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When Mitt Romney pointed out that the United States Navy was dropping to a force level lower than it had been prior to World War I, Obama responded, “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Obama’s response was more than a little condescending. But he tried to use the advanced capabilities of today’s platforms to cover a major weakness in his record. Under Obama, the decline of America’s navy, which started under the Clinton Administration, and which continued under the George W. Bush Administration, has accelerated.

Among Obama’s decisions that left him vulnerable was the decision to retire USS Enterprise this coming December, and to cut procurement of several capable systems, including the F-22, C-17, and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Romney, for whatever reason did not call Obama out on those cuts.

While Obama is correct in citing the improved capabilities of today’s military, he did neglect to mention that we have bought far fewer of the new weapon systems. In 1990, the United States had pushed to a 15-carrier fleet, and sent six to the Persian Gulf in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Today, there are 11 in service. Surging six to a region with a major crisis? Could be done. but there will be no carriers to handle other crises. As good as our carriers are, they cannot respond to crises in two places at once – and the United States has commitments across the globe.

This also applies to aircraft. F-22 production was cut to 187, but 483 F-15Cs and 384 F-15As were built. Subtracting the planes exported to allies (20 F-15A and 11 F-15C to Israel, and 49 F-15C to Saudi Arabia), that still means that each F-22 is being asked to replace an average of 4.2 F-15s.Even today, the Air Force has 254 F-15C/D aircraft in service, and many were grounded from November 2007 to February 2008 in the wake of the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 that seriously injured the pilot.

That is not the only problem with Obama’s “horses and bayonets” comment. The other problem is that there are older systems that are still quite capable. Chief among them is the A-10 Thunderbolt. For the close-air support mission, no aircraft is better. Yet, production of the A-10 ended in 1984, with 716 planes produced. Yet only 345 are in service, between the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and the Air National Guard. Worse, five squadrons have been placed on the chopping block. Losing that capability could be bad news for the boots on the ground.

During early operations in Afghanistan, Special Forces troops were photographed riding on horseback. These troops, combined with air power – primarily the B-52 Stratofortress, but also planes from the USS Enterprise – helped push the Taliban out of power. While they are getting old, they seem able to hold the line until the replacements can come on line.

It was during the War on Terror that the older M14 began to make a comeback. Newer versions of that venerable rifle have been providing superb service for Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, and they did so in Iraq as well. Even before the War on Terror, the M1911 was still staying in service – particularly with the Marine Corps, using the M1911 with some of its Marine Expeditionary Units. The M2 is still in service as well, and just recently, an enhanced version entered service, but the basics are still there.

Many of those older systems still are useful. The bayonet that Obama dismissed is still used by the Army and Marines – and in 2004, a British unit in Iraq carried out a bayonet charge against Mahdi Army insurgents. With that in mind, a 2010 decision to halt bayonet training in Army basic training was widely criticized.

Was Obama correct to claim that our new weapons are more capable? Technically, he was. But if too few are purchased, they will be spread thin, and defeated. This was what happened in the case of the Tiger tank – on a tank-for-tank basis, it was superior to the American M4 and the Russian T-34, but it was vastly outnumbered, and Germany lost the war.

Romney, though, was correct to note the shrinking Navy, and the general decline in numbers of troops as well. While quality is very important and the United States has leveraged it very well in conflicts over the last 25 years, quantity matters, too. Not only does having more allow for maintaining commitments, while allowing more dwell time for non-deployed units, it also provides a great deal of surge capability.

Ultimately, the United States needs to continue to develop new weapons and capabilities, but it needs to maintain a larger force and to maintain the older ones. After all, wars tend to be very unpredictable. One not only cannot tell where one will break out, one also cannot tell what might be very important to have when it starts.

Article by Harold Hutchison