Obama Navy chief fires back at GOP


Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants to torpedo all the talk about a shrinking U.S. battle fleet.

Republican presidential candidates are pushing a “narrative,” Mabus said, that President Barack Obama has weakened the military and, in particular, the Navy, at a time of growing demands on American power around the world. But in an interview with POLITICO, Mabus fired a salvo at critics he said don’t know what they’re talking about.

“I have this funny thing about facts,” he laughed in his office on the Pentagon’s E-Ring, surrounded by paintings of classic warships. “I like to get facts into the equation.”

Numbers aren’t the only way to measure seapower, Mabus said — a point Obama famously made to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential debate. But even a simple count of the number of ships in service today — and, Mabus stressed, under contract — reveals that the Navy is growing, not shrinking.

The Navy has ordered some 70 ships since Mabus came to Washington in 2009, which, accounting for retirements of ships in the coming years, puts the fleet on track to grow to more than 300 and, if Congress cooperates, potentially far beyond that.

If all goes as hoped, the Navy will stabilize at a fleet of 308, Mabus said: “That’s the number of ships we need to do every mission we’ve got.”

That’s not enough for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republican contenders for the White House. They’ve called for expanding the fleet, either generally fielding more aircraft carrier strike groups or specifically deploying a fleet of 346 ships or more.

In doing so, the Republicans have also seized on a talking point crafted by the Navy itself in 2008 — that its fleet today is the smallest it’s been since World War I.

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.”

Most new warships that follow an older model into service are an improvement, the former Mississippi governor said. That’s why he argues there isn’t a 1-for-1 linkage between the number of ships available and the power the U.S. can wield.

But of course the numbers do matter. Mabus was quick to acknowledge that at some point, “quantity becomes a quality all its own,” which is why he asked to be graded on the number of ships built or ordered, not the simple size of the fleet today.

Because warships take so long and cost so much to build, the Navy at any given moment is the product of decisions made 10 or 15 years before, Mabus argued. It’s also subject to political priorities just like anything else. That’s why the fleet shrank from 2001 to 2009 even as the overall Defense Department budget surged with Iraq and Afghanistan war spending.

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.

“It went against the narrative that some folks have,” he said. “Our combatant commanders ask for them and count them. Internally, we count them. We have invested in them pretty significantly … the Iranians, I’m pretty sure, count them. We give them some of the most dangerous jobs we have.”

But politics trumped all of that, Mabus argued.

“There’s only one conclusion you can reach,” he said. “The only reason they did that was to keep the numbers down.”


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