number of ships it plans to buy over five years, from 57 to 41. While the 2012 budget allocated $14.6 billion dollars for shipbuilding the average annual amount to be spent on shipbuilding for the next five-year period has been reduced to $11.9 billion. Future year increases call for the Navy to increase its shipbuilding accounts by 70 percent and then 79 percent for one-third of the 30-year plan. Even if a sequester is avoided, the lack of a plan to reduce the nation’s indebtedness raises the most serious doubt about whether such increases are reasonable to expect.
If the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is maintained at its projected (non-sequester) figure of $11.9 billion dollars per year, and if the current average price of a naval combatant were to remain fixed at its current level of $2 billion dollars per ship for the next 30 years, the Navy would build 178 ships. This would decrease our current fleet by nearly a third. Numbers matter, and the suggestion that they do not is wrong and dangerous.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. He was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004.