Robert C. O'Brien's Perspective:
Governor Romney was right and President Obama was wrong when it comes to the importance of maintaining a strong United States Navy
“[W]e 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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them.” That unfortunate quip was, of course, made by President Obama at the debate on foreign policy at Lynn University earlier this month.
|Sailors prepare for the final deployment of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise at the Norfolk Naval Station.
What the President failed to mention is that in December of this year, we’ll have one less of those things “called aircraft carriers” when the USS Enterprise is retired.
In 2013, the U.S. Navy will have fewer carriers — 10 — than the Congressionally-mandated fleet. Assuming that sequestration and additional Obama defense cuts are implemented, defense experts believe that it is likely that the carrier fleet will shrink further still.
One defense contractor who manages the building of new carriers told BusinessWeek that the cuts are an “end-of-earth scenario.”
Of those 10 carriers still in the fleet, using today’s deployments as a model, just four would be at sea at any given time. Only one — the USS George Washington — would be forward deployed in Asia.
The other three would likely be found in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea (supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan) and involved in training exercises.
Of the remaining six carriers, two would be in post-deployment status in their home ports and four would be in short, medium, or long term maintenance and unavailable during a crisis.
As Governor Romney correctly pointed out in the debate, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since World War I, standing some 28 warships below the minimum 313 warships that the Navy has said are necessary to fulfill its global missions.
At the same time, China is embarked on a massive buildup of its People’s Liberation Army Navy and Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia will invest hundreds of billions of petro-dollars into expanding the Russian fleet.
The centerpiece of China’s naval modernization is a new fleet of aircraft carriers. China launched its first carrier in September — the Liaonin. That ship began touch-and-go flight training this month with China’s J-15 Flying Shark fighter.
The Liaonin, a totally refurbished ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship is just a start for China. Several weeks ago at a major maritime security conference in Canada, a senior Chinese official told attendees that China planned on building three indigenous "big" carriers and that they would be "nuclear." He also attempted to sooth any Western concerns by claiming that China’s carriers would be "friendly" to America.
While it may take a decade or more for China to reach these goals and while the U.S. may temporarily increase its carrier force when the new Ford class carriers start joining the fleet (barring sequestration style cuts), it is clear that there will soon be a new naval aviation balance in the Pacific that is not entirely good for the U.S. Navy.
Because America’s obligations are global, at any given time it is likely that only one U.S. carrier would be at sea in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s primary maritime goals, on the other hand, are regional where it seeks to incorporate large swaths of the East and South China Seas into its territorial waters. With four carriers in its fleet, it will likely have two carriers at sea in the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States Navy has ensured our nation’s prosperity and contributed to the rise of world economic growth for the better part of a century by maintaining the freedom of the seas — the global commons. When a crisis occurs, the American president’s first question is, and will be for many years to come, “where are the carriers?” Yet by its own analysis, the U.S. Navy does not have sufficient ships to carry out its missions and the carrier fleet is getting smaller.
Indeed, in a future contingency, the US Navy might even be out numbered in a particular theater. Joking that having fewer American warships in the water to keep the sea lanes open is the equivalent to having fewer horse-mounted cavalry brigades sadly demonstrates a lack of understanding of this critical issue by the current administration.
Robert C. O'Brien is a senior foreign policy advisor to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He is the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of a national law firm and has served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations. Visit his website here.
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