(Charles Dharapak/AP)

“The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916. I will restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.”

— Mitt Romney, speech at Virginia Military Institute, Oct. 8, 2012


We will leave analysis of the GOP presidential nominee’s major foreign-policy address to the pundits, though we were pleased to see that he did not repeat his frequent claim that Obama “apologized” for America — a phrase we and other fact-checkers have long debunked.

 Still, we were interested in his assertion about the size of the Navy. Is the Navy really in the worst shape it has been in 96 years?


The Facts

 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:


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.

 The Romney campaign noted that now-retired Adm. Gary Roughead, when chief of naval operations, also made this 1916 comparison in a 2010 speech. “No one is disputing that today’s ships are more capable than their 1916 predecessors, but the reality that you can only have one ship in one place at any one time hasn’t changed,” a Romney spokesman said. “And today’s Navy is tasked with being in more places given America’s expanded international interests compared to 1916.”


The Pinocchio Test

 This is a nonsense fact. In his counting of ships, Romney equates gunboats with aircraft carriers and torpedo boats with nuclear-powered submarines. For such an important speech, one would think the candidate would resolve to use the most relevant facts possible.

 Three Pinocchios

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