Size does matter—when it comes to the U.S. Navy.
Representative J. Randy Forbes (R–VA), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R–NH), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, are the latest officials to raise concern over the U.S. Navy’s shrinking fleet.
Citing numerous specific ways in which the Obama Administration will inhibit the Navy’s security objectives, they counter statements the President has made recently.
At the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney argued that under the Obama Administration’s defense budget, the U.S. Navy fleet would fall to its lowest count since 1917. President Obama famously retorted that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed.” The President continued, arguing that vast advances in technology and capability in the U.S. military since the early 20th century has led to less dependence on strength in numbers.
The President’s dismissal of Romney’s concerns put him at odds not only with the former Massachusetts governor but also with his own senior naval officials. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus declared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2012 that “even though the ships coming into service today are vastly more capable than their 1917 predecessors, at some point quantity has a quality all its own.”Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert asserted, “Two factors drive the Navy’s ability to provide presence: The size of the fleet and the amount of time ships can remain deployed.”
President Obama pointed to aircraft carriers in the debate to show how the Navy can do more with less. However, this is possibly the worst example to make that argument. While each aircraft carrier fields an air force rivaling that of most nations, carriers do not travel alone. To ensure that these critical assets sail safely, each carrier is part of a “carrier strike group” or a “carrier battle group” to ensure their safety. These groups can include up to two guided-missile cruisers, two destroyers, a frigate, two attack submarines, and a supply ship—up to eight additional ships for each carrier.
Regardless of what the President claims, Navy officials have not argued that a carrier group can shrink because its individual ships have become more capable. Furthermore, the President’s budget intends to reduce the amount of submarines and surface combatants, which could affect the number of carrier groups available for naval operations.
Forbes and Ayotte specifically point to the attack submarine fleet, which is in jeopardy of falling below the Navy’s goal of 48 if the President’s budget is realized. Ironically, this could make the newest of these subs, the Virginia-class, more expensive. These subs have been a success story of how to efficiently and cost-effectively buy and build naval vessels. The President’s cuts threaten to reduce the build rate from two to one per year, causing per-unit costs to rise in the long run. So in addition to reducing the Navy’s capabilities, the Obama Administration’s budget plans could actually unnecessarily raise costs to the taxpayer.
Rather than undermining the U.S. Navy, the President should take note of Senator Ayotte’s and Representative Forbes’s concerns, which are shared by many others both on and off Capitol Hill. While naval technological capability has grown over the years, the bottom line is that one ship cannot be in two places at once. The Administration and Congress should work together to sufficiently fund the fleet America needs to protect its sovereignty and interests.