Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) watch the first 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. McCampbell is part of the George Washington Carrier Strike Group, the U.S. Navy’s only continuously forward-deployed carrier strike group, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, and is currently conducting a routine patrol in the western Pacific region. Photo: U.S. Navy

By Julian E. Barnes

After a campaign that has been largely free of debate over military policy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney this week laid out a few new details of what he would do with the Navy.  Notably, he promised to step up ship building and expand America’s presence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Throughout the fall, the Romney campaign has been blasting Mr. Obama over the size of the Navy’s fleet, saying it has slipped to the same size it was in 1916, but on Monday he also laid out some details of his plan to expand the fleet.

Mr. Romney said he will step up annual ship production from nine, the current Obama administration plan, to 15. A bunch of those new ships will be additional submarines. Mr. Romey promised Monday to increase sub production from one or two a year, under current plans, to three- a shift that Republican campaign aides say will save money over the long haul since it will allow for more efficient procurement.

“The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916,” Mr. Romney said at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. “I will restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.”

(A note: Although counting ships is trickier than it seems, the Navy officially has about 253 active combat ships. While that is far smaller than the 600-ship fleet President Ronald Reagan set out to build, Navy officials argue modern warships are far more powerful and versatile than in the past. Under Mr. Reagan the Navy didn’t quite make it to 600, but hit 594 in 1987, before defense cuts began to trim the size of the fleet. Defense experts say today’s fleet is arguably as effective as the Cold War-era Navy, and undeniably more powerful than the 245-ship strong fleet of 1916.)

Mr. Romney also promised to permanently deploy an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean. While he has criticized the Obama administration before for what his campaign has said is an inconsistent presence in the Persian Gulf, promising a ship in the Mediterranean is new.

While the U.S. currently has one carrier in the Persian Gulf area and one nearby that conducts air operations in Afghanistan, the Navy has not had a regular carrier strike group presence in the Mediterranean since the Cold War. Even when conducting air strikes in Libya, the U.S. didn’t move a carrier into the Mediterranean–for fear shifting resources would hamper the war effort in Afghanistan or allow Iran’s navy to expand its operations in the Persian Gulf.

Both the ship building plan and the carrier proposal may show the influence of of John Lehman, who as Navy secretary helped oversee Mr. Reagan’s naval build-up and is now advising the Romney campaign.

But the proposal for a carrier strike group in the Mediterranean is hardly a return to Cold War thinking, Republicans said.

While Mr. Romney suggested the carrier in the Mediterranean would help against Iran, his aides said the deployment would also offer broader benefits. A carrier is one of the most evocative expressions of American military power, and the presence of the ship could help stabilize North African and the Middle East, as well as reassure Israel.

“When you have a permanent presence in a region it encourages good behavior because you have a strong neutral arbiter, which history has proven is beneficial to have,” said a Romney aide.

(c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

 
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