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President Obama Sunk Our Battleship(s)!: Or How Politicians Don't Understand Modern Warfare

(To read all of our election coverage, click here.)

Somewhere between hope, change and the 2008 inauguration, President Obama developed a well-honed sense of snark. Exhibit A is the quickly-internet-famous exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney in the “foreign policy (avoiding)” debate:

Romney: Our Navy is smaller now than anytime since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy...”

President Obama: “...I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

“And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's — it's what are our capabilities.”

Too many pundits dismissed President Obama’s criticism as a well-timed sarcastic quip, ignoring the larger question: what type of navy does our country need? The entire national security apparatus, from the Pentagon to Congress, fails to understand that strategy means making tough decisions. We can’t have it all.

Take the future of naval warfare. Read our quick, overly-broad history of naval warfare during the twentieth century in our post “Fighting the Last War: Disruptive Change, Iran and Millennium Challenge 2002”, then re-read the exchange above. Obama basically said what we said, just quicker and more sarcastically. The most pertinent quote:

“If one single invention, manned flight, transformed warfare at sea, what has the digital age done? Since World War II, the world went through its most creative and innovative technological period ever, inventing computers, missiles, guided missiles, the transistor, nuclear power, satellites and countless smaller innoventions, and drastically perfecting everything (radios and wireless communication especially) from before. (Yes, rockets existed in World War II, but the post-war arms race transformed them into something entirely different, like the difference between monkeys and humans.)

Can/Have those inventions transformed war at sea and the U.S. Navy doesn’t even know about it?...

Has the guided missile--whether sea launched, land launched, or torpedo--replaced aircraft carriers, battleships and missile frigates? Is smaller and more maneuverable better? Will swarms beat giants?”

The U.S. Navy can’t have it all at sea. They, like our military as a whole, must choose between priorities; choosing weapon systems that we are most likely to use in the future against the foes we are most likely to face.

In that new calculus, Mitt Romney’s desire to drastically expand the number of ships in the U.S. Navy doesn’t make a lot of sense. Does he mean battleships, or aircraft carriers? Or what about missile frigates that have as much firepower as our entire Navy in 1916? Or what about cruise missiles which can range out thousands of miles? Why will ships matter more than planes in future wars? Or what about ships, planes and drones?

Worse, does he even realize that more big ships wouldn’t even help in most of our current wars?

Take for example, a war with Iran. The U.S. doesn’t need another battleship, or two, or a dozen more, if a war kicked off in the Persian Gulf. In fact, as I wrote about extensively in these two posts, Due to its extraordinarily small width and depth, most U.S. big ships would have little room to maneuver. Iran would still lose, but they could make it really ugly.

The Iranians know this. They know we designed aircraft carriers and battleships to steam around the world and fight in the middle of giant oceans, not trade fire/mines/suicide boats/anti-ship ballistic missiles, in a tiny lake with a preponderance of oil in the land around it.

The U.S. Navy knows this too. They have tried for the last ten or so years to build a ship which could fight in the Gulf. The resulting monstrosity--the Littoral Combat Ship--doesn’t actually accomplish the missions it need to, is much larger than it was supposed to be and has been riven with cost overruns. In short, the U.S. Navy doesn’t need any more battleships, it needs more Littoral Combat Ships, but thanks to the waste and inefficiencies in weapon acquisitions, it doesn’t have them. As I wrote before...

“Of course, this same Navy designed the Littoral Combat Ship almost specifically for the Persian Gulf, and, well, instead of the dozens we should have, the U.S. Navy has two. Even though U.S. naval forces have patrolled the gulf since the Shah fell, multiple intelligence estimates have declared Iran one of the major U.S. threats, and President Bush put Iran and Iraq into the “axis of evil”, instead of getting lighter and smaller, the U.S. Navy has gotten bigger and heavier, unprepared for sea war in the Persian Gulf. That doesn’t sound like a navy prepared for “asymmetric naval guerrilla warfare”.

As we wrote last week, that last part is the problem. The Pentagon cannot quickly and cheaply build weapon systems to fight our probable future wars. Both candidates need to realize that this is a problem.

(It also doesn’t help that Romney is advised by someone with ties to naval procurement. At least Foreign Policy's John Arquilla agreed with him that war is like battleship.)

One comment

Historically, small boats haven’t done very well in combat against larger ships. PT boats were almost useless and the only missile boat that I can recall sinking anything made its shot from inside a harbor. Little boats bounce around a lot which makes aiming hard and they don’t take a hit very well. 40 knots may seem blazing fast for a little boat but if helo were down low going 40 it would be judged to be poking along and an easy target for the weapons on large ships. All that may no longer be true but swarms of small vessels haven’t done well in the past.

The USN has fought and prevailed against huge, repeated and sustained guided missile attacks in the past, the Kamikazes. One thing about that fight that can be learned is that not all the incoming missiles will be stopped. Some will get through and they will hit ships, sinking them or putting them out of action. So it is good to have enough ships available to replace those hit. Also, larger ships take a hit, for the most part, better than small ships.

The Persian Gulf is restricted but then so were the waters from Guadalcanal northwest to Rabaul. Despite that large ships fought many battles in there for a long time. To my knowledge the carriers stayed out but nothing else did.

Almost all the carrier action there has been has been in support of something that was happening or about to happen on land. They have occurred with land somewhere fairly close. The only exception I can think of is the escort carriers chasing subs way out in mid-ocean. All the big carrier battles of WWII were precipitated by an invasion or in support of a land fight. All of the carrier action since WWII has been in support of a land fight. That is really what the carriers have always done.

Having surface combatants better suited to the Persian Gulf is a good thing. But will that unit be useful if we have to fight the Red Chinese? At any one time there is only so much money to spend, will it serve to build something that won’t be so good for the Pacific? Iran can’t beat us, just hurt us. If we went up against the PLAN with ships built for the Persian Gulf we might get more than hurt.

These are all just things I thought of that make this stuff hard to figure.