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 budgetary priorities, 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.