In the final candidates' debate last week, President Obama delivered a telling, somewhat snarky zinger in response to Governor Romney's call for naval expansion: "This isn't ‘Battleship.'" He then went on to school Romney about how having some aircraft carriers and submarines means we don't need more ships. The governor had no adequate reply.
But the fact of the matter is that the old "Battleship" board game -- not the more recent movie flop that was somehow based on it -- offers exactly the right metaphor to describe strategic affairs in the information age. "Battleship" does so by capturing the distilled essence of naval operations today: the hider/finder dynamic.
No longer do fleets move against each other en masse, engaging in well-defined, line-against-line slugfests, such as dominated naval affairs from Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars to Jutland a century later. Instead, sea wars have become far more cat-and-mouse matters, whose outcomes have become critically dependent on the need to see the enemy first, so as to be able to strike before being struck. Just like in "Battleship."
The Germans mounted an early hider/finder naval campaign with a relative handful of surface raiders and U-boats during World War I, and they followed a generation later with more raiders and a major submarine wolfpack offensive in World War II. They nearly won both times because of their ability to remain hidden until they pounced. It was only when means of detection improved -- with both advanced radars and code-breaking capabilities -- that these threats waned.
Subs and raiders aside, the larger fleet engagements of the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, were all about finding task forces before those doing the stalking could be detected and attacked first. Thus finding the enemy proved crucial to the U.S. Navy's great victories over the Imperial Japanese Fleet at Midway and -- later, and despite some near-fatal confusion -- at Leyte Gulf. Back in the Atlantic, the hunts for the German raider Graf Spee and the battleship Bismarck were clear examples of the hider/finder dynamic as well.
In its own abstract way, "Battleship" forces players to concentrate deeply on the business of "finding." Given his great confidence in aircraft carriers and submarines, President Obama should take careful note that the board game includes them, too, with the carrier being the game's largest and most vulnerable ship -- just as it is in the real world today, as the array of smart, high-speed weapons that have emerged in recent years pose mortal threats to these behemoths. The most valuable vessel in "Battleship" -- that is, the one that is hardest to find and hit -- is also the smallest combatant.