About midway through last night’s debate, President Barack Obama responded to Mitt Romney’s claim that America desperately needed to increase it’s naval strength by referring to “horses and bayonets:”

“But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. 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.

And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting slips. It’s what are our capabilities. And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home.”

(Emphasis Mine. See the debate transcript here for the full context.)

I predicted on Twitter shortly after the quote that “Horses and Bayonets” would become the next big meme, most likely Obama’s “Binders Full of Women” moment.  Obama came across as so bloodcurdlingly condescending in that debate response that I was sure people would respond negatively.

It turns out that I was only partially right.  Obama’s campaign snapped the #horsesandbayonets hashtag up right away, turning it into a largely pro-Obama meme rather than an anti-Romney one.  Apparently, his theme that Romney’s policy ideas were outdated entirely overrode his own condescending approach to the question – at least, it did among his supporters.  For the moment, Obama may still win the internet.

Conservatives were quick to point out that the Army still uses bayonets, and that mounted units are still deployed into the field for military operations – in particular, in Afghanistan in 2001.  I personally feel like that is a weak retort, because 1) it totally misses the point of Obama’s argument and 2) it comes across as more of a raspberry than an actual substantive response.
With all due respect to the President of the United States, that assessment is complete bull.The grander point is one of political strategy in the next few weeks.  Obama will likely try to frame portions of his last debate push around the statement as a means of contrasting himself with his “out of touch” and “out of date” opponent.  He will keep up the argument that Mitt’s “more boats” strategy just isn’t necessary given our current level of technology.  As he has argued both in the debate and elsewhere, we can apparently do more with much fewer ships in the water than we could in the past because the technology puts us so much further ahead from a competitive viewpoint.

Obama is correct that our technology level is much higher than that of many of our opponents on the world stage.  But technology is NOT a zero-sum game.  People can buy it, reverse engineer it, steal it, copy it, or try to develop their own.  Why are we so worried now about Iran’s nuclear capability, for example?  Because they were able to acquire or independently develop nuclear-level technologies in the first place, independent of U.S. military technological superiority.

What’s worse is that several major incidents over the last few years have cast considerable doubts on our “far and away” technological advantage:

  1. Downed Drone – Iran downing our RQ-170 spy drone in December of 2011 was a huge setback.  Not only did it shatter many false assumptions about the infallibility of the drone program, but it also gave Iran – and China – huge opportunities to analyze our technology first hand.  That means our current drone tech is going to be less effective in the long run, weakening our overall advantage with whatever powers happen to get access to that information.
  2. Stealth Helicopter – One of the more juicy pieces of news that came out of the Osama bin Laden attack was that the American Apache helicopters that flew in were of a unique design: they were effectively stealth helicopters made to reduce noise output and radar profile.  However, the demolition of the helicopter that crashed during the raid didn’t destroy the tail section of the helicopter, and this portion was soon thereafter captured by Pakistanis – and was later examined by the Chinese.  This will not only further compromise our stealth technology, but it will also reduce the effectiveness of any remaining stealth helicopters that don’t undergo significant upgrades in the near future.
  3. J-20 vs F-22 – Military blogs were abuzz when images were released of China’s new J-20 “Mighty Dragon” fighter jet.  This aircraft, which some predict could have its own Chinese-built stealth engine in less than ten years, is a serious concern for many in the defense industry, especially considering that it looks virtually identical to the F-22 Raptor.  It’s highly possible that some form of espionage got Lockheed-Martin’s designs into the hands of the Chinese military, and this will be a serious strategic concern on issues of air superiority in the future.
  4. Faulty Parts – The entire argument about advanced technology depends on whether or not that tech works, and as it was discovered last year that many of those parts were fake.  Chinese-manufactured parts were apparently found to be faulty or non-functional, and a U.S. Senate investigation uncovered around 1,800 cases of failed or faulty counterfeit parts.

Further, it is entirely false to assume that just because something is made with superior technology it will automatically guarantee military victory.  Consider the Messerschmitt Me 262, the first ever military jet fighter, deployed by the Nazis near the end of World War II in an effort to stop Allied air assaults.  This put German fighter defense capabilities leaps and bounds above Allied forces in terms of speed and maneuverability (outpacing the P51 Mustang, which was itself an incredibly effective fighter plane).  However, the Nazis were on the retreat by this point, and the considerable air advantage of the Messerschmitt was not enough to turn the tide of the war or stop the waves of bombers that the Allies flew over Germany.

What many on the left will missed is that, in terms of pure strategic policy, Mitt actually made a strong point by not relying on technology in his argument.  Our military technology is one of our greatest strengths, but it is also a huge risk; should we become too complacent in our advantage, we will lose the ability to adapt and respond to large-scale threats.  While we can do much more with less, there are still certain military considerations that require actual warm bodies in uniform – and actual hard assets like ships and aircraft – in order for our national security and strategic interests to be successfully addressed.

By stating that a specific numbers of hulls were requested by the military, and arguing that our current path is set to seriously undercut that number, he touched on Obama’s frequent failure to respond to the full requests of military leaders in the interest of political concerns.  In Afghanistan, this has sharply increased our military casualties, and I would hate to see what might happen if the Navy loses too many ships from its fleet.

Regardless of these facts, the internet won’t be shutting up about this one.  Instead, left-leaning blogs and social media outlets will continue to ride those horses (and bayonets) as long they will give their cause political momentum. Though Obama’s “Horses and Bayonets” comment made for a terrible argument with no substance in last night’s debate, its tenure online will be all too persistent.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin