Horses, Bayonets And Ships, Oh My!

Unlike many of my colleagues, I found last Monday’s foreign policy debate informative. For example, I found out that the President’s views on weapons systems, force structure and sequestration are simplistic, at best and completely cockeyed, at worst. Responding to Governor Romney’s statement that the number of Navy ships today was lower than it had been since 1917 — and heading lower — the President opined that “. . . we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed.” Elsewhere he criticized Governor Romney for wanting to provide the military with resources “they didn’t ask for” and claimed that he had no hand in creating the sequestration debacle but that it didn’t matter anyway because sequestration “will not happen.”

I suppose I should not be too hard on President Obama. He demonstrated he knew that there were ships called aircraft carriers and things that go underwater called nuclear submarines. Does he know that there are different types of nuclear submarines?

The problem with the President’s comments is they do not reflect reality, neither the one we live in presently nor the one we are heading for regardless of who becomes president. Take the subject of horses. It is clear that the President never read Doug Stanton’s great book titled Horse Soldiers about the role of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Operating on horseback was so important that the SOF commander on the ground had to make an urgent request to the Pentagon for better cavalry saddles.

Then there is the bayonet. Yes, the Twitteratti immediately pointed out that the military still uses bayonets (why wasn’t that in the President’s briefing book). More important, the kinds of conflicts we have been fighting for the past decade created a need for lots of sharp and pointy instruments as well as improved cold weather gear, night vision goggles, laser designators, etc. The counter terrorist fights of the future are likely to be such as to ensure that the bayonet continues to be an important military tool.

Then there is the size of the Navy. It is true that modern warships are much more capable than those of past eras, particularly that of the battleship circa 1917. But it is equally true that the demands on that Navy have skyrocketed. Today’s fleet of nuclear submarines to which the President made reference cannot meet current levels of demand for intelligence support. The Stennis carrier battle group had to be sent out ahead of its planned deployment because we were shy a second carrier battle group in the Arabian Sea with which to meet the growing Iranian threat. This increased the wear and tear on people and equipment. It also means that at the other end of its life, it will be available for one less deployment. And no amount of technology can allow a ship to be in two places at once. Moreover, the President’s much ballyhooed pivot to the Asia-Pacific region places yet additional stress on the Navy because you need four ships for every one forward deployed in the Western Pacific.

The Navy said it needed at least 313 ships, including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, to perform its assigned missions and that was before the pivot. Yet the size of the Fleet is already down to 300 and, under the Obama plan, will go down to around 268. With sequestration, that number will decline further to as few as 238. Governor Romney should have asked the President why he thinks it makes sense to attempt a pivot to Asia with a Navy he plans to shrink by more than 20 percent. Would it not make more sense to increase the size as Governor Romney proposes?

Unfortunately for those who think the President had a winning line in the third debate, he was wrong on all counts. It is because the nature of our military has changed in response to changing threats and requirements that horses, bayonets and more ships are even more important today than they have been in the past.