Fact Check: The smallest Navy since 1917

Mitt Romney asserted that this is smallest Navy since 1917.

Obama had a ready retort: "We also have fewer horses and bayonets." In other words, it makes no sense to compare the firepower of a modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a battleship circa 1916.

This is an issue the Fact Checker has looked at before.

The historical records of the Navy show that in 1916, the Navy had 245 ships. This was also the year that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class Navy.

But take a look at the types of ships on the list. Yes, there are cruisers and destroyers but also: 

Gunboats
Steel Gunboats
Torpedo Boats
Monitors (that’s kind of a small warship)

These types of boats aren’t on the list anymore. Instead, the current list of Navy ships includes behemoths such as aircraft carriers, “SSBN” (nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile carrying submarines) and “SSGN” (cruise-missile submarines).

In other words, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Romney’s line reminds us of a similar strained comparison he made last year regarding the workforce needs to make ships during World War II and today. But in this case he goes even deeper back into history. After all, 1916 is not only before computers, it is before television — even before regular radio broadcasts.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, notes that it is difficult to make comparisons between ships that are even much more recent. “Today’s aircraft carrier has about 10 times the lethality of an aircraft carrier of 20 years ago, due to the advent of precision munitions — in the old days, it was sorties per target, now it is targets per sortie,” he said.

The current level of ships, 285 in fiscal 2011, is actually not even the lowest since 1916. The historical list shows that the lowest ship force was reached during the Bush administration, when the number of ships fell to 278 in 2007. Given the change over time in the composition of the naval force, that probably is the most relevant comparison — and the trend line is up.

Romney’s pledge to build 15 more ships per year, including three submarines, also is less than meets the eye. The current Navy plan is to build 34 ships over the next four years — 10 in 2013 — including seven submarines as part of its goal to reach at least 300 ships by 2019. (The Congressional Budget Office, however, has raised questions about whether this plan is feasible.)

Given ship retirements, Romney’s plan probably would net an additional 20 ships, Pike said, but he said it generally takes three years to build a ship and another year to put it in commission. In other words, the Navy in place at the end of a first Romney term would be Obama’s Navy. In any case, even under the best-case scenario under Romney’s proposal, the Navy would end up with about as many ships as in 2000 — which is barely better than 1916.

No other country in the world has a Navy or Air Force that is remotely comparable in size or power to the United States'. China just commissioned its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished old tub from Ukraine. The United States has 11 carriers, each of which is far, far more advanced than any foreign carrier on the high seas. 

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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