On bayonets and battleships

Already, much has been made of the President’s comment about “horses and bayonets” during the foreign policy debate. The President was responding to Mitt Romney’s comment that the United States Navy is as small as it has been since our entry into the First World War. The President responded with the following (from the Washington Post):

“Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” the president countered, “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.”

The president stated that we don’t have as many horses or bayonets as we used to have, which is true. However as many have pointed out, our soldiers still train to use–and occasionally, actually use–bayonets in combat. Sometimes our special forces ride horses into battle alongside their aboriginal allies.

While all of this is important to illustrate the President’s ignorance with regard to our military, let’s look at it from the other side of the equation. He is correct that horses and bayonets are largely antiquated means of war-fighting. Except in unique circumstances, weapons like the bayonet are as outdated and obsolete as the catapult and the broadsword. Rather than cold steel, the United States military branches prefer to give their opponents hot, copper-clad lead (or depleted uranium, or molten copper, or high explosive, or what-have-you). Gone are the days of masses of men armed with single-shot, muzzle loading muskets or rifles tipped with triangular-bladed spears charging at one another. Today, our military prefers automatic rifles, helicopters armed with laser-guided missiles, and smart bombs dropped from 25,000 feet by aircraft launched from aircraft carriers .

The point that the President wanted to make was that he was focusing his military efforts in new areas like cyber warfare. This makes sense, since attacking our computer infrastructure is a grave threat to our economic and national security. What the President’s line of thinking fails to recognize is that, while this new potential threat area is real and needs to be funded, so too does our traditional war fighting capability.

When cannons first came to Europe, they toppled the walls of castles and obliterated traditional fortifications. Walls that withstood countless attacks from catapult, marangonel and trebuchet were crushed under the weight of attacks by gunpowder-propelled stone and metal. This didn’t mean that fortifications were obsolete. Rather, the way we Europeans thought about fortifications changed. They had to be enhanced, altered and improved. Instead of stone towers, low earthworks and brick became common. Ironically, instead of eliminating the need for fortifications, the advent of the cannon brought on an era of newer, more effective and more costly fortifications! The machine gun had a similar effect on the way war was fought, as did the aircraft, the armored vehicle, and the submarine.

Additionally, the invention of the tank didn’t eliminate the need for infantry. Rather, tanks have vulnerabilities that require close contact with infantry forces to deal with. Nuclear submarines are superbly capable weapons of war, but they are expensive compared to surface ships and do not launch aircraft. Special forces units are highly capable of precision attacks on difficult, far-flung or capturing unique targets, but they will not replace masses of heavy combat forces. They serve an entirely different purpose.

More importantly, the threats of today are not the same as the threats of tomorrow. The President’s statement recognizes this, but ignores an important reality that the nature of existing threats can also change. Mitt Romney was right to observe that the Chinese desire stability. In fact, they will sacrifice quite a lot to maintain a stable, orderly system and want a stable relationship with the United States. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Chinese will roll over for every demand we make of them. If the Chinese leadership decides it’s time, they’ll have no compunction about invading Taiwan, whom they consider to be a breakaway province.

The only things standing between the Chinese and the goal of re-integrating Taiwan into Communist China are the Taiwanese military and the United States Navy. The Chinese do not have a navy that can challenge ours today. We have about a dozen aircraft carriers, several dozen submarines, many frigates and destroyers, a few cruisers and a multitude of support ships to keep them supplied with fuel and munitions, not to mention several special-role vessels. The Chinese navy is much smaller and has few submarines and no aircraft carriers.

The Chinese have a much smaller navy and are playing catch-up. Comparatively speaking they’re starting from scratch, but have shown themselves to be quick learners. While the ex-Ukrainian aircraft carrier they purchased will probably never be used in combat, it has clearly taught them a great deal about how to build and operate an aircraft carrier; and with our navy far-flung across the globe, they don’t need to have a dozen aircraft carriers to challenge our Pacific Fleet. A fleet of four or five carriers would do the job of allowing them to invade Taiwan, if they so chose, before the rest of our fleet could arrive to stop them (assuming their initial strike took out our Pacific carrier fleet).

So while it is right and correct for President Obama to put funding toward new types of defense, Mitt Romney is correct that we cannot neglect our traditional war-fighting capabilities. Eventually, we had to stop training our soldiers how to fire muzzle-loading rifles, but that came after the repeating rifle was a well-established and predominant weapon of war. We still train our soldiers, sailors and Marines on how to use Morse code even though two-way radio voice communication is so common. Tanks often aren’t the best weapon in the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan but there are other potential conflict areas where they would be necessary. Drones are being used in places where we don’t want to risk human pilots, but they haven’t replaced (and probably never will replace) humans in the cockpit on every mission.

The President is right that new forms of warfare are changing the face of the modern battlefield, but he is wrong to think that we can neglect the other areas of our military.

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