Obama Naval Doctrine: Anchors Away?

While the recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel focused attention on the proposed cuts to the Army, this administration’s evolving doctrine that diminishes the Navy may be more strategically significant and troubling.   After all, the Navy already has fewer ships than at any time since World War I.  And who can forget President Barack Obama’s sarcastic dismissal of the significance of this fact as unimportant during the third and final presidential debate with Gov. Mitt Romney on Oct. 22, 2012? 

The Obama-Hagel defense posture is clearly one that is perfectly comfortable with diminishing our military might.  Instead of “peace through strength,” the current Administration’s slogan might as well be “peace through weakness.”

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Though Secretary Hagel’s plan keeps the number of aircraft carriers at 11 for now, the $1 trillion in defense cuts mandated through the Budget Control Act of 2011, combined with sequestration, makes a shrinking Navy inevitable.  According to the House Armed Services Committee, unless those changes are rolled back, the Navy will be reduced from about 280 ships today to just 230.  It’s a far cry from President Ronald Reagan’s vision for a 600-ship Navy that helped win the Cold War.

We’ve also seen reports about the Navy scaling back aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf to give Iran’s shaky nuclear accord a better chance to succeed.

Just how do Obama and Hagel see the Navy and its role in national security?  

If his presidential debate comparison of Navy ships to “horses and bayonets” is any indication, perhaps a fitting term would be “Anchors Away,”  in sharp contrast to the the Navy’s historic hymn, “Anchors Aweigh.” 

Obama either forgot, or, more likely, never knew a few inconvenient truths that undermine his justification of a historically small Navy.

First, the oceans are the same size today as they were in the Reagan administration -- they still cover more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface.  U.S. Navy surface ships, submarines and aircraft can’t be everywhere at once.  When it comes to deterrence, global presence is essential.

Second, he glossed over the $1 trillion in defense cuts programmed to span this decade. 

Third, beyond the numbers of ships, today’s White House approach towards the U.S. role in global affairs is a cause for concern.  Most troubling is his vision for reducing our ability to project U.S. military power globally as a force for good and as the principal protector of worldwide freedom of navigation. We are not just another country in the U.N.

President Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  He sent the Great White Fleet of 16 new battleships on a 14-month worldwide cruise from 1907-1909.  The message was clear: Don’t mess with America.

Obama’s comparable phrase might as well be, “speak softly, and whittle down the stick.”

It’s not just the shrinking number of ships and aircraft.  Or the attitude towards foreign policy.

Today’s White House and allies in Congress are re-shaping the all-volunteer military into a smaller, weaker and more progressive force.

They are slashing military benefits, including funds for college education, health care, commissaries and retirement pensions. They are imposing one social change after another.  Over time, these will negatively impact recruiting and retention.

And while Obama was quick to single out a previously secret elite team of Navy SEALs by name for their role in killing Usama Bin Laden, thus putting them and their families in jeopardy, he has been equally quick to cut their benefits.

So Americans ought to look more at White House policies and Congressional votes more than photo ops and flowery praise.  And perhaps even ask their senators and representatives about “President’s Obama naval doctrine.”

The president will have a chance to discuss it when he unveils his second term National Security Strategy later this year.  Americans must hold him and his allies in Congress accountable to stop further erosion of U.S. naval power.

Hanna is the president of Let Freedom Ring, and a former Navy lieutenant. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009.