There are so many ways to criticize President Obama’s now-infamous “horses and bayonets” comment from the foreign policy debate that one hardly knows where to start. The snarky attitude alone is worth a column. What is Obama, a blog troll? If he has a case to make about having a smaller Navy, he could surely have made it without being snide, specious and condescending.
At any rate, there are the obvious points, such as the fact that the U.S. military still uses bayonets. Some of the first U.S. military and intelligence personnel into Afghanistan operated in the prohibitive mountainous terrain on horseback. Horse cavalry may be a thing of the (recent) past for classic battlefield engagements, but terrain and local living patterns are dictatorial when it comes to military operations. For some applications, you need a horse.
The key question implied in all this is what kind of operation you envision, as you consider which military forces to develop and buy. (In August 2011, no one envisioned the U.S. military needing horses for special operations in Afghanistan.)
The president’s statements about our inventory of naval combat ships imply much the same question. Obama’s statement suggests that aircraft carriers and submarines (“ships that go underwater”) have made the surface combatant – the cruiser, destroyer, and frigate – less necessary. If we have only as many of them as we had in 1916, that’s not a problem, in Obama’s formulation, because technology changes.
But what is it we are trying to do with these naval forces? Mitt Romney’s approach is to assume that we intend to exercise control of our ocean bastions – the Atlantic and Pacific – and effectively resume our position as the primary naval influence on the world’s strategic chokepoints: the approaches to Central America; the maritime space of Northwestern Europe; the Mediterranean; the chokepoint-belt from the Suez Canal to the Strait of Hormuz; and the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea. Being well briefed, Romney no doubt has in mind as well the increasingly maritime confrontation space of the Arctic, where Russia and Canada are competing, but the U.S. – with our own Arctic claims – has in recent years been passive.
Romney thus sees the Navy as a core element of our enduring strategic posture. For national defense and for the protection of trade, the United States has from the beginning sought to operate in freedom on the seas, and, where necessary, to exercise control of them. We are a maritime nation, with extremely long, shipping-friendly coastlines in the temperate zone and an unprecedented control of the world’s most traveled oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific.
We have also chosen, since our irruption on the world geopolitical stage a century or so ago, to project power abroad as much as possible through expeditionary operations and offshore influence. Indeed, seeking the most effective balance between stand-off approaches, temporary incursions, and boots-on-the-ground combat and occupation has been a perennial tension in our national politics and our concepts of war throughout the life of our Republic. We have always naturally favored offshore influence and quick-resolution campaigns, from which we can extricate ourselves just as quickly.
The character of these preferences and military problems has changed with the passage of time – but in comparison to the United States in 1916, they are all bigger today, as well as faster-moving and more likely to be our problem than, say, Great Britain’s.
In the modern world, America’s favored posture requires the sea services: the Navy and Marine Corps. It also requires the Air Force, in virtually any theater where we might operate. That said, in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Navy was able to put strike-fighters into Afghanistan from carriers in the Arabian Sea, while the Air Force didn’t have a base close enough to get strike-fighters into the fight at the time. That situation is rare, and was soon corrected, but it does highlight the point that the Navy can get tactical assets in, even where we have no bases close to the tactical battlespace.
For completeness, we should note that in addition to its greater depth of air assets, the Air Force can get long-range bombers into a fight anywhere from the continental United States. For full effectiveness, that capability does depend on the ability to recover and refuel abroad (e.g., in Guam, Diego Garcia, the U.K.). But the B-2 or B-52 strategic bomber brings a different order of combat power to a fight. The differing capabilities of the Navy and Air Force are complementary, for the most part, rather than being in competition.