Why Romney's Right: Many Cheap Ships Safer Than Few Expensive Ones

Barack Obama lost the debate in Boca Raton last night. It must have been the altitude.

The president patronized, interrupted, and mocked Republican challenger Mitt Romney throughout the night. In return, Romney acted presidential, and may have put this election away.

A key moment of the night in this final policy debate was a set-piece zinger by the president as the candidates discussed military spending:

Romney: Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time 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.

Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We’ve changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict.

Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts that the president has as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is — is — is making our future less certain and less secure. I won’t do it.

Obama: Bob, I just need to comment on this. First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed. It’s something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we’re talking about is not reducing our military spending. It’s maintaining it.

But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — 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.

Historian Tim Stanley covered the exchange for the UK’s Telegraph, and was not impressed:

The candidates were discussing military spending and Romney had just accused Obama of making harmful cutbacks. The president wheeled out what must have seemed like a great, pre-planned zinger: “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 because the nature of our military’s changed.” The audience laughed, Obama laughed, I laughed. It was funny.

But here’s why it was also a vote loser. For a start, Twitter immediately lit up with examples of how the U.S. Army does still use horses and bayonets (horses were used during the invasion of Afghanistan). More importantly, this was one example of many in which the president insulted, patronized, and mocked his opponent rather than put across a constructive argument.

Stanley’s analysis was similar to post-debate observations by political columnist Charles Krauthammer, who noted: “Romney went large. Obama went very, very small — shockingly small.” Both men were correct in their observations that Romney won the debate.

But what was most fascinating: the American media, so obviously biased in favor of Obama, looked at this same exchange on “how our military works” and gave the victory to the president. They can only do so from a position of ignorance.

We do have carrier strike groups, and we do have nuclear submarines.

Currently, we field eleven carrier strike groups, consisting of a super-carrier and its air wing, cruiser, a small squadron of destroyers or frigates, and one or two attack submarines lurking under the surface. Various supply ships also weave in an out of the group to keep them fed and (in the case of the non-nuclear-powered ships) fueled.

Carrier strike groups can perform many roles, and can do many things. They have, as the president notes, “capabilities.” These capabilities, however, do not include the ability to be in two or more places at once. Nor can a Navy as heavily invested in capital ships as we are manage to easily recover if a carrier strike group is significantly damaged or crippled.

Technology and firepower is part of a military’s balance, but we know very well that the number of ships and aircraft we are able to field, and field in various roles, is critical. While Obama mocks Romney for his dated military references, he refuses to grasp a military reality made readily apparent in World War II.

In World War II, the German war machine’s technological advantages far outstripped those of any other nation. They created the first cruise missiles (the V1), the first ICBM (the V2), the first assault rifle (STG-44), the first jet- and rocket-powered combat aircraft, and even the first “stealth” fighter-bomber almost 40 years before we could replicate it (though the war ended before the Ho 229 could enter combat).

One of the technological highlights of the German Army was the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E, or what Allied tankers learned to fear simply as the Tiger tank.

The Tiger was a masterpiece of German engineering. It was complex, heavily armed, and heavily armored. The high velocity 8.8cm main gun could destroy any Allied tank on the Western Front with a single shot, and allied tank crews fielding medium Sherman tanks against the Tiger came to call their vehicles “Ronsons” after the cigarette lighter, because they “lit the first time, every time.” In a one-on-one battle, or even a two- or three-on-one battle, the Tiger almost always came out victorious.

Today, one working Tiger exists.

Despite the Tiger’s technological superiority and reliability, our mass-produced, under-armored, under-gunned M4 Shermans simply overwhelmed them with numbers. By war’s end, Germany had manufactured just 1,347 Tigers. We’d built more than 49,000 Shermans.

Our modern Air Force and Navy have not learned anything from World War II. We’ve sunk — pardon the term — literally trillions of dollars into the development of nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered carrier strike groups and ballistic missile submarines, but the loss of a single one would be an overwhelming blow from which it would take years to recover.

We’ve created a Navy that is “too big to fail,” in terms of the importance and capital investment we’ve placed on just eleven ships — an incredibly short-sighted position. We’ve made similarly bad investments in the gee-whiz technology of the F-22 Raptor, where every accident or combat loss costs $150 million each, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will cost (if they are ever fielded) as much as a quarter-billion dollars each to replace for the Navy and Marine versions. We’re creating planes and ships that are too expensive to risk losing in combat. These technological marvels are backed by systems and support elements that are 50 years old, being used by the grandchildren of the men that built and used them.

It’s absurd.

What Mitt Romney has proposed is a shift in our way of thinking about the military that a community organizer simply can’t grasp.

Romney has proposed a Navy of lighter, more numerous, less expensive, and more deployable multiple-role ships that can be better geographically dispersed around the globe to more quickly respond to need, instead of having less than a dozen carrier strike groups chasing problems around the world.

Romney’s plan to use COTS (commercial off the shelf) technologies across the entire military may not be as sexy as spending billions to mount futuristic lasers and rail-guns on ships, but what it will do is put more ships and sailors on the water.

It’s a stunning turnaround offered by one of America’s best turnaround artists. Romney proposes to toss the bureaucratic dead-weight out of the military, out of the Pentagon, and replace them with real war-fighters and practical weapons.

Against this sound advice, Obama offers only quips.

I think we all know who sounds more presidential.

Also read:

A Unicorn is Just a Horse with a Bayonet

Horses and Bayonets: Another Meme That Does Not Mean What They Think it Means