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viewpoint

Of horses and bayonets

| Tuesday, November 1, 2016

There are a few talking points that make their way around the various talk shows and debate circuits that really set me off. While waiting for a flight in South Bend International Airport a few weeks ago, I heard one of them from vice presidential candidate Mike Pence. On Fox News Sunday, Pence told Bret Baier, “We’ve got to rebuild our military. We have the smallest United States Navy since 1916. We have the smallest standing army since the end of World War II.”

The fundamental intellectual dishonesty of this statement should be pretty clear, but I’m going to unpack it anyway. Pence deliberately ignores the very basic military concept of a “force multiplier.” Simply put, a force multiplier is anything which raises the fighting effectiveness of a unit. This can be anything from training to logistics to “esprit de corps,” but for the last three-quarters of a century, the chief American force multiplier has been technology.

Let’s look at the composition of the U.S. Navy circa 1916. The most recently manufactured capital ship was the USS Arizona. She displaced 29,158 long tons, could steam along at 21 knots, and carried a dozen 14-inch guns that could fire a shell a little over 13 miles. The modern U.S. Navy’s most recent heavy hitter, on the other hand, is the USS George H.W. Bush. This powerhouse displaces 102,000 long tons and runs on nuclear power at over 30 knots. In place of the Arizona’s obsolete cannons, the George H.W. Bush carries dozens of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, which have a combat radius of nearly 450 miles and can carry multiple anti-ship missiles which themselves have an effective range of 77 miles.

On land, it’s an equally lopsided story. The Army of 1945 had only just begun to develop the bulletproof vest; in contrast, the modern U.S. Army’s latest gear innovations are exoskeletons that may enable soldiers to carry over 650 pounds of equipment. At the tail end of World War II, radar was still in its adolescence. Today, we inspect al-Qaida strongholds from space at resolutions measured in inches. The Sherman tanks that were iconic of Trump’s much-cited Patton and McArthur are tin cans compared to today’s M-1 Abrams. And let’s not even start to talk about nuclear weapons. In 1945, we had three — Gadget, Little Boy and Fat Man. Today, we have thousands.

A more relevant measure of our defensive power is our relative capability in comparison to our possible foes. Combined, the entire rest of the world has nine aircraft carriers in active service. The United States alone has 10. Our nuclear submarine fleet numbers 75; China has 10. We have the only fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the world in the F-22 Raptor, and we’ve also got the F-35 Lightning II, an airplane so advanced even we don’t know how to build one that works. The Army has so many Abrams tanks that we can afford to park 2,000 of them in the Nevada desert, with continued production driven by Congressional dictum, not military necessity. Though we live in an increasingly multipolar world, America remains the sole military superpower, and that won’t change anytime soon unless the Chinese discover the Ark of the Covenant.

And instead of quaking in fear at imaginary threats (better watch out for Italy, our second-place rival for aircraft carrier supremacy), let’s focus on the real conflicts we’re embroiled in. Since the invasion of Iraq, America’s “hot” conflicts have been focused largely on asymmetrical warfare against outnumbered and outmatched insurgencies. The Islamic State group and its various store-brand affiliates have neither Air Force nor Navy. Defeating them isn’t about creating more firepower, it’s about effectively matching that firepower to its corresponding target. The money Pence wants to send towards supporting more unnecessary tanks and troops would be better spent on improving America’s cyberintelligence capability — a modern force to meet a modern threat.

The true irony of Mike Pence’s statements is that they run parallel to those of a man with whom he’d never voluntarily associate his ideas. I speak, of course, of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. While his famous aphorism that “quantity has a quality all its own” is a fabrication of history, it has endured because it is indicative of the Soviet doctrine that rushed out inferior designs (such as nuclear submarines with minimal radiation shielding) instead of making quality weapons systems. This attitude simply isn’t the American way.

Let’s also remember that we’ve seen the same sort of handwringing about America’s defensive capabilities. In the ’50s, we worried that the Soviets had more bombers than we did. Just a few years later, everyone in Washington was sure that the communists’ missiles outnumbered and outperformed our own. In both cases, these gaps were inventions of politicians willing to play fast and loose with the facts if it meant they’d look tough on defense. History repeats.

It’s truly disappointing that Mike Pence, who is intelligent enough to see the folly of these comparisons, feels the need to use such anti-intellectual rhetoric. Of course, he wouldn’t be doing so if it wasn’t effective. Let’s hope that more people will realize that this particular talking point is spurious on its face. With luck, the news will at last be rid of it for good.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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