Exactly sixty-eight years ago, American warships obliterated the remaining combat fleets of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the greatest sea battle in history. It was the last stand of the battleship and the first use of kamikaze, a foreshadowing of asymmetrical warfare to come. In the aftermath, the United States Navy has ruled the oceans, and helped ensure Pax America, with a dominance only exceeded by the Royal Navy in the century of Pax Britannica after Trafalgar.
Maintaining this is not a matter of mere numbers, however, as President Obama hinted at in his devastating bayonets-and-horses rejoinder to wealthy Republican financier Willard Milton "Mitt" Romney. Building more ships will further the corporate welfare for the defense contractors and has personally enriched Romney's top naval adviser. Beyond this, the strategy is murky — particularly considering the cuts the nation is expected to endure while also further spending on the military.
For the record, the Navy had 285 active ships last year. Contrary to Romney's claim that, "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917," the Navy was even smaller under George W. Bush. And numbers of ships are meaningless era to era. A modern Arleigh Burke class destroyer is far more lethal than a World War II battleship. A single Nimitz-class carrier strike group is more potent than all the fleets assembled at Leyte. Total firepower controlled by U.S. fleets is overwhelming. Obama made the point without going too deep into the weeds. (I hope; never underestimate the ignorance of the average voter and the coveted GOP demographic of white males and size issues).
As a general proposition, I would much rather invest in a right-sized robust Navy than a large standing Army. Standing armies are not healthy for democracy. This formula worked well for the British Empire, and we should be getting out of the empire business anyway. Which begs the essential questions: What is the Navy for, and what enemies, with what capabilities, are we contemplating? This was simple in the 20th century. It is not today.
At a minimum, the Navy polices the sea lanes as it has throughout the history of this trading nation. The Somali pirates showed one reason for the Navy. Maintaining free access for oil tankers of all nations is a big job that we shoulder. Even here, there's room for argument. Why should the Cameron government in the U.K. get a pass to cut the Royal Navy to the bone (not even an active carrier at the moment), or similar actions by our NATO allies. Beyond largely symbolic naval deployments, these advanced and affluent nations get a free ride on the U.S. Navy and U.S. taxpayers. We deliberately kept Japan's maritime "self-defense force" small and protected post-war Japan. But that was an America that also had a rising middle class and a space program, not one that is going "broke" pushing as much wealth as possible to the well-off.
As for potential adversaries, Romney's neocon brain trust would love to line up China for a, in their fevered dreams, Reagan-like win over the bad guys. Things might not turn out so well next time. A Chinese-American war would devastate the world economy even if it didn't go nuclear. An American president rash enough to attempt a first strike against Chinese missile fields — and such plans exist — would invite Beijing to use its remaining ICBMs on American cities. Short of that, are Nimitz- and Gerald R. Ford-class carriers ($9 billion a pop) the future or the past?
None of this will matter if we don't get our economy growing, and opportunity more equal, again. Poor nation, weak military, to paraphrase Deng Xioping. Mindless military spending and throwing our weight around the world ensures this, however many defense contractors make a quick buck.