Bayonets, horses, and ships, oh my

Obama’s sarcasm is weak and undisciplined.

There are so many ways to criticize President Obama’s now-infamous “horses and bayonets” comment from last night’s foreign policy debate that one hardly knows where to start.  The snarky attitude alone is worth a column.  What is Obama, a blog troll?  If he has a case to make about having a smaller Navy, he could surely have made it without being snide, specious, and condescending.

At any rate, there are the obvious points, such as the fact that the US military still uses bayonets.  Some of the first U.S. military and intelligence personnel into Afghanistan operated in the prohibitive mountainous terrain on horseback.  Horse cavalry may be a thing of the (recent) past for classic battlefield engagements, but terrain and local living patterns are dictatorial when it comes to military operations.  For some applications, you need a horse.

The key question implied in all this is what kind of operation you envision, as you consider which military forces to develop and buy. (In August 2011, no one envisioned the US military needing horses for special operations in Afghanistan.)

The president’s statements about our inventory of naval combat ships imply much the same question.  Obama’s statement suggests that aircraft carriers and submarines (“ships that go underwater”) have made the surface combatant – the cruiser, destroyer, and frigate – less necessary.  If we have only as many of them as we had in 1916, that’s not a problem, in Obama’s formulation, because technology changes.

US Policy

But what is it we are trying to do with these naval forces?  Mitt Romney’s approach is to assume that we intend to exercise control of our ocean bastions – the Atlantic and Pacific – and effectively resume our position as the primary naval influence on the world’s strategic chokepoints: the approaches to Central America; the maritime space of Northwestern Europe; the Mediterranean; the chokepoint-belt from the Suez Canal to the Strait of Hormuz; and the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea.  Being well briefed, Romney no doubt has in mind as well the increasingly maritime confrontation space of the Arctic, where Russia and Canada are competing, but the US – with our own Arctic claims – has in recent years been passive.

Romney thus sees the Navy as a core element of our enduring strategic posture.  For national defense and for the protection of trade, the United States has from the beginning sought to operate in freedom on the seas, and, where necessary, to exercise control of them.  We are a maritime nation, with extremely long, shipping-friendly coastlines in the temperate zone and an unprecedented control of the world’s most traveled oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific.

We have also chosen, since our irruption on the world geopolitical stage a century or so ago, to project power abroad as much as possible through expeditionary operations and offshore influence.  Indeed, seeking the most effective balance between stand-off approaches, temporary incursions, and boots-on-the-ground combat and occupation has been a perennial tension in our national politics and our concepts of war throughout the life of our Republic.  We have always naturally favored offshore influence and quick-resolution campaigns, from which we can extricate ourselves just as quickly.

The character of these preferences and military problems has changed with the passage of time – but in comparison to the United States in 1916, they are all bigger today, as well as faster-moving and more likely to be our problem than, say, Great Britain’s.

In the modern world, America’s favored posture requires the sea services: the Navy and Marine Corps.  It also requires the Air Force, in virtually any theater where we might operate.  That said, in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Navy was able to put strike-fighters into Afghanistan from carriers in the Arabian Sea, while the Air Force didn’t have a base close enough to get strike-fighters into the fight at the time.  That situation is rare, and was soon corrected, but it does highlight the point that the Navy can get tactical assets in, even where we have no bases close to the tactical battlespace.

For completeness, we should note that in addition to its greater depth of air assets, the Air Force can get long-range bombers into a fight anywhere from the continental United States.  For full effectiveness, that capability does depend on the ability to recover and refuel abroad (e.g., in Guam, Diego Garcia, the UK).  But the B-2 or B-52 strategic bomber brings a different order of combat power to a fight.  The differing capabilities of the Navy and Air Force are complementary, for the most part, rather than being in competition.

As silly, parochial, and partisan as the infighting gets over defense planning and procurement, there is a reason why we have the forces we have, and it maps back to the basic, enduring strategy of the United States.  We intend to control the seas that directly affect us and deter hostile control over the world’s other key chokepoints.  And to do that, we need surface combatants.

What Obama would know if he paid attention to how our armed forces work

That reality of sea control hasn’t changed since the ancient Romans locked down the Mediterranean, and it’s not clear that it ever will.  As an environment for power and confrontation, the sea is sui generis.  Modern threats from the air and under the sea have not made the surface combatant obsolete; they have merely driven it to adapt.

And the surface combatant has adapted, transformed from a platform that was largely about bringing guns to a fight into a platform whose effective purpose is to multitask 100% of the time.  The US cruiser or destroyer can fire Tomahawk missiles hundreds of miles inland; it can deploy helicopters for a variety of missions; it can use guns large and small, and anti-ship missiles, against other surface ships; it can hunt submarines (if not as effectively as US Naval forces did during the Cold War), and attack them if it identifies them; and it can manage maritime air space for any combat purpose and shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles.

The surface combatant creates an envelope of multi-use combat power that moves around with it and acts variously as reassurance or a deterrent.  There is a sense in which the aircraft carrier does that too, but from the maritime power perspective, the carrier doesn’t do all the things the surface combatant does – and that means it requires a protection provided by the surface combatant.  If you want survivable, effective carriers, you need escorts.

Today’s carrier doesn’t have any antisubmarine warfare capability, nor can it reliably defend itself against a barrage of enemy missiles.  Its close-in defenses are not the equal of the Aegis combatant’s anti-air or anti-missile capabilities.  Nor can the carrier launch an anti-ship or Tomahawk cruise missile.   The carrier is there to launch and recover aircraft.  Its power envelope is singular; the surface combatant’s is multifaceted.  The carrier’s air wing has a key role in maritime combat, but that role – like the Air Force’s – is complementary; it can’t replace the surface combatant, which remains the basic unit of naval power.

The submarine is a tremendously capable platform – in a face-off between a US submarine and a surface combatant I’d back the submarine every day of the week – but the sub’s role is also limited.  In a geopolitical world in which “gray hulls” often exert their most proximate influence through sheer, obvious presence, the submarine’s purpose is to be invisible.  The fear of a sub you can’t find is a more powerful motivator than the sight of a sub you can see, which is the opposite of the surface combatant’s effect.  The attack submarine can collect intelligence, launch Tomahawk missiles, and hunt other submarines – and is by far the most effective anti-ship platform known to man.  What it doesn’t do is integrate influence in all the dimensions of naval warfare – subsurface, surface, air, space, the littoral interface, geopolitics, and suasion – as the surface combatant does.

If you want to control the seas, you still need surface combatants.  And since the seas are the pathway to most of what we do outside our borders, there is no such situation as one in which we will only need to do what aircraft carriers do, or only what submarines do, or only what minesweepers or oilers or merchant ships do.  If we do not control the seas, we do not control our security conditions or our strategic options.

Numbers and priorities

How many surface combatants do we need?  Romney proposes a number – a total of 328 ships (the current total is 284), of which surface combatants would represent about 130 – and backs it up with reasoning about a strategic purpose.

Obama’s approach has been budgetary.  Under the constraints of the defense budget reductions proposed by Obama – $487 billion through 2022 – the Navy proposed decommissioning 11 ships in 2013, including four Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers whose service life has another 10-15 years left.  Three additional cruisers with more than a decade of service life remaining are to be decommissioned in 2014.  As noted at the Navy-oriented Information Dissemination blog, when the proposed cuts were first outlined in late 2011, the decommissioning plan will take out of service cruisers that can be upgraded with the ballistic missile defense (BMD) package – now a core capability for the Navy – while keeping five cruisers that cannot receive the BMD upgrade.

Other ships to be decommissioned include two Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, or LSDs, which transport the Marines and support their amphibious operations.  With the planned decommissioning of USS Peleliu, a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship – although the date is now pending – the loss in capability would amount to the loss of an amphibious ready group, the combat formation in which a Marine Expeditionary Unit deploys.  The loss of Peleliu, a “big deck,” which anchors an amphibious group, would drop the number of big decks from nine to eight.

Congress has moved to rescue the four cruisers proposed for decommissioning next year – and has also (see last link) stepped in to ensure the full funding of aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s nuclear-plant refueling overhaul.  Theodore Roosevelt has about 8 months left in the 3.5-year overhaul, but the lack of a federal budget in the last three years has jeopardized her funding.  With the decommissioning of USS Enterprise in 2013, and USS Abraham Lincoln’s scheduled entry into a refueling overhaul in December, the combat-ready carrier force will be down to eight in a few weeks.

In the end, the difference between Romney’s approach and Obama’s isn’t a difference between buying a 328-ship force and having no Navy at all.  It never is; the difference is always between one policy and another.  Obama’s policy is to cut defense spending, even when that leads to the decommissioning of some of our best ships.  Yet in 2010, the Navy could only fulfill 53% of the requirements for presence and missions levied by the combatant commanders (e.g., CENTCOM, PACOM).  Cutting this Navy will reduce further its ability to fill warfighter requirements.

Given the constraints of Obama’s defense guidance, DOD envisions eventually sustaining a Navy whose size averages 298 ships through 2042.  Romney has articulated a national-security policy that emphasizes building faster and having a larger Navy, one that can better meet the requirements of US policy and the combatant commanders for naval power.  Obama has used sophomoric sarcasm to imply that Romney’s approach is ignorant and outdated.  That pretty much sums up the choice the voters have between them.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

Note for new commenters:  Welcome!  There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam.  There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.


42 thoughts on “Bayonets, horses, and ships, oh my”

  1. I would like to see most all of our Military Personel brought back from over seas, and take about a 10 mile strip along both borders, Mexico and Canada, and use it for training purposes. Station most of the returning troops there. Give a three day pass for every illigal they catch. That way the troops will be spending their money in the good old U.S..(most of the time)

    1. Isolationism as a strategy was definitively proven to be invalid when France’s Maginot Line fell. We certainly need to defend the border but the best defense is still the ability to mount an overwhelming offense.

  2. “Obama’s approach has been budgetary.”

    J.E., you say that Obama’s approach to the navy is budgetary and not strategic. I’m not so sure though. I think he’s hiding behind the “we need to cut the deficit” meme and we therefore can’t afford all this military spending. It’s a facade in my opinion. His distaste of “American arrogance” fits in perfectly with a receding American military. I think the reduction in Navy ships is indeed strategic – just not in a manner that’s intended to project American strength. It’s a strategy intended to shrink America’s strength across the world.

    1. I agree that Obama’s budgetary approach is a facade. Obama’s plans to reduce our nuclear arsenal to less than China’s far exceeds mere budgetary concerns. He wants a weak America unable to project its will beyond our borders.

  3. Yeah. I really need a lesson on military forces from the guy who can’t tell the difference between a semi-automatic and an automatic rifle. Maybe he shoud ask a Marine “Corpseman.”

  4. Reblogged this on The Peanut Gallery and commented:
    Peanut Gallery: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.

    So, where is America going? What role will America play in the world… on land and sea? This article discusses America’s Naval capability and how it supports American interests around the world. It is a primer on the Navy – a must read – for anyone interested in military budget cuts.

    For Obama: cuts across the board work because he has no strategic world plan. For Romney: the military is one means of re-asserting American influence in an increasingly dangerous world.

    What do you think?

  5. the military is one means of re-asserting American influence in an increasingly dangerous world.

    In what way is it “an increasingly dangerous world”? Maybe there’s a more diffused control of nuclear weapons, that would increase danger in a collective sense, ie. a lot of people could be killed or injured in a single incident. But, hasn’t the world always been kind of a dangerous place? Is it really “increasingly dangerous”? At least for the individual that follows the dictates of whatever state controls his life? Any particular individual that actually is injured or killed is immeasurably more likely to suffer this fate at the hands of his own compatriots or the agents of his own state rather than a foreign power. The US Navy is unlikely to fire a Tomahawk missile at the sleaze-ball that’s cutting the lock off of my bicycle and he’s unlikely to be an Islamic terrorist.

    Are we really worried that the Iranians will construct a couple of dozen aircraft carrier groups and take over the world’s seaways? Will the Chinese take the profits from selling us low-priced consumer goods to build a 500 ship navy to make the Pacific their own swimming pool? Maybe they will, and maybe that would make the world increasingly dangerous or maybe not.

    1. “In what way is it “an increasingly dangerous world”? “

      Rising Islamic radicalism across the region. Iran on course to nuclear weapons capacity. Egypt now expressing interest in attaining nuclear weapons capacity. Resultant nuclear proliferation into unstable third world nations with the certainty that terrorist groups will then acquire nuclear weapons. Russia sending nuclear submarines into the Gulf of Mexico. Putin facilitating Iran’s pursuit of nukes. China asserting increasingly belligerent claims to control of the South China Sea and aggressive territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. N. Korea claiming they will soon have the ability to hit any US city.

      Is that enough?

      On Aug. 31, 1939 many European liberal/pacifists were still arguing that peace still reined across the continent and that Hitler could be contained through diplomacy. The next day Germany invaded Poland, Two years, 3 months and 7 days later Pearl Harbor was attacked and the world was at war.

      Was the world an “increasingly dangerous place” the night of Aug.31st, 1939? You bet it was. Only the obtuse thought otherwise.

      1. If you’re truly worried about the Norks hitting the city you inhabit and degrading your own property maybe you should do something about it. I’m more worried about the local swat team getting the wrong address and shooting a flash/bang grenade through the picture window, the odds of that happening being much better than a Nork rocket even getting off the ground. Actually, the Norks are a good subject for the discussion, one of the top tourist attractions of that hapless nation being the rusting hulk of the Pueblo, still anchored there, a constant reminder to them but forgotten by us that possession of hydrogen warheads is no insurance that your assets are safe from molestation. Did anybody ask either of the prez candidates if return of the Pueblo was on their “to do”
        WWII wasn’t enabled by liberal/pacifists. It was the inevitable outcome of the metastasis of the nation/state, where all the resources of a people could be commandeered by sociopath politicians.

  6. The sea is the sea, regardless of the quality of construction (and maintenance) the sea takes its toll on a vessel.

    Increased capability is one thing, aging platforms are another. A point I wished Romney had mentioned.

    State of the art upgrades on aging platforms are economically and operationally questionable.

    The trend line towards an aging Navy without adequate new building is what bugs me the most.

    Once you reach a certain point of decline in the number of vessels, it isn’t something you can rapidly correct in crunch time.

    An smaller older fleet will constraint global policy options. That’s where we are headed.

  7. That Obama’s approach is tactical or budgetary leaves plenty of room for congecture. Besides, that would depend greatly on who or what he is working for and that also leaves room for congecture.

    In any case, and like he said to his Russian communist friend recently, he [Obama] will have much more leverage to disarm the US after the elections…Of course that is if he wins…

    However, I would like to comment on this issue in case his intentions are indeed budgetary (or if he or others use that as a significantly dishonest and disingenuous excuse).

    Our Constitution gives the Federal Government the task, indeed the duty of defending the nation against all enemies and threats, foreign or domestic. It does NOT, on the other hand, task it with providing public schools, education for illegal immigrants, welfare, social security, food stamps, free abortions, free healthcare. etc. That’s what politicians do in order to get more votes and what the government does to better control the population So, from a constitutional, indeed from even a logical point of view, the goivernment should assign its budgetary priorities accordingly.

    Well…one can dream, right…?


  8. Very well said. Just think of all the Government programs we could live with out, or at least minamize. Legalize drugs, and do away with DEA and ATF for starters. I am just glad that Harry Ried only had a shoe bomb, and didn’t have a stick of dinamite up his butt, could you see what we would have to do to get though airport security, if he had. They would have to check more that our shoes. Or mabe the body scanner would pick that up.

  9. IIRC, Obama was replied to a fatuous remark about how the Navy was now weak because the US has a fewer absolute number of ships.
    the rejoinder was fitting for the attempt.

    1. Romney’s assertion that Obama’s policies over the next four years would result in a demonstrably weaker Navy is a fact, making Obama’s reply a plain indication of his incompetence as a Commander-in-Chief. Your fatuous comment is simply more apologia.

  10. “You don’t measure efficacy by the number of ships. You measure it by your firepower, by the character of your people, the character of your equipment.”

    — Richard Danzig.

    1. And the character of our equipment is declining.

      While the character of China’s Navy is increasing. Their anti-Aircraft Carrier missiles are particularly troubling.

      “Once you reach a certain point of decline in the number of vessels, it isn’t something you can rapidly correct in crunch time.

      An smaller older fleet will constraint global policy options. That’s where we are headed.” jgets

    2. And you are quoting the Clintonista responsible for gutting the US Navy (who is now reduced to being a denizen of HuffPo), on the blog of a Naval Intelligence Officer, why?

      The Kriegsmarine’s heavy cruisers (aka pocket battleships) had immensely superior firepower, the finest gun crews in the world, and unsurpassed maritime technology (especially for targeting), yet the British Royal Navy ate them for lunch. Why? Because they were badly outnumbered. It just wasn’t possible for the German surface combatants to mutually support each other. They were all hunted down either singly or in pairs. (that is to say, Danzig might not measure efficacy that way, but history disagrees).

        1. Mft, you should stop pointing out to the world how ignorant you are about naval warfare. Sea battles (WW1 or otherwise) haven’t been two-dimensional since (at the latest) 1864, when the CSS Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel (the USS Housatonic) in combat. Germans used submarines to great effect on WW1, and in WW2 (the war to which I was ACTUALLY referring), both the Americans AND the Germans did well in the three-dimensional world of submarine warfare.

          Don’t even PRETEND you can educate me about Naval Warfare – my family has been providing officers to the Royal Navy, then the American Navy for the previous 400 years – our most recent Ensign got her commission last year, and two of our Commanders are still on duty out there on the world’s oceans.

  11. For the sake of conversation

    Since we are on 3D warfare and we are not taking in Kirk’s “Enterprise” into account as the third dimension…

    Our Ohio-class ICBM boomers are all over twenty-five years old.It will take ten years to launch the first replacement… that’s if it were ordered today. That essentially means that in 2022 the least vulnerable leg of the old TRIAD will be standing on an over thirty-five year old leg…

    As for attack submarines we are looking at forty-two Los Angeles class boats, the youngest of which is fifteen years old. Half will be obsolete within the decade.

    That leaves you with @ twenty improved 688’s approaching the end of their operational lifespan in 2022.

    Add nine Virginia-class boats in service

    that give us @ thirty attack subs.

    Add two Seawolf-class boats

    That gives us @ Thirty-two boats

    Add @ ten Virginia class boats on order and under construction

    Call it a fleet of of about forty attack subs with half that number approaching obsolescence or the end of effective service life (the Impv. 688’s) .

    So call it (roughly) twenty attack subs fully operational (taking maintenance and overhauls into account) in 2022.

    Twenty boats, capability is great, but you can’t be in two places at the same time.

    Meanwhile , while we’re churn out attack boats at the rate of appx. 1 boat per two years per shipyard, where are we going to find an available shipyard to build the replacements for the Boomers? China?

      1. This is well known. If we are ever put in the position to commit all (or most) of our available forces to win a confrontation on solely one front, our adversaries would manipulate the situation to make gains on other fronts which we would be unable to successfully react to. We are tested on that constantly.

        Unless you are advocating that we no longer have global military commitments.

        Sea power is paramount for a Great Power in the style of America. I suggest you start by at least glancing at Thucydides on sea power. The principles have remained relatively unchanged.

        Btw Fuster, land based air power in all its technological forms, manned or unmanned is not enough to effectively control the seas.

        1. I’m suggesting that we have ways of holding on other fronts while our navy is engaged in the main elsewhere and that we’ll be able to return to wherever we left in short order.

          (in younger days, I glanced at the old stuff and got all the way through Mahan. then I got swept up in the fad about aeroplanes)

          1. Granted.

            Still, I have yet to see a drone manned by robots that can stop and board a ship Fuster. 🙂

          2. PS

            Don’t forget that the the Navy and Diplomacy (aside from pure military applications) have a wonderfully effective symbiotic relationship.

            You wouldn’t want to hamstring that option and force us into unnecessary conflict from the lack of a credible deterrent?

              1. You’re probably right about some of the time. But It’s that “sailor in every port” that backs up the phone call most of the time Fuster

                1. hey, I don’t look down on the Navy like my daddy did. i think that it takes a lot of guts and a lot of brain to do their job…and I think that he never could have done his job on all those islands in the South Pacific if the navy didn’t get him there, supply him and get the survivors off to the next island.

                  those sailors backed him up.

                  but things change……… submitted for disapproval,

                  from the next generation…for the next gen…..

                  back up for when the back up is away.


                  1. Ok, remote controlled platforms are a component in the general defense.

                    There are two recent disturbing incidents concerning remote controlled vehicles. The US drone over Iran and the Iranian/Hamas drone over Israel.
                    In the first instance it is unclear whether the drone malfunctioned or control was wrested from the operator. In the second, Israelis and Iranians fought over control of the drone before it was shot down.

                    Technology will advance far enough to break or jam the encrypted transmissions between operator and these rubber duckies too.

                    I’m not suggesting that they are useless.

  12. Did anyone else pick up on the phrase ‘ship’ that Obama used to describe submarines? They’re ‘boats’ and if Obama spent any time with folks in the Navy he’d understand that. Less than 2 weeks to go and the Obama nightmare will start to end.

    1. damn, but it’s just awful that Obama is ignorant of naval terminology.
      it’s because of that he called Romney a “bullsh1tter” rather than a “scuttlebutter”.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: