Romney’s Tiny Navy, Obama’s Big Folly

"We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them," President Barack Obama quipped in last night's foreign-policy debate. "We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

Condescension aside, he's right that Mitt Romney makes a silly argument in comparing the size of today's U.S. Navy to that of 1917. Romney's desire to peg Pentagon spending to gross domestic product is also a head-scratcher; quality is more important than quantity.

That said, Obama has his own problems when it comes to putting military mass ahead of effectiveness.

One example stands out from a mile away, because it's 20 stories high and three football fields long. The USS Gerald R. Ford, now under construction in Newport News, Virginia, is the first of the Navy's new fleet of "supercarriers." It is also going to be an awfully inviting target for terrorists, and the first three ships will blow a $42 billion hole in the Pentagon budget. Even staunch military advocates such as Senator John McCain think the Ford class is a folly, but the Obama administration is forging ahead full steam -- as, one supposes, would the Romney administration. One wonders whether the goal is to thwart Chinese adventurism or hang on to voters in a pivotal swing state.

Then there is Obama's desire to cut the growth of the Pentagon budget without making necessary cuts in force size, epitomized by his taking personnel costs off the table in reaching the $500 billion cuts mandated next year by the debt- ceiling agreement. (Yes, I know Obama said last night that so-called sequestration "will not happen," but that's not a promise a president has the power to make good on.)

Personnel accounts for $135 billion a year, more than a quarter of the base budget. If we can't trim there or kill or pare down troubled programs like the Ford class and the $1.5 trillion F-35 fighter, where will we find the savings? Likely in everything those troops need to live and fight, including supporting contractors, food, facilities, maintenance, supplies and, yes, bayonets. Much like Romney's tax plan, Obama's Pentagon math just doesn't add up.

The pleasant surprise of last night's debate was how much the two candidates agreed on the smartest aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including Iran sanctions and pulling out of Afghanistan. But when it comes to envisioning how the U.S. military will combat a new kind of asymmetric foe in a time of budget austerity, neither Obama nor Romney seems very presidential.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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