PENTAGON: “It’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘beat Army,’” the Chief of Naval Operations began, and the assembled sailors laughed.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert was making a football joke, but there’s a serious strategic point beneath the smiles. At this morning’s celebration of the Navy’s 237th birthday, the service’s normal pride on such occasions was redoubled by a strong sense that, after a decade supporting ground operations in Afghanistan (landlocked) and Iraq (nearly so), the administration’s refocus on the Pacific means it is now the Navy’s turn to shine. As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in his remarks just minutes after the CNO’s, “if you look at the new strategy… it is a maritime-centric strategy.”

One of Greenert’s bosses made the Navy’s case for it. “We all know we’re in a moment of great strategic transition,” added Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. “We have been preoccupied, focused, riveted, of necessity” on Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, but “now is the time for us all to look up, look around, and look forward” to a wider strategic vision around the world, and “we see a central role for the United States Navy in that strategy going forward.”

That “central role” has definite limits. There’s intense downward pressure on the budget, even if the automatic cuts known as sequestration are repealed before they take effect on Jan. 2. So it’s unlikely that the Navy will actually grow, despite rhetoric in both the Pentagon and on the campaign trail.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has pledged to increase Navy shipbuilding from the current nine warships a year to “about 15″ — indeed, it’s the first point mentioned in the online version of his national security plan. Romney’s chief defense advisor, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, recently promised a new class of frigates, a new missile defense ship, more amphibious warfare ships, and an additional air wing. (The Navy currently has 11 aircraft carriers but just 10 air wings, because one carrier is normally out of service for overhaul at any given time).

But Romney has also pledged to reverse the Obama administration’s cut of about 100,000 ground troops (80,000 Army soldiers, 20,000 Marines; Romney claims he will “add” the troops but his campaign made clear he would merely reverse the current cuts). Without the savings from those personnel reductions, the only way to fulfill his promises is to find some way to increase the total defense budget. The campaign has discussed trimming the number of top officers, cutting headquarters staffs, and fixing the chronic cost overruns in the military procurement system, but all these fixes have been tried to little avail before.

Romney advisor Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon comptroller, admitted at an event in June that “this [defense buildup] is not going to all take place in one year” and will probably depend on new revenues from the economic recovery that Romney’s tax plan is supposed to stimulate. “If the economy expands,” Zakheim said, “you’re in a better position to increase defense spending and other spending besides.”

Until the recovery restores federal revenues, however, the Navy will keep on making do. For example, Mabus touted Saturday’s commissioning of the Navy’s newest warship, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Michael Murphy, as “a flexible, powerful, incredible projection of America named after one of our great naval heroes.” But the fact that the Navy has committed to building Arleigh Burkes almost indefinitely, and to keep those it has in service for an unprecedented 35 to 40 years, is all about controlling costs. New designs proved too expensive, and even sticking with the current class, the Navy can’t build new Arleigh Burkes fast enough to let it retire destroyers after the normal 30-year service life.

Nevertheless, it’s still likely that the Navy will “beat Army,” if only by not getting its budget cut as much. The Army is the service that grew the most since 9/11, so it would be the logical candidate to be cut the most as the wars wind down, even if the administration were not also seeking to emphasize the Pacific theater, which is (to belabor the obvious) mostly water. Now the largest service is struggling to define — and defend — its post-Afghanistan role.

“The Army’s got to be the bill-payer,” said Robbin Laird, a defense analyst and member of Breaking Defense’s Board of Contributors, in a conversation with this reporter yesterday. “The Army, I’m sure, will be cut in half by the time we’re done, at least.”

In some ways, the coming years may be the fiscal equivalent of the War of 1812, whose bicentennial the Navy has been celebrating all year. A sailor from the USS Constitution, in reproduction 1812-era uniform, helped CNO Greenert cut the Navy’s birthday cake. Secretary Mabus said the Navy’s actions in that war “guaranteed our independence… by defeating the then-greatest navy in the world,” Great Britain’s.

But in fact the War of 1812 was mostly a debacle for the US armed forces, from the abortive invasion of Canada to the burning of the White House by British troops. Oliver Hazard Perry heroically repulsed the British on the Great Lakes, while the famed Constitution and other frigates won dramatic but strategically insignificant one-on-one duels with roving Royal Navy ships, but the British still ruled the seas. The US Navy did not truly defeat the British then, and it probably will not defeat the budget-cutters now. Likewise, in the budget wars of the next few years, the Navy’s great victory may simply to avoid getting as badly pummeled as everybody else.

Comments