Austin Bay
Monday night's final 2012 presidential election debate included a brief but fierce naval battle. The candidates exchanged close-combat broadsides over the size of the U.S. Navy, then fired provocative salvos in the direction of two complex subjects, the capabilities of modern weapons and the deleterious effects of funding cuts required by sequestration on the defense budget, especially planned ship-building programs.

Gov. Mitt Romney opened the engagement. "Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now under 285. We're headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration." President Barack Obama dismissed Romney's 2012-1917 comparison with a hot-shot jibe that America now deploys fewer "horses and bayonets," arguing that "counting ships" wasn't the issue, but "what are our capabilities."

Capabilities matter. One modern U.S. destroyer, armed with "smart" missiles and sensors, arguably outclasses the anti-surface striking power of a World War II U.S. carrier and its escorts -- until the Lone Ranger super-ship all-too-quickly expends its pricey missiles. The destroyer's empty magazine moment is the trenchant instant we realize that former Bush and Obama Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had a point when he said (paraphrasing Josef Stalin), "Mass of numbers has a quality all of its own."

The Navy shipbuilding plan submitted to Congress in April stated the Navy has 282 warships but would increase to just over 300 ships. However, "if shipbuilding investments are not funded," the battle force "will decline to well below 300 ships." The Navy plans to decommission over three-dozen warships between 2013 and 2016.

So both candidates had a case. Unfortunately, both candidates missed an opportunity to link very explicitly naval strategy to American economic revival and 21st century global economic security, which are, in a tandem as tight as Siamese twins, the election's pivotal issues.

That linkage would have lifted the naval debate from numbers and gotcha to the truly presidential-level of geo-strategy and America's global role.

Former British First Sea Lord Adm. Sir Jonathon Band understands the linkage: 95 percent of global trade passes through nine vulnerable maritime chokepoints. Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins, in a 2010 issue of the Royal United Services Institute Journal, also credit Sir Jonathan with calling the sea the other "superhighway of the modern age."


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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