Why the Navy needs more than just more ships

The USS Coronado (LCS-4) underway in April 2014. The Coronado and other LCS ships are supposed to fill the role of frigates, which the Navy retired en masse in the late 2000s. (credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinne)

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO turned Republican presidential hopeful, has gotten oddly specific about what size military she believes the US needs: 50 Army brigade combat teams, 36 Marine battalions, and a 350-ship Navy combat fleet (not counting support ships, hospital ships, and cargo carriers). She’s proposed a retooling of the military that could cost more than $500 billion over ten years. Fiorina didn’t come up with those numbers on her own—they closely matched numbers from a report on military readiness from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank, and numbers that Mitt Romney proposed during his campaign four years ago.

“350 is not a crazy number,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution specializing in defense and foreign policy issues, told Ars. “It’s not the number I endorse, but it’s not crazy, with all the tasks being assigned [the Navy]. Even in the late Bush and Obama years, we’ve seen a goal of 335 ships.” And the last president to have a fleet of 350 ships was Bill Clinton, who O’Hanlon said “was not an uber-hawk.”

The numbers, while appearing to be part of a detailed plan, don’t mean much alone. There’s little disagreement (at least among defense analysts) that the military needs to be strengthened. But even meeting the much-less-specific call for military spending that Donald Trump made from the deck of the USS Iowa recently (“We’re gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it [because] nobody’s gonna mess with us”) requires an understanding of what exactly “strong” is supposed to mean.

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