Mitt Romney wandered into the mother of all sarcastic take downs at last night's debate when, in an effort to paint the president as weak on defense, he noted that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships now than any time since 1917. By now, you've probably heard Obama's retort:
Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities?
What everyone should keep in mind about this line -- other than the fact that it was colder than Ice Cube in a Coors Light ad -- is that it actually obscures the main issue here. Yes, it is truly irrelevant whether our next president commands a larger number of ships than the Wilson administration. But a serious argument can be made that our Navy is currently under-resourced, given our military's priorities over the coming years. The problem, as Obama himself seemed to suggest, is what we can afford to pay for.
The U.S. fleet currently includes 285 ships, about a fifth of which are too dilapidated to deploy in a conflict. Navy officers have testified that it would take about 500 ships to respond to all the requests for support they receive from the various military commands. Think tanks and independent study groups have laid out proposals that would adjust the size of the fleet to anywhere from 240 ships up to 346. But with the United States shifting its military focus to the Pacific, an arena dominated by air and sea power, it's reasonable to suggest that we need a bigger armada.