Both Obama and Romney want to buy more submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, but Romney also wants a new frigate and a dedicated missile-defense ship. Both the President and his challenger are advocating more tactical fighter aircraft, including a mix of F/A-18s and F-35s. Romney advisers have said they want more of the legacy Hornets, in addition to the new joint-service platform and want to add an 11th carrier air wing, to match air units to each of the Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers.
The two also differ on the total number of ships the Navy needs. At the 19 October foreign policy debate, Romney stuck by his call for a 350-ship fleet. “Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917,” Romney said. “I want to make sure we have the ships that are required by our Navy."
The stand prompted one of the more terse exchanges between the two candidates during this cycle.
Obama dismissed Romney’s numbers argument, quipping that the military had “fewer horses and bayonets” today than in 1917. He said that Romney “hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works.” Obama argued that the force structure should be based on validated requirements, not arbitrary numbers. But therein lies the rub. Future force structure levels are really little more than arbitrary numbers that force planners derive from a complex requirements process. And neither Obama nor Romney has a plan that meets the Navy and Marine Corps’ current force requirement. The requirements are little more than educated guesses but procurement decisions need to be made based on real-world conditions. Let’s look at how both plans could address the Department’s strategic vision while meeting the services’ current and future needs.
The requirements process looks at current and future threats and planners apply theoretical force levels to those challenges. Most of the formal process is classified, but one resulting product is the Navy’s requirement for between 310 and 316 ships, 10 carrier air wings, between 126 and 171 surveillance and reconnaissance and electronic warfare aircraft and three Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEFs). The detailed list is included as part of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
The QDR sets the “long-term course for DoD as it assesses the threats and challenges that the nation faces and re-balances DoD's strategies, capabilities, and forces to address today's conflicts and tomorrow's threats,” according to the document’s mandate. Along with the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) and Space Posture Review (SPR), the QDR provides the most transparent look at what underpins the Department’s requirements.
The defense strategy section of the latest QDR, published in February 2010, focuses on three key topics — current operations, a shifting operational landscape and developing geopolitical trends.
The section on current operations focused heavily on Afghanistan and Iraq. “Prevailing in current operations constitutes the Department’s top priority,” the QDR says, adding that the U.S. must “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and eliminate safe havens.” Neither the Obama nor Romney shipbuilding plans would substantively impact ongoing missions, and the addition of a carrier air wing, as proposed by Romney, would do little to contribute to the current fight in Afghanistan, where forces will draw down by 2014.
Based on the fly-away costs of Navy F/A-18s and E/A-18s outlined in the Navy’s FY 2013 Aircraft plan, the 26 to 32 new legacy fighters that make up the bulk of a carrier air wing could cost the Navy between $1.75 and $2.15 billion and additional spending would be needed to round out the mix of airframes with early warning and resupply aircraft and helicopters.
In the QDR’s section on the shifting operational landscape, planners predict that the Navy’s operational envelope will continue to expand into the littorals, a view that has evolved over the last decade and spawned requirements for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The LCS was designed to replace the aging Oliver Hazard Perry -class frigates and mine detection and countermeasure ships, enabling Navy forces to operate close to shore and clearing the way for the Marines to secure beachheads. Despite being troubled by cost overruns, design challenges and mission creep, the LCS is a deeply imbedded part of the Navy’s future plan.
Both Obama and Romney support the LCS program, but their views on operational requirements differ. Under the Obama strategy, the LCS could support a range of combat operations but only with the protection of other warships from the battle group. Romney’s top naval advisor, former Reagan Secretary of Navy, John Lehman, envisions the ship operating independently because, as he says, the LCS is not well suited to act “as a fleet deployer, not as a battle group deployer.”
Lehman argues that the ship’s range makes it incompatible with the destroyers, cruisers, carriers and submarines that would deploy as part of a full battle group package. But in an April 2012 address at the National Press Club, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert admitted that the ship was not designed to operate in anti-access areas without escort. And the Pentagon’s independent Director of Operational Test and Evaluation said that the LCS was “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.” By that measure, the ship could only be useful if operating as part of a larger strike group or in permissive environments.
The Romney camp has argued that the Navy should design and construct a new class of frigates that could deploy with the fleet, support a similar set of missions and adequately protect itself. Such a new frigate would undoubtedly provide the Navy with more flexibility and more options in combat environments, but the proposal raises several questions.
First, the costs of developing a new vessel would likely run well into the billions, and the new ship could take more than a decade to reach the fleet. The resulting platform would be similar in many ways to the LCS, but made more robust, enabling it to engage in combat operations with the strike group. But the Navy says the LCS can already do that and be similarly survivable. Where the two platforms would differ is how they handle independent operations in non-permissive environments. A new frigate could enable close in direct fire support in anti-access areas, where an LCS could not. Having that capability, however, does not mean the Navy would use it, especially since such an operational concept is unlikely to be a popular with fleet commanders or the Navy’s top brass.
Finally, current strategy has an eye toward developing geopolitical trends. Over the past two years, we have seen the Obama administration initiate a strategic pivot to the Asian-Pacific that has included agreements to base ships in Singapore, move Marines to Australia and, most recently, launch carrier patrols into the South China Sea. But the new posture, aimed at containing China’s regional ambitions and reinforcing U.S. naval preeminence in that part of the world, remains little more than a shift in force structure and, thus far, does not include plans for any new ship or aircraft production.
Under Romney’s plan, additional ships could translate into more vessels at sea and fewer in refit, maintenance or on stand-by. Romney advocates the construction of three Virginia -class fast attack submarines a year. The current plan is for two. In terms of requirements, Romney’s strategy could mean more boats stationed in the Pacific theater and more patrols of Southeast Asian waters, addressing a critical component of the Navy’s future strategy.
Romney also wants to design and build a dedicated ballistic missile defense vessel to support a more robust sea-based capability. Romney’s advisors say that the Arleigh Burke -class destroyers being modified today for missile defense duty will not provide enough power for the ballistic missile tracking system of tomorrow — the Air Missile Defense Radar.
The Obama administration stands by its AEGIS-based platform for ballistic missile defense, advocating for separate nodes at sea and ashore that are cornerstones of the Phased Adaptive Approach.
Both approaches would appear to meet the requirement of defeating inbound ballistic missiles, but it is difficult to compare how a ship that has enjoyed modest successes thus far compares to one that does not yet exist. At best, the ship conceived under a Romney Administration, if designed and built quickly and made fully mission capable in the near-term, could provide a more robust anti-missile capability to the fleet. But the current Arleigh Burke -class systems appear to be working as designed and at a fraction of the cost of a new development program.
In a full comparison based on what we know from the Romney camp and on the track record of the current Administration, we can draw some conclusions about how well an Obama or Romney administration would meet the Navy’s warfighting requirements.
Romney’s proposal for a 350-ship Navy is robust and flexible and would provide the Navy with a mix of overlapping but frequently redundant capabilities. An additional carrier air wing would boost the tactical aviation forces available to the fleet, but Romney’s top defense advisor admits the units would be on fleet reserve status anyway, since there is always a carrier in drydock for its mid-life refueling. A new frigate would be better armed and better armored than an LCS but would perform many of the same mission sets under the same or similar conditions. And, in terms of sheer numbers, the Romney proposal could mean more ships at sea at any one time and, hence, a greater total force to deter potential adversaries, but that capacity comes at a cost for procurement, maintenance and manning.
The Obama plan likewise has both its merits and faults. Under Obama’s plan, the Navy would nearly reach its goal of a 310-ship fleet, but not until after 2042. The Administration provides for an array of new platforms, including the Ohio -class ballistic missile submarine replacement  , the production of both variants of the LCS, and continued work on a new class of aircraft carrier. But the main shortcoming of Obama’s plan — and the plans of his recent predecessors — is that the size of the fleet never keeps pace with the fleet’s stated force structure requirements. At no time in the foreseeable future will the Navy have the number of ships it says it needs to fulfill the range of missions that planners expect to face.
The sweet spot more likely lies between the Romney proposal, which would add far more ships than are needed or the Navy can afford, and the Obama plan, which lives within current budgetary realities but doesn’t meet the full spectrum of challenges expected to arise in the future. Still, the global environment changes every day, and planners are constantly adjusting to meet those needs. But when it comes to long-term planning, there will always be a debate over force structure numbers and real-world requirements.
Ryan M. McKeon worked for six years as a Military Legislative Assistant and Senior Legislative Assistant on Capitol Hill, serving as chief advisor on defense, intelligence and foreign policy issues for Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (AZ.08), Carol Shea-Porter (NH.01) and G. K. Butterfield (NC.01). He now works as an Analyst for ANSER, a not-for-profit defense think tank headquartered in Shirlington, Va.