The military is bloated, there’s simply no argument that it’s not. I’ve said several times on BC Politics that I think the Department of Defense needs to get rid of its single biggest-ticket item: our fleet of aircraft carriers. This is despite the fact that I served twenty years in the Navy, eight of them on aircraft carriers, and learned to love them as retired military are wont to do of their respective favorite units. The carrier fleet needs to go, they are not nearly as cost-effective as they once were.
Now Mitt Romney has a different take on the burden of taxpayers in maintaining a strong Navy:
“I was speaking with former secretary of the Navy John Lehman. He told me that during the Second World War, we commissioned about 1,000 ships a year. And the Navy purchasing department that year, which they called at the time the Bureau of Ships, had 1,000 employees. By the time John Lehman was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, he said we commissioned about 17 ships a year, and Navy purchasing had grown to 4,000 people. Today, we’ll commission nine ships a year. And purchasing? Navy purchasing [under Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA)] has grown to 24,000 people. A business like that would be out of business. We’ve got to cut the size of the federal workforce.”
That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? What’s more, he got his point straight from former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. It would seem unconscionable that we would need 24,000 people to control all purchasing for nine lousy ships when back in WWII it was closer to one purchaser per ship, right? Right?
Wrong. That’s not a failure to compare apples and oranges, that’s a failure to compare capabilities of weapons systems more than half a century apart. Today’s capabilities come at a steep price, with logistics requirements that would have been unimaginable in WWII, e.g. nuclear reactors and all the support they need. For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep to just one example: SUBSAFE (yes, it’s all caps).
In 1963, the submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) went down with 129 souls on board. The subsequent investigation (which involved the bathyscaphe Trieste) revealed cascading failures of critical systems after a silver-braze seal failed. Now most peoples’ eyes will glaze over reading that description, but some might note a similarity to what happened to the space shuttle Challenger’s o-ring seals: insufficient joint protection on critical systems. And on a billion dollar submarine (just as on the much more expensive space shuttle), most systems are critical to the safety of the submarine. The Navy’s response to the Thresher disaster was SUBSAFE.
So what is SUBSAFE? Simply put, it’s a libertarian’s worst nightmare. It’s a system of tightly controlled and certified work done with tightly controlled and certified parts using tightly controlled and certified equipment. Not only that, but every bit of metal used in SUBSAFE maintenance and repair is tracked from cradle to grave; from where it was mined to when it was permanently removed from use. All this requires mountains of paperwork, it’s hideously expensive, and requires dozens of full-time civilian logistics specialists for each and every submarine, and that’s not even addressing all the little things that submarines carry: torpedoes, SEALS, Tomahawk missiles, and nuclear MIRV-tipped ICBM’s; all of which have their own logistical requirements (and full-time civilian logistics specialists).
Back in 1982 I was stationed on the submarine tender USS Simon Lake (AS-33), and I was allowed to go on a three day sea trial of the submarine USS Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN-658). One of the trails was the deep dive, wherein the submarine is supposed to go to a certain depth to test her seaworthiness at those depths. I won’t say how far we went, but as we did, I watched the bulkheads, overhead, and deck (Navy terms for walls, ceiling, and floor respectively) all simultaneously crush inwards towards me a few inches. To someone who’s never done it before, that gets a man’s attention, and one quickly learns respect for the men (and soon, women) who do this as a career.
That was when I learned why one will find very few submariners who don’t swear by SUBSAFE, because they know it keeps them alive. Just as importantly, SUBSAFE also protects the incredibly expensive taxpayer investments in each of those submarines. Most of all, the submarines are there to do their duty as perhaps the single most critical arm of the entire U.S. military.
Mitt Romney cannot comprehend all this, how could he? Neither he nor any of his sons nor (AFAIK) anyone in his family have spent time in the military. But what about Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, you say? Surely Mitt Romney was listening to a trustworthy source, right?
Actually, no. John Lehman is not looked upon kindly by many in the Navy familiar with those years, not so much because of the Tailhook scandal, but because of his role in forcing the retirement of the single man most responsible for the unquestionably stellar performance of our submarine fleet since the wreck of the Thresher: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. Lehman was a naval aviator and (true to the longstanding rivalry) didn’t think much of submariners, and the scandal he used to get rid of Adm. Rickover was that he (Rickover) was refusing to use taxpayer dollars to pay General Dynamics for huge cost overruns that included documented coverups of substandard work that could have threatened the submarines’ safety.
Mitt Romney almost certainly knows nothing about all this, why would he? But his slice-and-dice suggestion towards Navy purchasing is taken from an ill-considered source. If he really wants to save tens of billions of taxpayer dollars every year, get rid of the carrier fleet, and be man enough to withstand the ire of all the active and retired Navy (and most of the Republican party) who would forever hate him for it.