By Jonathan H. Levy*
Ages ago, in the final presidential debate on foreign affairs, Republican presidential nominee and former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney suggested that because the United States Navy has only 286 ships, 42 fewer than Navy planners have requested, the Navy is unprepared to fulfill its mission. Bristling at the suggestion that the Navy is unprepared, President Barack Obama quipped, “You mention . . . that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” President Obama seems to assume that possessing the strength of the great navies of yesteryear—the Athenians at Salamis, the English and Spanish Armadas, Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet—is unnecessary, or at least less relevant now than for the past four millennia. By proposing to underfund the Navy by $815 million in his 2012 budget, President Obama has made clear that he is willing to act on this belief.
His hypothesis is, however, not only wrong, but also dangerous given current tides. In the past year, maritime issues have arisen from China to Iran that may require a strong navy:
- China recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. As Mark Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “[W]hereas 20 years ago [China] possessed one ballistic-missile submarine and the U.S. 34, now it has three (with two more coming) and the U.S. 14. Over the same span, China has gone from 94 to 71 submarines in total, while the U.S. has gone from 121 to 71. As our numbers decrease at a faster pace, China is also closing the gap in quality.” And as for principal surface warships, “China has risen from 56 to 78, the U.S. has descended from 207 to 114.” The President thinks we must focus solely on capabilities, but as Mr. Helprin writes, “To hold that numbers and mass in war are unnecessary is as dangerous as believing that they are sufficient.” Because of China’s increased capability, the United States cannot let its own capabilities slip.
- Earlier this year, the United States Navy SEALs successfully rescued two hostages taken by Somali pirates in October 2011, but the Journal of Commerce reports that “pirates have killed at least six crewmembers and taken 448 seafarers hostage. The IMB Piracy Reporting Center recorded that 125 vessels were boarded, 24 hijacked and 26 fired upon. In addition, 58 attempted attacks were reported.” To protect American lives and interests, our navy must be up to the challenge of rogue pirates.
- This fall, Japan bought a chain of islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese owner, reigniting an old dispute with China over claims of sovereignty. The Asian powers (including Taiwan, which also lays claim to the islands) brought the dispute to the UN General Assembly. It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that there will be a legal resolution to the problem. Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) has even called for American intervention. It may be unwise for the United States to engage in this particular dispute, but it still shows that naval engagements are not a thing of the past in the Pacific. To protect American interests in the area, the Navy must retain a qualitative edge.
- This summer, Russia sent two naval vessels to the disputed Kuril islands, calling into question another of Japan’s insular claims. This 2012 episode seems almost part of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war over the Korean peninsula resolved by President Theodore Roosevelt (that earned President Roosevelt the first American Nobel Peace Prize in 1906). Again, potential intervention into this conflict will require visible muscle, like President Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet.
- The near-nuclear, and increasingly hostile, Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz through which 20 percent of the world’s oil exports pass. An essential job for the United States Navy is to protect our oil interests abroad.
Despite this demonstrated need, the Navy has been losing capability for two decades. In 2011, nearly 22 percent of the Navy fleet failed its annual inspection, an over 100% increase since 2007. Governor Romney’s 286 ship statement may even be too high: some have estimated that the Navy is capable of maintaining only a 220 ship fleet. The Department of the Navy estimates its force at 285 active ships as of 2011.
In April, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave a speech at the Brookings Institution where he said, “Millions of people have emerged from poverty around the world in part because our Navy protects the freedom of the seas, allowing the ever-increasing flow of goods between nations.” Indeed, naval power, so closely associated with the era of horses and bayonets, continues to be essential to United States diplomacy and national security, and the President’s debate rejoinder is not just distorting and disrespectful, but it is a dangerous assertion that twenty-first century technologies have obviated the supposedly eighteenth century need for a navy. Some have already made dire predictions about President Obama’s navy in the next four years. Still, as President Obama begins his second term, let us hope that his quip was merely political rhetoric, and if not, that he comes to fully understand the continuing relevance of maintaining a strong and capable United States Navy.
* Jonathan H. Levy is a 2014 J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. He is a former law clerk for Commander Charles D. Stimson, a reserve judge in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps who is currently the Chief of Staff at The Heritage Foundation. His views are solely his own.
Photo courtesy of US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate/Released.