Tag: u.s. navy

How Not to Fact Check a Presidential Debate

After last night’s debate, I watched the postgame on the Fox News Channel.

They had some problems with their fact checking.

They got off to a solid start, going through the back-and-forth on whether or not the Obama administration attempted to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq that would have exempted U.S. troops from being subject to Iraqi law and therefore left them in the country. Governor Romney was right on that one, and Fox called it for Romney.

Then Chris Wallace decided to “fact check” the repartee over Romney’s point that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it has had since 1917. Just as a refresher, here are the relevant bits:

ROMNEY: Our Navy is old — excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.

I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.


OBAMA: …I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. 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…

So how did Fox fact check this go round? Here’s what Chris Wallace said:

Well, as it turns out, in the middle of the debate, after he heard this, a Marine tweeted Fox News and said, “The Marines still use bayonets,” so it may not be clear who doesn’t really understand what the military currently uses.

I always thought Chris Wallace was a pretty sharp guy, but this makes me question that judgment. The point wasn’t that bayonets don’t exist anymore, or that they aren’t issued to Marines—they are. The point was that fighting wars is very different than was fighting wars in the early 20th century. Bayonets are not causes of mass death in combat as they were, say, right around 1916 (see photo). The point was that simply tallying the number of ships isn’t apples to apples because one American warship can do so much more today than one warship could back then.

The more precise point would be that we currently measure our navy in terms of tonnage. But don’t take it from me, take it from former Bush/Obama defense secretary Robert Gates:

As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, for example, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined—and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.

Wallace’s idea that what he was doing was somehow a “fact check” overlooks the point that there wasn’t a fact in dispute. There was an argument, slightly more complicated than a simple factual dispute. And Obama’s argument, that the nature of militaries and combat has changed dramatically—nuclear weapons, anyone?—since 1916 and that we measure combat power differently as a result, was clearly correct. Even trying to count the number of bayonets would have been a silly effort to miss the point.

It is disappointing in the extreme to see VP candidate Paul Ryan on television this morning in one breath seemingly understanding Obama’s point, then immediately claiming not to understand the point (“to compare modern American battleships and navy with bayonets, I just don’t understand the comparison…”)

Election 2012: Thank God it’s almost over.

After-Action Report on Cato’s Panel on the Future of the Navy Surface Fleet

Yesterday’s event on the U.S. Navy was a big success and generated a vigorous discussion. Ben Freeman from POGO spelled out his concerns about the littoral combat ship, specifically the Freedom (LCS-1) (documented here and here) and CBO’s Eric Labs raised a few additional ones pertaining to the program as whole. Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work delivered an impassioned defense of the LCS within the context of the entire fleet design, drawing on examples from history to demonstrate how the Navy learns and adapts. Consistent with past practice, Work is confident that the fleet will put the LCS through the paces—two completely different ships—and figure out how to use them.

It was refreshing to engage in a serious discussion among people who are committed to a Navy that is second-to-none, and who care enough to raise questions designed to make it stronger. I focused my remarks on the LCS’s operating characteristics, but especially on the decision to buy two different LCS types. The original plan was for the Navy to select just one. The advantage of having two ships, Work stressed, was that the Navy would learn about each vessel’s unique capabilities. The disadvantage, as I see it, is the loss of economies of scale, including in parts, logistics and training.

I do think it is important to move past the specific technical problems identified in both LCS-1 and LCS-2. These are the first ships in the class, and such ships always have their share of problems (I was assigned to a first-in-class ship, USS Ticonderoga, from March 1990 to May 1993, and we were working through some problems nine years after the ship was launched). The blogger Galrahn (aka Raymond Pritchett) at Information Dissemination last week tweeted that the information in the POGO and Aviation Week reports was all old news, but that hadn’t stopped members of Congress from calling for another investigation. Under Secretary Work stressed that he believes the problems have been addressed, or will be, and he is committed to making this program successful.

But this discussion about fixing problems and learning as we go along reminds me of a conversation that I had a few months ago with a person who believes we should increase military spending. This individual is advising Gov. Romney, who has pledged to boost Pentagon spending quite substantially—perhaps as much as an extra $2.5 trillion over the next ten years, by my estimates—if he is elected president.

While talking, I raised the subject of the LCS, not the first time that the subject has come up between us. He was nonplussed and claimed that the problems with the ship could easily be fixed. More specifically, he said “It is nothing that money can’t fix.” That is pretty much a direct quote.

Nothing that money can’t fix.

There are two problems with that statement. First, Mitt Romney might not become the 45thpresident of the United States in January 2013—the polls say that it is basically a 50-50 proposition that he won’t—and I think it highly unlikely that the Navy’s shipbuilding budget will grow substantially if he isn’t elected.

Second, I seriously doubt that the Navy’s shipbuilding budget will grow very much even if Mitt Romney is elected president, and it certainly won’t grow enough to obviate any discussion of trade offs between different ships. Even if the Navy is handed billions or tens of billions of dollars more for shipbuilding, it is still the case that every ship that we build, or every new one proposed, is competing against one another. There are always opportunity costs, even when the topline budget grows. Navy warships compete against aircraft carriers. Navy surface ships compete with submarines. And the Navy competes with the Air Force. And the Air Force and Navy compete with the Army, etc.

For now, the Navy has chosen the LCS over possible alternatives. But there are alternatives. Eric Labs authored a good study a few years ago looking at the Coast Guard’s national security cutters (.pdf), but stated yesterday that the NSCs would be more costly than the LCSs. In the paper, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” Ben Friedman and I suggested retaining the Perry-class frigates for a few more years while we develop a different ship, perhaps a new class of frigates or corvettes that could do many of the same missions that the LCS is expected to perform, and, we believe, at less cost. At yesterday’s forum, Under Secretary Work stated that we could not purchase a new frigate for less than $750 million. While I respect the Under’s expertise, I plan to spend some time over the coming months scrutinizing that claim.

Cato to Host Navy Under Secretary to Discuss Surface Fleet

In its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a number of changes to the Obama administration’s plans for the U.S. Navy. The NDAA rescinds the retirement of three cruisers and restricts retirement of ballistic missile submarines (so as not to fall below a minimum of 12). The bill also contains an amendment which authorizes a GAO review of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. The amendments collectively reflect the Committee’s concern that the Navy won’t be able to fulfill its current missions with fewer and perhaps less capable ships. Unfortunately, no one is asking whether any of those missions could be modified, eliminated, or shifted to others.

I will address some of those issues at a Cato policy forum this Monday, May 21, at noon. I am particularly thrilled to be joined by Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work, Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight, and Eric J. Labs of the Congressional Budget Office. Those three make this an all-star cast to discuss the future of a U.S. surface fleet that is undergoing some major changes. With the retirement of the Navy’s cruisers and frigates, the development of bigger and more complex destroyers, and the introduction of the LCS tomorrow’s surface fleet will look quite different than today’s.

Congress is particularly concerned about the LCS because of reports of design and construction flaws and operational problems, including this letter issued by the Project on Government Oversight, and a subsequent article in Aviation Week. But some are also concerned that even though LCSs eventually will constitute about one-third of the Navy’s surface combatants, the LCS is not supposed to engage in combat. In addition, its mission modules, especially the anti-submarine warfare package, are years away from operability.

Our panel will address many of the questions swirling around the surface fleet today, including: How will the replacement of thirty frigates with the still-untested LCS affect the Navy’s overall capability? Will the ballistic missile defense requirement reduce the availability of destroyers for other missions? Could the Navy pursue a different strategy to advance U.S. national security that could be executed with fewer ships? Of course, the answers to all of those questions are framed within the context of declining procurement budgets. Given that reality, one could argue that the greatest threat to the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is its undersea fleet: the looming SSBN(X) program could devour the shipbuilding budget for a decade.

So, with no shortage of difficult and far-reaching decisions ahead for the Navy, it is a privilege to have Under Secretary Work, Ben, and Eric to help us navigate the way. I hope you can join us on Monday.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia?

Every few years, the Law of the Sea Treaty rears its head as a one-size-fits-all solution to a host of current maritime problems. This time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, are urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. The officials claim it will act as a tool to deal with aggressive actions by Iran, China, and Russia. But as I have long argued, no matter the current rationale for the treaty, it represents a bad deal for the United States.

Panetta and Dempsey rolled out three hot issues to make their case:

  • Iran is threatening the world economy in the Strait of Hormuz? The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) will help solve this.
  • China is threatening the Philippines in the South China Sea? LOST is a crucial tool to prevent war.
  • Russia is claiming land in the Arctic region to extract natural resources? LOST will put the screws to Moscow.

These international controversies will be magically resolved if only the Senate ratifies the convention.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. It is not clear the treaty would do much at all to alleviate these flashpoints. Especially since the two most important potential antagonists, China and Russia, already have ratified LOST. And it is certainly not the best option policy-wise for the United States with each issue: Iran’s bluster in the Strait of Hormuz may prove its weakness. U.S. policy in the South China Sea suffers from a far more serious flaw: encouraging free-riding by allied states. Russia’s move into the Arctic has nothing to do with Washington’s absence from LOST.

The treaty itself, not substantially altered since 1994, is still plagued by the same problems that have halted its ratification for decades. Primarily, it will cede decisionmaking on seabed and maritime issues to a large, complex, unwieldy bureaucracy that will be funded heavily by—wait for it—the Untied States.

On national security, the U.S. Navy does not need such a treaty to operate freely. Its power relative to all other navies is the ultimate guarantee. Serious maritime challengers do not exist today. Russia’s navy is a rusted relic; China has yet to develop capabilities that come close to matching ours. Moreover, it is doubtful that the United States needs to defend countries such as the Philippines when flashpoints over islands in the region affect no vital American interests.

The average American knows very little about this treaty, and rightly so. It is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for. My conclusion in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2004 still holds true:

All in all, the LOST remains captive to its collectivist and redistributionist origins. It is a bad agreement, one that cannot be fixed without abandoning its philosophical presupposition that the seabed is the common heritage of the world’s politicians and their agents, the Authority and Enterprise. The issue is not just abstract philosophical principle, but very real American interests, including national security. For these reasons, the Senate should reject the treaty.

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.

Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble.  Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

Cross-posted from the the Skeptics at the National Interest.