Navy mine countermeasure ships line up in August to conduct a replenishment-at-sea during Middle East Gulf naval exercises in this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, 5th Fleet.
In many of his campaign speeches, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likes to chide the Obama administration for cutting military spending. And Romney says one force in particular is suffering from a lack of resources.
"The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916," he says in many of his stump speeches. Romney promises to rebuild the Navy until it reaches 350 ships. But does a bigger Navy make the U.S. more secure?
Echoes Of Reagan
Romney's call summons memories of an earlier time. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan called for a 600-ship Navy, saying it was needed to support U.S. goals overseas.
The Navy got a lot bigger under Reagan, though it never quite reached 600 ships. In fact, the architect of Romney's naval strategy is John Lehman, secretary of the Navy under Reagan. The former official told Defense News that a Romney Navy will be too strong to challenge.
"Gov. Romney believes we can maintain a stable world environment with 350 ships, not being the world's policeman, but being able to reassure our allies, being able to protect against pirates and other potential rogue states," Lehman said.
Romney bemoans the fact that the Navy now only has 287 ships, which is indeed about the same number the U.S. had in 1916.
But the World War I Navy did not have cruise missiles or jet fighters. Richard Verma of the Obama campaign says what matters now is that U.S. naval power has no match.
"Our Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined," he told a recent election forum in Washington, D.C.
But other countries don't face the demands of a global power like the U.S. Some naval analysts, like Norman Polmar, say the Navy today is already stretched thin among commitments all over the world.
"Today, the United States is still engaged in Afghanistan. We are very concerned about North Korea's nuclear and missile program, so we have very advanced cruisers and destroyers up there," Polmar says.
He says ships are already staying overseas for longer periods — and that means less time to take care of ships, and less time for sailors to get some rest. A bigger fleet, he says, also lets the U.S. respond to crises without having to commit ground troops.
Keeping An Eye On China
Now, there's an additional commitment: The Navy is already shifting resources toward the Pacific, to serve as a counterweight to China.
James Holmes, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, says the U.S. would most likely face China in China's own backyard. And that means the U.S. fleet would have to be much more powerful to prevail.
Beyond the size of the Navy needed, there's a question of what kinds of ships the U.S. needs. Some analysts, like Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, say the Navy that Romney wants to build shows that he is locked in a Cold War mentality. He notes that the Romney plan entails building more amphibious ships.
"We have not had an amphibious landing under fire since Inchon in 1950," Korb says.
And the challenge of building modern amphibious ships brings up the toughest challenge for Romney: paying for the 350-ship Navy.
Last weekend, the Navy christened the USS America, the first of a new class of amphibious assault ships. The cost of construction alone was $2.5 billion.