Presidential debate 101: Is Romney right that Navy is smallest since 1917?

It's true that the Navy is smaller today than it was in 1917, but the US warship count was smaller still in the Bush 2 administration. However, the US still rules the waves in terms of naval firepower.

Stephen Wolff/US Navy photo/handout/Reuters
The USS Enterprise (CVN 65) moves through the Suez Canal for the last time in this Oct.12 photograph, released on Oct.15. The 51-year-old aircraft carrier is to be retired in December, reducing the Navy's 11-carrier fleet to 10.

Is the US Navy now smaller than at any time since 1917? That’s what Mitt Romney charged during the final presidential debate on Monday night. The former Massachusetts governor vowed that if elected president he’d rebuild America’s declining maritime power.

“The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285.... I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy,” Mr. Romney said.

President Obama replied with sarcasm, saying the comparison wasn’t apt because the US has ships called submarines, which sail underwater, and aircraft carriers, upon which planes can land. We’ll get to this qualitative judgment in a moment, but first let’s look at the numbers. Is Romney right?

Yes, partly. In December 1916 the US Navy consisted of 245 ships, according to Naval History and Heritage Command data. That’s certainly fewer than it has today. But that year also saw the passage of the Naval Act of 1916, meant to help counter Germany’s strength afloat. By the middle of 1917, the US had 342 active warships. By 1918, it had 774.

But Romney didn’t just say the Navy was smaller now than in 1916. He implied that it was at a historical nadir – his exact words were “smaller now than any time since 1917." That further implication isn’t correct.

In 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, the Navy bottomed out at 278 total active warships. The Naval History and Heritage Command chart notes that this number represents the service’s low since the 19th century.

It’s crept up a bit since then to the current 285 level.

What about strength, though? That’s a calculation that involves more than just numbers. It’s true that today’s warships are far more powerful than those of 1916, as Obama pointed out, but so are those of America's adversaries. How does the US stand in regards to the naval forces of the rest of the world, and how has that changed over the years?

That’s a question that Florida State political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva have attempted to answer. Their methodology involves toting up the number of each nation’s actual warships, figuring out their firepower, and comparing that to the total firepower of the rest of the world.

According to their calculations, in 1916 the US ranked third in naval power in the world. That sounds impressive, but it still placed the US behind Germany, which had roughly 19 percent of international naval strength, and Britain, which then had 34 percent.

The picture is much different today. The US controls about 50 percent of world naval power, according to Professors Crisher and Souva. No other nation even comes close. Russia is in second place, with a comparable figure of 11 percent.

There is the further question of coverage – the world is large, and projecting power around the world requires sheer fleet numbers, no matter the capabilities of each ship. The Romney campaign has accused the president of undermining the US in this regard by proposing the premature retirement of the carrier USS Enterprise and six Ticonderoga-class cruisers to save money.

Thus the Romney campaign’s national security white paper says that the former Massachusetts governor, if elected, “will put our Navy on the path to increase its shipbuilding rate from nine per year to approximately fifteen per year.”

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