What Type of Navy Do We Really Need?

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama sure are good at the zingers. During Monday’s presidential debate, Romney claimed that today’s U.S. Navy is at its smallest size — in terms of the numbers of major ships — in a century. Obama sarcastically retorted that we aren’t playing a game of Battleship and that counting ship numbers is a silly way to assess naval capability. Both candidates are basically right as far as they go, but their exchange contributed very little to an understanding of what the Navy of the United States requires today.

One thing is clear: The Navy remains hugely important. With Iran destabilizing the still vital Persian Gulf region, China rising in Asia, many trouble spots from Libya to Syria to North Korea most accessible via the sea, and the global economy more interdependent than ever, at the very least we can be grateful the candidates are calling attention to this crucial matter.

Here is a short list of how we are putting to use our 286-ship Navy around the globe:

Maintaining an average of more than 1.5 aircraft carrier battle groups near Iran at a time.

Maintaining another carrier battle group in the western Pacific continuously. The group features a large flat-deck carrier holding about 75 planes, around four large surface combatants with advanced air and missile defenses, and other ships in escort as well.

Sailing Marines and aircraft and ground weaponry around hotspots from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean, providing a ready force for contingencies while also performing military exercises with other countries.

Using attack submarines to track and understand the activities of other nations’ naval forces.

Undergirding nuclear deterrence with Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines on continuous alert.

Being ready, of course, to surge in the event of crisis or war.

Can we sustain this busy agenda with today’s fleet, as Obama suggests, or is Romney right that we need to enlarge it to between 313 and 350 ships? This is a close call. The Navy is working overtime, running ships and sailors a little too hard, just to get by. But it is getting by. Score one for Obama.

But the Navy’s capabilities are being taxed with little slack should reinforcements be needed in some contingency. Score one here for Romney.

If our deficits were under control, I would probably give the nod to Romney. But they are not under control, and we need to keep asking the military, which is not starving for funds, to find more innovative and efficient ways to operate.

In fact, the Navy and the rest of the U.S. armed forces can do so and sustain today’s necessary overseas operations with a fleet of the current size (or even a slightly smaller one). But that is going to take some new thinking, beyond the Navy’s already good ideas of late, such as stationing more attack submarines on Guam, where they are closer to patrol zones, and planning to put four small warships in Singapore in coming years.

Here are possible ways to do so:

Instead of increasing the number of aircraft carrier groups near the Persian Gulf, as Romney proposes, look for ways to station Air Force fighter jets on land in Persian Gulf states. Land-based aircraft are a cheaper way to sustain presence when you know in advance where the hot spots will be. Historically, our Gulf allies have not wanted to do this, given their domestic political sensitivities, but in light of the growing concern about Iran’s aggression and ambitions, it is time to revisit this question.

Base more ships abroad. Maintaining a constant presence with a ship in the western Pacific takes four or five ships in the fleet. If they are based in California, as they are now, time is lost in transit. But if home-ported instead in the region, that ship is considered to be constantly on station because sailors can always get to ship within a few hours.

Rotate fresh crews of sailors from the U.S. to forward theaters by airplane every six months or so, leaving ships deployed abroad for a year or two at a time. This is another way to reduce time wasted in transoceanic transit and can improve the number of days per year a given ship can stay on station by a third, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

None of these ideas is easy to implement; none is a silver bullet. But taken together, they can help make our Navy more efficient.

Let us hope other parts of government can then do their fair share, too, because one other final observation needs to be voiced. Whatever excess it may contain, the Pentagon’s budget is not big enough to provide the main basis for reducing our national deficit.