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Mitt Romney and the Naval Sea Systems Command

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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.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Igor

    The longer record that a weapon has, the longer your enemy has to study it and devise a neutralizer.

    It’s doubtful that MAD will solve any real problem in the future, as antagonists develop asymmetrical warfare with non-state participants.

  • John Lake

    If the sabre-rattlers in congress have their way, bombing Iran, trying to control the Syrian government, attempting to placate Israel, while defying Palestine, we are bound to see more than an occasional local war.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    Actually, the Bismarck is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Two lousy Swordfish biplanes dropped torpedoes – one missed, the other damaged the rudder…but that was all it took, for from that point on all the Bismarck could do was sail in circles until the rest of the Royal Navy could assemble close enough to send her down.

  • Igor

    Study of war history makes it clear that the weapons developed for war N are quickly demolished in war N+1. Especially the shiny new editions, such as Hood and Bismarck which were quickly sunk on their initial voyages at GREAT EXPENSE!

    Watching all that money go down the drain is not a happy thing. Even if you don’t give a damn about the sailors and strategies that also drown.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    No, I don’t think so. IMO the nation with thousands of nukes isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as the idiot with one nuke.

    And again, today we’ve something unprecedented in human history – not only true mass media available to the overwhelming majority of the developed world, but near-instantaneous communications among the common people. So far this has had IMO a real effect on the nations even with dictatorial governments – even Myanmar’s starting to get with the program. It’s not for nothing that I said the cell phone is more powerful than the AK-47.

  • Nuclear deterrence works only insofar as very few people with the power and access to do so are ever going to be crazy enough to be the first one to press that button. It stops working the second somebody sees something anomalous on the radar screen, convinces himself that it’s an incoming missile and orders the counter-strike.

    There are several stories from the Cold War that tell of occasions on which accidental nuclear conflict was narrowly averted thanks to the officer on watch doing some thorough double-checking – and, in at least one incident, simply going with his gut.

    Nuclear war, accidental or otherwise, is still by far the biggest and most immediate threat to the planet. If unleashed on a global scale, its effects will make those of global warming seem like a nice relaxing bath.

    Setting that possibility aside, if the world is destined for a major societal upheaval on the scale of that which followed the (almost continuous) world war of 1914-45, I think it will be more along the lines of gradual economic collapse and political fragmentation rather than an abrupt cataclysmic event like a war. We’re going to end up with a large number of small states rather than the single global government that many used to envision. The process has already been seen in the forcibly federated states of the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia/Eritrea and Indonesia/East Timor, is ongoing in Russia, the UK, Belgium, Nigeria and numerous other places and is probably eventually on the cards even in the US.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Chris –

    Yes, that was and is their purpose. My point is that they are now too vulnerable to justify their cost, particularly when we can get the same effectiveness much cheaper, with much less vulnerability.

    And I think my previous reply – posted almost at the same time as yours – might help when it comes to thoughts of large-scale wars. I remember the days that I was Absolutely Sure that the Third World War would come – my Navy buddies and I had even made plans and made sure we had guns ‘just in case’, you know.

    But deterrence works, thanks in no small part to Hyman G. Rickover.

  • Not a Navy guy but I thought the main purpose of aircraft carriers was to project military power far from home.

    I really hope John Lake is wrong when he says that he thinks a “major world war seems nearly inevitable” but regardless of that I would like to see countries like the US and the UK focussing on developing defensive military capabilities rather than offensive ones.

    On a related issue, wouldn’t the extensive stocks of nuclear weapons, particularly missiles, deter all but the most insane of military adventurist nations?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I strongly disagree that a major world war is inevitable, or even likely. I see smaller wars happening, but a major war between superpowers? No. I’m not going to say that mankind’s learned its lesson, but I will say that, for instance, China wouldn’t want a war because they know that they’d (1) lose the biggest markets for their economy, and (2) their nation is stable only so long as they’ve enough soldiers in place to keep it that way – we know this from the reports of small-scale revolts that keep occurring in the western province of Xinjiang (of which a significant part is Muslim) and the southern province of Xizang (which we call Tibet) where even two days ago were reports of several Tibetan monks lighting themselves on fire in protest.

    But to China’s government, maintaining internal stability is their first priority, always. They’ve no choice, and most of the world’s diplomats know it.

    And as far as Russia goes, they’re too worried about China – yes, China – to be much of a threat to us. Like China, they’ve got stability issues of their own.

    The other great factor is the Information Age – the cell phone is mightier than the AK-47. The ease of spread of information even in places like China and Iran go a long way towards preventing them from becoming too belligerent…unless they can, say, cut off their entire population from the internet and national TV and radio broadcasts as North Korea did…but Pandora’s out of the box in the rest of the world, and the time will come when she breaks out of the box Pyongyang has her in as well.

    So…no, I’m really not worried about a general world war. Horrendous acts of terrorism even including nukes, sure. Local wars between moderate powers, sure. But between those armed with many hundreds of nukes? No. MAD didn’t turn out to be so mad after all.

  • John Lake

    A need for more battleships and aircraft carriers is one of the few things about which I agree with Romney. A major world war now seems nearly inevitable, and we should be prepared for that eventuality. I agree with Contrarian that political aspects and unwarranted costs should be cut.

  • Igor

    Excellent article.

    Many powerful empires have been overturned by simply not recognizing that their war weapons have been superseded. Aided, of course, by superannuated conservatives who long to support the old warfare they know so well. In defeat they complain that the enemy was ‘unfair’ in ignoring historical precedent. Witness Vietnam. And Afghanistan, for that matter.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    It’s the same story through all the centuries of any organized navy – heck, any organized military force – that a new technology, a new strategy, a new kind of unit or style of organization will force the old into obsolescence, but there will still be the ‘old guard’ that will stand by the old ways until utter defeat in combat shows them their errors.

    It was true at Trafalgar, where Nelson’s smaller fleet proved the value of drill and training over sheer numbers and firepower.

    It was true in the time of Napoleon, who rejected the very ideal of steam-driven ships: “You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bon-fire under her deck? I have no time for such nonsense.”
    – Napoleon, on Robert Fulton’s Steamship

    It was the same with every navy in WWII (including the Japanese), for the battleship captains were in every case senior to the upstart officers who supported the idea of a carrier fleet and rejected the notion that those little planes could actually sink heavily-armed and -armored capital ships. The Japanese – as with several other naval technologies such as the torpedo – were actually quite further progressed than were the other navies of the world when it came to defeating the battleship paradigm. That didn’t mean they’d get rid of the battleships right away – but they were more open to the possibilities presented by new technologies than were the other navies.

    And so it goes with the carriers of today. Their only defense against supersonic cruise missiles are surface-to-air missiles and the ‘CIWS’ system (a glorified automated Gatling gun first developed by the Soviets), both of which are over 30 years old, and neither of which has ever been tested in real combat.

    If I were going to war against America, it would be simplicity itself to take out the carriers – the answer lay in asymmetrical warfare proposed by China back in the 1990’s. Our carrier fleets are so powerful in a head-to-head battle…but so vulnerable against enemies that refuse to go head-to-head. I hope we don’t have to find that out the hard way someday.

  • I don’t know about Pearl Harbor so much having demonstrated the obsoleteness of battleships as it demonstrated the value of a carrier fleet, especially in the vast Pacific Ocean, at a time when most warplanes had a range of only a couple of hundred miles.

    The Japanese Navy continued to use – and rely heavily on – its powerful battleship fleet until what turned out to be its spectacular irrelevance at Midway, which was the battle that truly demonstrated the huge advantage of the carrier and sounded the death knell for the era of the battleship.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    Even before I retired back in ’01, it was already costing $1B/year to operate each carrier – and we’ve got eleven of them. It’s not only the carriers – it’s the entire logistical chain that supports the ship and the aircraft. And then there’s the never-ending parade not only of thousands of sailors who sail them every day, but of the hundreds of civilians who maintain them when in port…and fully half the time they are in port (which is a lot less expensive than being at sea).

    What the carriers offer the president is quick flexibility in responses, for their capabilities go beyond combat…and they’re not unsinkable, but they’re the toughest ships ever built.

    That said, there’s not much that carriers can do that a much less-expensive combination of a helo carrier and cruise-ship-armed destroyers can’t do. But the military-industrial complex is so powerful that I don’t think our government is capable of getting rid of them until someone shows us just how obsolete they are, just as Japan showed us how obsolete our battleship fleet was at Pearl Harbor.

  • Perhaps you’d care to elaborate on your rationale for getting rid of the carrier fleet, Glenn.

    I think you have a point: the US has bases all over the world, and long-range bombers and cruise missiles available for areas that are beyond the reach of land-based fighter-bombers. Carriers therefore do seem superfluous, and they’re probably useful more as a show of force than anything else.

    The UK’s Royal Navy realized some time ago that it didn’t really need them, and now has only one light carrier, HMS Illustrious, and one helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean – although two new supercarriers are under construction.

  • Glenn Contrarian


  • That’s funny, my wife used to work at Old Navy and she never points out things like that.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Note to the editor –

    Good job with reworking my style and grammar, as always, but one note: the names of naval vessels are normally italicized in articles, e.g. USS Abraham Lincoln (CNV 72). Sorry – pointing out such things are habit of anyone who’s really Old Navy.