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."
The 21st century's best-known "superhighway" is the Internet. Blackham and Prins note that the two superhighways confront maritime bottlenecks. "Ninety percent of global email traffic is conveyed via undersea fiber-optic cables. These cables bunch in several critical sea areas (off New York ... the English Channel, the South China Sea ... and off the west coast of Japan)."
The geography-commerce-security linkage isn't new. Global sea commerce (modern oil tankers or a Portuguese carrack) must traverse the narrow straits and vulnerable canals that connect the seas. Iran ritually threatens to close the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz to tankers. When it does, crude prices spike and economies gag on higher gas prices. Email-delivering undersea cables also traverse threatened straits, like the Bab-al-Mandeb, between the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and the Straits of Malacca, which link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
So everyone (not just Americans) who uses the Internet, and everyone (not just Americans) whose economy benefits from international trade, has an interest in securing maritime chokepoints.
Diplomacy helps, cheap Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may assume many sea surveillance missions (and perhaps strike missions -- several naval strategists argue that a naval technological revolution is occurring), but truly securing maritime chokepoints and the high seas requires capable ships and trained sailors -- sufficient ships and crews on station to handle the likely threat, ships and crews preparing to deploy, and ships in refit (with crews taking a break).
The candidates could have explored who should provide these ships. Gentlemen, whom do you trust to defend the U.S. economy? NATO ally Turkey controls the Turkish Straits; Denmark, Norway and Sweden handle the Baltic's Skagerrak, so they're cool. But, president, governor, do either of you trust the Chinese Navy to keep the South China Sea open to free commerce? Our allies Japan and the Philippines don't.
China casts wary eyes at the Indian Navy as it extends its reach to the Straits of Malacca. All right, India and China rely on free trade -- right now. Will they in a decade? It takes 10 years to build a new fleet. We agree no one trusts Iran at Hormuz. So, candidates, is it in America's interest to have a Navy that can patrol these distant chokepoints? To project power to defend these chokepoints? To project offensive power to open these chokepoints if a hostile force applies a chokehold?
Each of these missions requires more ships and more capabilities. Which means spending more money in an era when debt itself is a strategic threat. But if a critical maritime chokepoint closes, the economy takes a broadside. Barack, Mitt: Your foreign policy and economic revival debate, and the U.S. Navy's fundamental role in both, has now begun, in earnest.