One of the more amateurish put-downs President Obama used at Monday night’s foreign policy debate was the way he countered Gov. Mitt Romney’s charge that the Navy had the lowest number of ships since 1916.
“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have ships that go under water, nuclear submarines,” Obama said.
But that ignores the fact that all Marines go through bayonet training and are still issued bayonets for close combat. There are 600,000 bayonets in the military inventory. A British soldier was honored recently for leading a bayonet charge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2011.
And there is nothing all that new about submarines and aircraft carriers. A form of submarine was used in the Revolutionary War to try to sink a British ship at anchor in New York Harbor. The U.S. Navy bought its first submarine from the Electric Boat Co. in 1900 at the urging of Adm. Dewey, who had captured Manila Harbor during the Spanish-American War.
In 1901 a French submarine was the first to hit a moving battleship with a practice torpedo to the “general stupefaction” of those on the battleship. The Germans launched their first U-boat in 1906. In May 1915 the Germans sank the Lusitania, killing 1,198 men, women and children. That turned public sentiment against isolationism in the U.S. In 1917 Germany’s announcement of total unrestricted submarine warfare brought the U.S. into World War 1.
In 1916 the U.S. Navy had 245 ships. In 1917 it had 774 ships, which included 17 submarines.
The British were the first to create an aircraft carrier in 1918 that could land and launch airplanes.
At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. had 790 ships, which included 112 submarines, 17 battleships, seven carriers, 37 cruisers and 171 destroyers. The war pumped that total up to 6,084 by 1944.
The first nuclear submarine put to sea in 1954, the USS Nautilus, 58 years ago.
At the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 the Navy had 859 ships, including 24 carriers and 102 subs. In 2011 the total was 285 ships that included 11 carriers and 53 subs. Obama doesn’t get the label of the president with the smallest Navy in modern history, though. It reached its lowest point since 1916 in 2007 when there were 278 ships.
So to say the nature of the military has changed because we have aircraft carriers and submarines merely shows what an inane statement that is. What hasn’t changed is the need for enough carriers to patrol the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the Mediterranean as well as the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Formosa, the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
This requires not just aircraft carriers and the most modern jets, but cruisers and destroyers and supply ships. Carriers need the protection of guided missile cruisers with their sophisticated radar to protect them against anti-ship missiles. And they need destroyers to track and neutralize submarines. Usually U.S. submarines will be part of a carrier task force. Some modern diesel submarines are quieter and harder to detect than nuclear subs.
Additionally there needs to be a certain number of carriers in port to allow crews to return to base and aircraft and ships to be reconditioned or upgraded.
The nature of the military has not changed that much. Sure, there are more drones and they’ll be launching them from carriers and the electromagnetic launcher is replacing the steam catapult. The jets are getting more sophisticated as are computers, radar and other electronics systems. But it’s still carriers, cruisers, destroyers, mine sweepers, submarines and assorted other ships along with jets and turboprops. The nature of the military hasn’t changed, the basic building blocks haven’t changed, though the level of sophistication has changed.
What has changed is the Navy is too small. It has only 40 ships more than it did in 1916. And it has 682 less than it did in 1957.