Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To what extent is the Navy setting forth a strategic vision that agrees with your understanding of America’s global role?

Barack Obama Campaign Response: Today's guest is Secretary Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the Navy under President Bill Clinton and an advisor to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign on national security issues.

To what extent is the Navy setting forth a strategic vision that agrees with your understanding of America’s global role?

As we emerge from over a decade of war and prepare for the battles of the future, the question I’ve been asked to address here is important: “To what extent is the Navy setting forth a strategic vision that agrees with your understanding of America’s global role?” President Obama has been clear about the importance of the Navy in confronting the most pressing challenges we’re going to face, and he is committed to maintaining the United States Navy as the most powerful in the world.

As I will describe below, President Obama has matched words with actions, articulated a strategy for allocating our assets, and greatly improved the leverage we get from these assets. Against this we need to consider the alternatives articulated by Governor Romney and his top advisor on Navy issues, one of my predecessors as Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman.

Having once asserted that the Governor should be able to change his positions like an “etch-a-sketch,” the Romney campaign seems to have evolved to paint by numbers. There is no alternative strategy here. Instead, we are presented with a mindless assertion that we should reach certain numerical targets and that any shortfall from these targets endangers our national security.

For example, Gov. Romney declared his conviction that base defense spending should be set at a floor of 4% of GDP. The number is without logic behind it. And it is inconsistent with the Governor’s pledges to reduce both the deficit and taxes.

Most fundamentally, this approach puts the cart before the horse: we are given a spending level without a strategy. What would a Romney Administration spend (and not spend!) its money on? How would it change our existing priorities? On these subjects, Gov. Romney is without a detailed strategy.

Similarly hanging his hat on a number, Sec. Lehman has accused the Obama administration of “radically cutting the size and strength of the Navy,” noting that the number of ships stands at 286. And Romney’s foreign policy white paper even claimed that the Navy has “the lowest level [of ships] since 1916.”

There are three principal troubles with this. It is factually wrong. It is hypocritical. And it is a mindless substitute of numbers for substance.

The decline in the size of the Navy so decried by John Lehman actually occurred during the Bush Administration. In 2001, at the end of the Clinton Administration, we had 316 ships. As President Bush was nearing the end of his second term, the fleet stood at 278 ships. Before Barack Obama ever took office, the Navy was cut by 38 ships to, in Romney’s words, its lowest level since 1916. Today, under President Obama, we have 286 active ships – up from the Bush Administration low.

And do we really believe that our focus on the US Navy should be on its number of ships, bemoaning that there are fewer than in 1917 or a subsequent year? As the current Secretary of the Navy recently pointed out (using a slightly different analogy), comparison of quantities like this is like saying we are now weaker because we had more telegraphs in 1917 than main-frame computers today.

US Navy photo

No single metric can alone convey the present power of the US or any other Navy. But, for example, the widely respected British analyst Geoffrey Till has concluded that the best metric of power is the size of ships plus what they carry – their full-load capacity. By that measure, the power of the US Navy is estimated to exceed the next thirteen Navies combined.

The real issues are about how we use the Navy, how we equip it, and how we modernize it. The Obama Administration grappled with these issues and made real progress when, for example, it revived the Arleigh Burke destroyer program and greatly expanded that ship’s missile defense and radar capabilities. The Burke Flight Three changes are on track to come on-line in 2016.

The Obama Administration also took innovative and effective steps when it moved ships forward to Spain and Singapore – bringing crews to ships, rather than bringing ships home to crews. The result is significantly more time in theater.

Far from relying solely on numbers, President Obama made strategic judgments when he and his Defense Department leadership decided to turn our attention to the Asia-Pacific region and moved ships in the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific. In doing so, the President has tied defense spending to strategy and not to ideology. And the naval rotations and new opportunities in Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia reflect the kind of smart spending that people expect in tough economic times – not the ideological “more is better” spending that helped get us into these tough economic times.

President Obama and his military leadership’s new defense strategy keeps the US Navy as the strongest fleet in the world by orders of magnitude. We are maintaining 11 aircraft carriers, 10 air wings, and our large-scale amphibious fleet. We will forward-station littoral combat ships and patrol craft in strategic locations, and acquire a floating staging base to support intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, special operations forces, and counter-mine missions.

There is plenty of room for debate about the Navy. But the Obama Administration has accomplished real things on the basis of substantial thought and real work. In contrast, the President’s predecessor and present opponent offer poor performance and empty rhetoric.

Policy by numbers is no more credible than painting by numbers. What the Republicans give you is loud language and, from the Bush Administration, a smaller Navy. If your criterion is building a fleet designed to confront the challenges we as a nation face today and in the future, you are better served by President Obama’s leadership on these issues.

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