MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now, to an issue that Mitt Romney often raises in campaign speeches. He chides the Obama administration for cutting military spending and he says one branch in particular is suffering.
MITT ROMNEY: The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916. I'll restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.
BLOCK: The Navy is a key part of Governor Romney's plan to reverse cuts in military spending. NPR's Larry Abramson asks whether more ships means more security.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's call for a bigger Navy summons up memories of an earlier time.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Our nation needs a superior Navy to support our military forces and vital interests overseas. We're now on the road to achieving a 600-ship Navy and increasing the amphibious capability of our Marines who are now serving the cause of peace in Lebanon.
ABRAMSON: President Ronald Reagan made that speech in 1983. 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. Lehman told Defense News a Romney Navy will be too strong to challenge.
JOHN LEHMAN: Governor Romney believes we can maintain a stable world environment with 350 ships. Not being the world policeman, but being able to reassure our allies, being able to protect against pirates and other potential rogue states and so forth.
ABRAMSON: Romney bemoans the fact that the Navy now has only 287 ships, which is indeed around the same number we had back in 1916. But the World War I Navy did not have cruise missiles or jet fighters. At a recent election forum, Richard Verma of the Obama campaign said what matters now is that U.S. naval power has no match.
RICHARD VERMA: Our Navy is bigger than the next 13 Navies combined. They're plan is in search of a strategy.
ABRAMSON: But other countries don't face the demands of a global power like the U.S. Some naval analysts like Norman Polmar say the U.S. Navy is already stretched thin among commitments all over the world.
NORMAN POLMAR: Today, the United States is still engaged in Afghanistan. We're very concerned about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, so we have very advanced cruisers and destroyers up there in case they decide to do something with their missiles.
ABRAMSON: Polmar says ships are already staying overseas for longer and longer periods. He says that means less time to take care of ships, less time for sailors to get some rest. The bigger fleet, he says, also lets the U.S. respond to crises without having to commit ground troops.
POLMAR: If there's a crisis, it's nice to have an aircraft carrier, a missile-carrying submarine or amphibious ships with Marines 20 miles offshore.
ABRAMSON: Now there's an additional commitment. The Navy is already shifting resources toward the Pacific to serve as a counterweight to China. James Holmes teaches at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He says we'd most likely face China in its own backyard and that means the U.S. fleet would have to be much more powerful to prevail.
JAMES HOLMES: Clearly, the Chinese have certain advantages simply because in any conceivable conflict between ourselves and them, they will fighting with the home team advantage. The Chinese, obviously, they can rely on shore-based missiles. They have tactical aircraft. They have all sorts of things they can operate from the Chinese coast.
ABRAMSON: Beyond the size of the Navy, there's a question of what kinds of ships the U.S. needs. Some say the Navy Governor Romney wants to build shows that he is locked in a Cold War mentality. Lawrence Korb is with the Center for American Progress.
LAWRENCE KORB: I notice that Governor Romney's plan, according to what John Lehman said, they want to build more amphibious ships. We have not had an amphibious landing under fire since Incheon in 1950.
ABRAMSON: Romney's toughest challenge could be paying for the 350 ship Navy. This past weekend, the Navy christened the U.S.S. America, the first of a new class of amphibious assault ships. The cost of construction alone, $2.5 billion. Larry Abramson, NPR News.