Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During the presidential debate on Monday night undoubtedly the most talked about segment (although not for the right reasons) came from the following exchange:
Governor Mitt Romney: …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.
President Barack Obama: …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.
No matter one's partisan proclivities, this is a discussion that is serious and important.
Why is the size of the Navy important? First, the United States is a maritime power with extensive port facilities on the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and even on the Great Lakes that help to fuel the American economy. Second, and feeding into the first, the high seas still account for the preponderance of international trade. According to a recent United Nations report:
Maritime transport handles over 80 per cent of the volume of global trade and accounts for over 70 per cent of its value. Since 1970, global seaborne trade has expanded on average by 3.1 per cent every year, reaching an estimated 8.4 billion tons in 2010. At this pace, and assuming no major upheaval in the world economy, global seaborne trade is expected to increase by 36 per cent in 2020 and to double by 2033. While bulk trade accounts for the largest share of global seaborne trade by volume, the containerized cargo contribution grew more than threefold between 1985 and 2010.
Third, if the 21st century really is the Asia-Pacific century, and American policy makers are serious about "pivoting" to Asia, then the largely littoral nature of the East Asian mainland and its close-in insular networks mean that the naval power will be increasingly important.
Neither candidate seems to deny these points; they just address them in different ways. For Romney quantity matters, for Obama quality has a quantity all its own. Like most things in life both views have some validity.
But let's look at the numbers. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance 2012 the United States currently has 114 principal surface combatants (aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates) and 57 tactical submarines. But that doesn't mean that all 171 of these ships are out patrolling the world's oceans and seas all at once. No, like most things in the military these ships (take an aircraft carrier for instance) are either deployed, just back from a deployment, preparing for a future deployment, or are in maintenance. That means that at any given time there are at most 57 of these vessels are spread across the globe—unless other ships are surged out of the training or recovery cycles in case of crises or emergencies. Furthermore, most of these ships do not operate independently. A Carrier Strike Group, for instance, operates with a minimum of an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, two destroyers, an attack submarine, and a supply ship (this last ship isn't counted in the 171 or 57 numbers). If three of these strike groups are deployed at any time then that takes a good-sized bite out of the 57-vessel number. More ships then probably help to act as an insurance policy for global contingencies—and as a global power, unlike other great powers, we actually do act and project power globally.
The other set of numbers relating to quality, or the realities of the current defense industrial base, however, are also telling. The new Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers come with a price tag of $14 billion apiece ($42 billion for three ships). Even smaller ships like the Flight III version of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer will cost between $3-4 billion each. Consolidation of the defense industrial base since the 1990s and the lack of competition here partially drive these costs. Another driver, however, is the piling of requirements onto these types of systems. Additional requirements undoubtedly drive up the capabilities of ships, but it also could create the equivalent of floating Fabergé eggs that are so expensive that they can't be risked being used too closely to coasts.
So where does that leave us? From this "landlubber's" perspective it means that we need to strike a balance between the positions of the quality and quantity crowds (a Navy in the range of 300 vessels). We should do this while trying to get a handle on spiraling procurement costs and using research and development to fully take advantage of advances in information technology and unmanned systems to bolster our capabilities and maintain a sufficient set of vessel quantity to hedge against uncertainty. After all, it still remains unclear the designs of other great powers on the waves, particularly in East Asia.