Robert O’Brien has a must read piece on the size of the Navy and the focus it should provide the GOP field in this afternoon’s Politico magazine. He joined me in hour two to discuss:
HH: Right now at Politico.com, at the magazine, you will see a piece that was posted three hours ago by my colleague, Robert O’Brien who is a law partner of mine. He wrote a piece called The Navy’s Hidden Crisis: It’s Too Small And Getting Smaller, about the foreign policy positions. And interestingly enough, George Will anticipated when he was talking to me last hour. Robert O’Brien, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to speak with you.
RO’B: Thanks for having me, Hugh.
HH: Let’s summarize first of all your piece in Politico is sort of addressed to Republican would-be presidential hopefuls. You haven’t signed on with anyone at this point, right?
RO’B: I have not, yet.
HH: All right, so the O’Brien primary goes on, but talk…
RO’B: I’m still getting over Governor Romney deciding not to run.
HH: But you’ve been working on this Navy piece for a while, because I know you were talking to a couple of people in and outside of the service about this. What’s the bottom line about what Republican candidates need to say about the Navy and why?
RO’B: Well, the bottom line is that this is going to be a national security election. We’re seeing the Middle East just in flames, the administration is floundering. It really has no idea what to do about it. We have a hot war, not a cold war, going on in Ukraine. You’re seeing body bags dragged out of Eastern Ukraine, the Donbass region of, you know, young Ukrainian soldiers, and Russian soldiers as well going home to be buried. You’ve got a very aggressive China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It’s a very dangerous world. This is going to be a foreign policy election. It’s a vulnerability for the Democrats, and it’s a huge vulnerability for Hillary Clinton. The Republican who’s the nominee and everyone who’s running needs to be the heir to Ronald Reagan. And it has to be a peace through strength platform, both in the primaries, and we have to come out of the convention with a very strong peace through strength platform. Having a strong United States Navy like Ronald Reagan advocated when he had his, shot for a 500 ship United States Navy, that’s where we need to be going into the general election.
HH: Now we’re going in the reverse. We’ll come back to that in a second, because that’s exactly what George Will said last hour, is that Reagan re-moralized the Cold War, and that Will believes that 2016 will be the first foreign policy election since 1980. Do you agree with that, Robert O’Brien?
RO’B: I agree with him. The Obama foreign policy, this idea that you can retreat from the world and create vacuums, and actors, especially the bad actors would be grateful for an American withdrawal from the world, and would behave themselves, is the height of naïveté. And we’re now reaping the whirlwind. We’re seeing, you know, barbaric acts of people being burned alive, thrown off buildings, and crucified, I mean, things that we never thought we’d see in our lifetime, Hugh. And that’s because there’s a lack of American influence around the world. The best way to reach out and touch the rest of the world is to have the United States Navy on station. And it’s like having a cop on the beat, and it tends to modify the behavior of the bad actors.
HH: Now the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded their Ashton Carter hearings, and I’ll ask Tom Cotton about them next hour. I expect he will be confirmed. But he provided a questionnaire before the hearings began that was excerpted by Politico yesterday. And he says the Navy needs to have a powerful battle fleet, but he would not commit to keeping all 11 aircraft carriers if sequestration returns next year, nor does he necessarily agree to preserve the fleet at a specific level. “Ship count is only one metric to evaluate fleet effectiveness.” Your article in Politico is a direct repudiation of that point. It is the metric.
RO’B: It has to be the metric, and the reason is that you have to have presence around the world. You have to have a ship on station. So you think about the hot spots in the world. You have ISIS in Syria and Iraq. You need to have ships in the Mediterranean. You’ve got a very belligerent Iran that’s building nuclear weapons. You need to have ships on station in the Persian Gulf. We have troops, even with the drawdown, we still have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. We have to have ships supporting them in Afghanistan. You’ve got the Russians getting very active in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean again. You’ve got the Russians and the Chinese getting active in the Arctic. You have the whole western Pacific with the South China Sea and the East China Sea. If you don’t have enough ships, you cannot have ships on station in those areas, and you cede control of these critical sea lanes, of communication, and the highways of international commerce. You cede those to the bad guys. We cannot afford to do it. So ship count absolutely matters, and Ash Carter, who, you know, I think will be the best that we can hope for in a Democrat administration, is just flat wrong. But he’s under tremendous political pressure from the White House to say what he’s saying. I don’t think he actually believes it. He’s too smart of a guy.
HH: Now the piece that you published over at Politico Magazine three hours ago, it’s called The Navy’s Hidden Crisis: It’s Too Small And Getting Smaller, I tweeted it out, people can follow me @Hughhewitt and find the link, you said that the Navy says we have 284 warships, but that number, “probably overstates the Navy’s true capability. The Pentagon recently changed the rules by which it counts active warships.” So we really have…how do you change the rules to count a warship, Robert O’Brien?
RO’B: Well again, this is political, because Governor Romney pointed out that we had the smallest fleet since 1916, since the First World War. You’ll remember President Obama’s snarky response in the debate that we have these things called aircraft carriers, and planes land on them, and we don’t have as many bayonets and horses as we used to. But what he didn’t say is that the Enterprise is just about to be retired, and we’re going to go to ten aircraft carriers, and that in his budget, he’s tried to not refuel the George Washington, our big nuclear carrier that was out in Japan. That would take us down to nine carriers. So we’ve got a fleet that’s shrinking, and the administration just doesn’t want to acknowledge it. One way to make the fleet look bigger is you start classifying supply ships and ships that aren’t traditionally combatants as warships. And then the fleet gets bigger. But we’ve never counted a lot of the supply ships or the tugboats or that sort of thing as warships before. We’re starting to do a little of that to make the fleet look bigger. Again, it’s politics. It’s not what the Navy has ever done.
HH: Let me play that exchange for people who may have forgotten it from the 2012 debates between Obama and Romney.
BO: Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them.
HH: That is non-responsive, of course, to the critique. I am curious, Robert O’Brien, your advice to the Republican field as it melds and gets its act together as to what they ought to be saying about ship count.
RO’B: Well, they’ve got to get out there and come up with a number. We suggest, or I suggest in my article anywhere between 326 and 345 ships. And that number isn’t picked out of the air. That’s what a bipartisan blue ribbon panel that reviews the Pentagon’s budget said we needed to just maintain the obligations we have to our allies and to ourselves, and keep the nation safe. So the Republican candidates need to get out there. They need to embrace those numbers. They need to be committed to rebuild the fleet. It’s going to take a real effort in the next administration to get us to where we need to be. That will in turn send a huge message to our friends and foes around the world, to our friends that we’re going to be there to support them, and to our foes, that there’s a new sheriff in town. That message will also be understood by the American electorate. They get it. Americans like having aircraft carriers. They like knowing that when there’s a crisis, the President can say where are the carriers, and that we can get four and a half acres of U.S. sovereignty over to the crisis point, whether it’s for humanitarian issues, a hostage crisis, and invasion of an ally, or to deter a bad actor from doing something that would imperil international peace and security.
HH: You make the point. I think this has to be driven home. If you’re talking ship count, you have a metric that you can push Hillary on. You have a metric on which Republicans can distinguish each other from, because that is something, it’s a common language, right? It’s the Rosetta Stone of Defense seriousness.
RO’B: Everybody gets it. Our friends abroad understand it. Our foes understand it. And the average American voter understands it. I mean, keep in mind that at any given time, one third of the ships in the Navy are in home port, because their sailors are taking some much-needed time off with their friends and family, we’ve got ships that are in maintenance, and then you’ve got ships that are out on station. So maybe you’ve only got 100 ships on station, or 110 ships on station even under the plan that I suggest, that the bipartisan commission has suggested. That’s 100 ships to keep the world safe, and to keep America safe. It’s not just for the rest of the world. It’s for us as well. And Americans understand that. They get that. And a Republican candidate, that’s a shorthand message for Republicans to demonstrate to the American people both in the primaries, but also in the general election, that they are very serious about Defense. Here’s the amazing thing, Hugh. To do this, it would take about an extra $10 billion dollars. Now $10 billion dollars is a lot of money. I concede that. But when you have a $3.5 trillion dollar budget, and when you put almost that much money into the Obamacare website, you know, I think the American voters would rather have an additional aircraft carrier, ten additional submarines, ten additional destroyers, you know, more amphibs to carry our Marines where they go, than to have a malfunctioning Obamacare website. We get a lot of bang for our buck, and a lot of security and savings for our country by having the American Navy on station around the world.
HH: Robert O’Brien, great piece, The Navy’s Hidden Crisis, posted hours ago at Politico.com. Go over and check it out, or you can follow him on Twitter, @RobertCOBrien. Or you can find the link on my Twitter feed, @HughHewitt. Thank you, Robert.
End of interview.