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For the Navy, the size of the fleet is important. But so are its capabilities — a fact that often gets lost in the politically charged debate over how many and what kind of ships the Navy needs to meet its global operational demands.
The Navy’s size became an unexpected point of contention during the presidential campaign. In a nod to hawks within his own party, GOP nominee Mitt Romney said he would boost the number of ships the Navy buys each year from about nine to 15. Romney decried the current size of the fleet — 287 ships, up from 282 in 2008 — during the final presidential debate, comparing today’s Navy to the U.S. fleet in 1917.
Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, many of whom hail from states and districts with heavy shipbuilding and naval interests, have long made the same case.
“You know, facts are stubborn things,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said the day after the debate. “And the fact is that we will have the smallest Navy since 1914 if sequestration takes place.”
In the debate, President Barack Obama famously dismissed Romney’s argument, saying it’s not a game of Battleship.
But the Navy itself has been publicly pushing the idea of a 300-plus ship fleet for years, arguing that it needs that many aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and other vessels on hand to operate and respond to hot spots and emergencies around the world.
The Navy’s solution to reaching that number is the Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy plans to buy 55 of the shore-hugging vessels to counter mines and defeat submarines and fast surface ships. Even after schedule delays and cost hikes that have doubled its price since its inception in 2001, officials insist that the LCS is critical to getting to that magic 300 number.
But many outside defense analysts say they still aren’t clear exactly what role the LCS will play in the fleet. This raises the question of whether the Navy’s plan to have the LCS make up a sixth of the eventual fleet is based more on numbers than on the Navy’s expected missions. While relatively inexpensive at roughly $500 million a ship, it’s still a pricey platform for some of its expected missions, such as mine clearing.
All these decisions come with trade-offs.