The U.S.S. Carl Vinson and U.S.S. John C. Stennis hail each other in the North Arabian Sea, January 19, 2012. Photo: U.S. Fifth Fleet.
During Monday night’s debate, presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney tried to position themselves as latter-day Admiral Lord Nelsons — masters of seapower. Instead, they came off like guys who could barely steer a canoe. Both Romney and Gingrich either misunderstood basic facts about the Navy, overlooked inconvenient evidence or endorsed things Obama is already doing.
Start with Romney. Romney has made sea power a centerpiece of his national security strategy — and rightfully so, given the Pentagon’s tilt (heavily pushed by Obama!) toward the Pacific. How would President Romney handle the Iranian threat to close the waterway through which a fifth of the world’s oil transits?
“So we ought to have an aircraft carrier in the gulf, an aircraft carrier, and, of course, the task force with it in the Mediterranean,” Romney said. “We want to show Iran, any action of that nature will be considered an act of war, an act of terror and America is going to be keep those sea lanes open.”
What Romney didn’t mention is that as of Sunday, there is an aircraft carrier in the Gulf, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, with a second, the Carl Vinson, nearby in the North Arabian Sea. A third, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, just left and is sailing to the Pacific; it would take mere days to call it back if the need arises.
And all of this follows a fairly routine U.S. naval posture in the Middle East. It’s called “1.5 to 1.7″ — translated from the Pentagonese, it means that there’s an average of at least 1.5 carriers in the region every 12 months. More directly, it means that at any given time, Iran faces more U.S. seapower than most of the world’s navies — especially its own — can offer.
But all Romney sees is a Navy in decline. He reprised an omnibus line of attack on Obama: “Under this president and under prior presidents, we keep on shrinking our Navy. Our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917.”
This is the sort of thing that’s literally true but meaningless in context. Counting ships is less important than counting types of ships, because they offer different seapower options. In 1917, the Navy did not have any aircraft carriers. It did not have silent, nuclear-powered (let alone nuclear-armed) spying submarines. It did not have — for all their many, many problems — modular minehunters that can operate close to enemy shores. And on and on.
In fact, as Politico’s Chuck Hoskinson has pointed out, Obama’s very Navy chiefs have unveiled a shipbuilding plan that goes from the current 288-ship fleet to 325 by early next decade. “Romney’s point falls flat as a political attack,” Hoskinson wrote last week, “because he’s suggesting the administration should do what it already had planned to do.”
Romney and his main rival for the nomination, Newt Gingrich, found themselves in a rare agreement: an Iranian closure of the strait or an attack by Iran on a U.S. Navy ship “will be considered an act of war,” as Romney put it. Hard to argue with that — only you’d never know from listening to them that they’re backing Obama’s position.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said closing the strait is a “red line” for U.S. interests. The Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, elaborated that the U.S. would forcibly reopen the strait if necessary. The Lincoln just steamed through the strait to make the threat credible — while the Iranians did not so much as attempt to challenge it. And any president would order an immediate military response if a hostile power attacked his Navy ships.
Bottom line: no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election, Iran will get bombed if it closes the sea route through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes.
But Gingrich, befitting his history of bellicosity on Iran, went further. “I would say that the most dangerous thing, which by the way, Barack Obama just did, the — the Iranians are practicing closing the Straits of Hormuz, actively taunting us,” Gingrich said, “so he cancels a military exercise with the Israelis so as not to be provocative?”
Actually, Obama didn’t cancel the joint exercise. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak requested it be postponed, because, a Pentagon official told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “the Israelis were concerned that they did not have the resources in place to carry it out effectively.”
More to the point, Gingrich somehow forgot to mention that Obama had ordered the Abraham Lincoln to pass through the strait despite the Iran’s threats — an act which did more to expose the hollowness of the Iranian posturing than any military practice run could hope to accomplish.
Romney and Gingrich’s rudderlessness marks a shift for the GOP. The Republicans have a long track record of nominating Navy war heroes for president, from Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush to John McCain. The 2012 crop? Not so much.