National Security

Obama’s Secretary of the Navy Walks Back Complaints About Size of Fleet

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, near Yemen / AP

You expect senior Obama administration defense appointees to be budget hatchetmen—that just comes with the territory—but Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus's new remarks to Politico on the size of the Navy achieve impressive levels of partisan hackwork coming from a Pentagon official.

The issue is the ongoing debate over whether it is fair for Republicans to complain, as Mitt Romney famously did while debating the president in 2012, that the Navy's surface fleet is about as small as it's been since the First World War. Despite Obama's snarky response at the time ("Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets…") and the dogged efforts by some in the media to editorialize against the argument, what Romney said was true. So true, in fact, that his point was once made by the Secretary of the Navy himself, Ray Mabus:

"One of our main areas of focus has to be the size of our fleet. The CNO has repeatedly said, and I repeatedly have strongly supported him, that the minimal number of ships we should have is 313. We have 288 today in the battle fleet: the lowest number since 1916, which – during that time, the intervening years, our responsibilities have grown somewhat. But if Congress funds the shipbuilding program that we have laid out, we will reach a fleet of 325 ships in the early 2020s."

The source of this quotation, incidentally, is Politico itself. And while it's not entirely a surprise to see Mabus backtracking on this argument yet again, as it has become an ongoing embarrassment to the president, it is a bit surprising to see that Politico‘s senior defense correspondent has simply omitted mention of the fact that these words were once spoken by Mabus. Here are the new talking points, better than the old talking points:

Mabus and other leaders, including Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who was previously the Navy undersecretary, scoff at the notion of comparing today’s globally networked, nuclear-powered Navy to its coal-fired antecedent of 1917.

"That’s pretty irrelevant. We also have fewer telegraph machines than we did in World War I and we seem to be doing fine without that," Mabus quipped. "Look at the capability. Look at the missions that we do."

This is, of course, the president's same joke from the 2012 debate, with telegraph machines swapped in to do the comic work of cavalry and the cold steel. But it's not only the humor that is on shaky ground. I don't think it is in Mabus' interest this week, on this issue, to brag about "the missions we do" in the Navy, considering that shortages in the fleet have ensured there will be no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf from now through much of the fall, despite multiple wars in the region and ongoing tensions with Iran. That one is harder to spin into a joke.

Mabus doesn't want us to worry, because he has a plan to increase the size of the fleet by a few dozen ships, a plan that should come to fruition by the next decade. And, without any apparent hint of irony, Mabus complains that the numbers "could even be higher" if Congress would just shut up and let him cook the books:

So from today’s level of about 273 warships, the Navy projects it to grow to 282 by next autumn, reach 300 by 2020 and then hit Mabus’ target of 308 in 2021, assuming all goes to plan.

The count could be even higher, but the Republican-controlled Congress last year rejected a change in the methodology to determine what ships do and don’t count as part of the battle fleet.

One issue was the fleet’s small coastal patrol ships forward-deployed to Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf. The 179-foot Cyclone-class ships carry 30 sailors, 25mm guns and a new surface-to-surface missile. Mabus argued that their importance to the U.S. Central Command, their proximity to Iranian dangers and other factors justified their inclusion in the battle fleet, which would push the total up by 9 ships.

Republicans objected. It was a political ploy to goose the numbers, they said, pointing to another policy to count non-combatant hospital ships when they made certain types of deployments.

So Congress forbade the Navy from counting that way in the National Defense Authorization Act — evidence, Mabus argued, that Republicans are more interested in attacking the administration than helping to grow the Navy.

So Mabus, who wants to make the numbers look better by counting strategically insignificant patrol craft and hospital ships, complains that Republicans aren't interested in helping to grow the Navy because they won't let him juke the stats. That is the finest kind of hackery.

Mabus is right on one point he makes in the interview: ship building, like all major defense procurements, is a long term game. It is good that he wants to increase the size of the fleet. It is not good that he is so serenely and complacently confident that a net increase of only a few dozen vessels, coming to pass (maybe!) in the next decade, is good enough. It sounds about as serious as President Obama's multi-year plan to degrade and defeat the Islamic State, which is meant to come to pass sometime during the next administration or the one after that.

The size of the Navy, just like every other aspect of the defense budget, is a very low priority for this administration, which has other places it would rather spend money. Everyone knows this. It's not the fact that the administration doesn't take national defense seriously that is so aggravating. It's their demand that everyone else pretend that they do.