Last night, President Obama generated tremendous Internet buzz with his “horses and bayonets” remark. While the U.S. Armed Forces have of course advanced technologically, the President’s statement is a disservice to the sailors and Marines who rely on our robust fleet every day, and it dramatically oversimplifies the importance of U.S. naval power.
In response to Governor Mitt Romney’s comment that the U.S. is headed for its smallest naval fleet since 1917, the President quipped, “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.” The President continued in his retort, “The question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s—it’s what are our capabilities?”
He is correct that we have the most capable Navy in the world, but as the old saying goes, quantity is a quality all its own. In Haiti, the Navy played a critical role in restoring stability and aiding the distressed and injured after the earthquake of 2010. Marines played a critical role in this effort, yet the fleet of amphibious ships they embark from will shrink significantly under Obama’s projected defense budget. Under sequestration, the amphibious fleet will shrink even more.
The President also used aircraft carriers to support his claim that we don’t need more ships. Again, this is an oversimplification. While these vessels do give the U.S. a significant advantage in being able to transport air power to rival that of most nations on each ship, they cannot be everywhere at once. The carrier fleet currently stands at 11—a congressionally mandated requirement. Under defense cuts, the fleet is projected to fall to 10.
One of the most strategic assets the Navy fields is its ballistic missile nuclear submarine fleet. These boats provide key deterrence and present the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad. The replacement for the aging Ohio-class ballistic subs is under development, yet under Obama’s budget—even before factoring in sequestration—the program is delayed by two years. This will cause a critical capability gap in the fleet for 14 years.
As with the carrier fleet, these strategic submarines do not require a fleet in the hundreds—or even in the dozens. The Navy has stated that its minimum requirement for a viable strategic deterrent at sea is 12 ballistic missile submarines.
Those who favor a larger fleet are not arguing for some massive buildup but just a level that the Navy has repeatedly stated is necessary. The capacity to build, sail, and maintain these vessels exists. It is the Administration’s attempts to slash defense that will cause a failure to meet these requirements.
America’s military capabilities have certainly evolved since World War I. But so have the threats America faces, the area our fleet must cover, and the global economy our Navy sustains by protecting freedom of navigation.
The President can dismiss calls for a more robust fleet, but that accomplishes nothing more than weakening America’s position in the world and undermining the sailors and Marines who protect the nation every day.