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Romney and the Navy

October 23, 2012 - Harry Eagar
RtO doesn't give me much opportunity to call on my lifelong interest in naval affairs, but the breadth and depth of Mitt Romney's ignornance is a welcome chance.

We don't need a great many ships in the bluewater navy now. During World War II, a carrier task force included three heavy and one light aircraft carriers, with an escort of one or two battleships, three or four heavy and light cruisers and at least four divisions of destroyers, 16 of them. That doesn't count distant surface and subsurface scouting and distant cover vessels.

Just the core task force contained at least 25 surface warships, and the fleet train supply ships added another six or eight: oilers, ammunition ships, cargo vessels.

Today, a carrier battle group of one carrier has more firepower, range and capability than a whole WW2 task force, and the escort consists of two ships. I remain a skeptic about the fighting capabilities of the Aegis cruisers, but if their past record is any guide, adding more of them wouldn't enhance the battle group's capabilities.

If you do the math, you'll quickly see that the Navy's surface ship count today needs to be only a tenth what it was in the steam era for the same punch. And with nuclear propelled ships, the call for oilers has nearly vanished. Store ships are five or six times as large as WW2 cargo vessels, so fewer of them are needed.

Romney, of course, has not said what ships he'd like to add to the fleet, but he's a Republican, so we can safely assume he means big, showy, useless ships (like the battleship New Jersey that the Republicans brought out of mothballs during the Reagan years and turned into a floating coffin at the price of five or 10 Solyndras). You can be sure that he, no less than Reagan, is not interested in small, cheap, vital vessels like minesweepers.

During the Reagan years, the Navy didn't have any minesweepers. You may recall that when mines began to be effective in the Persian Gulf, the Navy used civilian tankers as "deep draft minesweepers."

That's because, in one of many lapses of competence in the high command, the Navy had decided that minesweeping could be done by expensive, limited range, low endurance helicopters. It's a big ocean, and when needed, the helicopters couldn't cover the water.

This despite the fact that during WW2, antishipping mines were one of our most effective and efficient weapons, delivered against Japanese home waters by B-29s and submarines.

Dropping a mine under cover of darkness is not the kind of Sgt. Rock warfare that appeals to Republicans, who want to be seen to be making a lot of noise, whether anything gets accomplished or not.

So, yes, there is a deficiency in our Navy and in our armed forces generally. But it is not of ships. It is of competent and honorable admirals and generals. They proved incompetent in Bush's wars, which they managed to lose despite overwhelming materiel superiority.

The civilian high command, of both parties, has not been better, either.

And while we're on the subject, I had thought about writing up one of Romney's (and rightwingers' generally) stupider beliefs: That government cannot "pick winners" or perform better than private businesses.

This is not true. About 90% (by dollar volume) of American private business would not exist without government regulation, stimulation and origination. Strong words, which I can back up though at this time I will limit to just one naval example.

Industrial rationalization, innovation and efficiency were invented by governments. In a specifically maritime sense, at the Arsenal in Venice, which produced the dominant naval arm of the middle ages; and at the dockyards of the Royal Navy in the 1790s.

To expand the fleet to meet the challenge of Bonaparte, the Royal Navy required tens of thousands of blocks. To that time, each block had been bored and shaped by hand, a process that took weeks. The naval constructors invented multiple-head, powered boring and shaping machines to produce blocks for the navy's tackle and the course of history changed.

(In America, the so-called American System was a mere copy of the British government innovation and was falsely credited to Eli Whitney. Whitney was, in fact, a complete failure who never delivered a single workable weapon to the army. The American System was developed in the 1830s and '40s at tremendous expense by the Army at the Harper's Ferry Arsenal, and only after the Civil War did private businesses learn the Army's methods and apply them to, for example, sewing machines. Republicans fervently believe that government is incapable of doing these things, but that is because they don't know their own history.)


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