“The budget cuts that we’ve enacted in Congress are insane. We’re having the smallest Army by the end of this decade since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915, the smallest Marine Corps in modern history, at a time when we need them all the most.”

— Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), New Hampshire Republican leadership summit, April 18, 2015

“You look at the Navy as an example. And we’re at, what, 275, 280 vessels right now. We’re headed down toward 250. That’s less than half of where we were under Reagan. You look at other components out there. There’s some real challenges for us being able to protect ourselves and our interests here and around the world.”

— Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), New Hampshire Republican leadership summit, April 18, 2015 

GOP presidential hopefuls — official and unofficial — descended on New Hampshire and delivered a series of speeches. Almost every candidate spoke about the need to ramp up defense spending, and at least three spoke on the shrinking number of ships in the Navy.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also made a similar comparison as Graham and Walker, though Christie’s statement was less specific than the ones the other two made. Christie said the United States is “underselling our national defense right now. We’re going from a 600-ship Navy down to a 260-ship Navy in a world that’s extraordinarily more dangerous than at almost anytime in my life.”

Mitt Romney’s comments about the number of ships in 1916 and 1917 versus the number in 2012 gained attention during the 2012 presidential cycle. The Fact Checker awarded Romney Three Pinocchios for the comparison. Several other organizations reached similar analyses.

As candidates get their talking points ready for 2016, it’s time to refresh the facts underlying this ship counting exercise. Is the Navy really in a worse shape than it was 100 years ago, or during the Reagan era, based on the number of ships?

The Facts

The Navy’s historical records show that in 1915, the Navy had 231 ships. Graham’s spokesman attributed Graham’s quote to a 2011 letter by former defense secretary Leon Panetta, warning about the impacts of sequestration. Panetta had warned that 10 years of sequestration cuts would result in the “smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

As of April 20, 2015, the Navy had 273 deployable ships. (The final number for 2015 may change, as this is a point-in-time count updated on the Navy’s Web site.) That particular number is the lowest count since 1916 (it was 245 in 1916), though it is on a par with the last time it dipped that low — 278 ships in 2007, under President George W. Bush.

The number of ships in the 1980s peaked at 594 ships, just shy of Reagan’s 600-ship plan for the Navy. The number rapidly declined after anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1989-1991, according to Navy records. The number of ships peaked at 6,768 in 1945, at the end of World War II.

But it is an apples-to-oranges comparison to count the number of ships in 2015 versus the number in 1915 or in the 1980s. The need and capacity of ships evolve over time.

The capability of ships 100 years ago was nowhere near the capability now. As we noted during the 2012 campaign, the types of ships in the fleet in 1915 included gunboats, steel gunboats, torpedo boats and monitors, a type of a small warship. None of those exist on the current list, which includes massive aircraft carriers and ships of much higher lethality, such as nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile submarines.

Ships are much more expensive now than they were in the past, and the Reagan-era ships are retiring. Yet the push under Reagan to grow the fleet no longer exists, making it difficult to rebuild up to 600-ship levels, naval fleet experts said.

Yet numbers do matter, said Eric Wertheim of the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent naval issues organization. The Navy often is the first to respond to conflict, so it is important to have a fleet large enough to patrol and respond, he said. Maintaining a sufficient fleet also helps with training and assures allies of the U.S. presence. After all, a ship is “never going to be able to be in more than one place at once, and think about all the hot spots we have right now,” Wertheim said.

A key analysis of military needs is the review by a bipartisan congressional panel, which analyzes the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review and interviews combatant commanders (those responsible for conducting military operations around the world). The panel’s 2014 analysis found the Navy needs to be larger, at 323 to 346 ships. The panel cautioned that the number of ships may need to grow in the future if maritime challenges in Asia Pacific and the Middle East increase.

Walker’s staff pointed us to Robert C. O’Brien, a former senior adviser to Romney, who wrote about the Navy’s “hidden crisis.” He said comments by Romney, Walker and Graham are shorthand ways to discuss the need evidenced by the bipartisan panel’s analysis. The United States has an even bigger global presence now and is facing unprecedented threats, he said. When there are fewer ships, it affects the men and women in the Navy and leads to longer deployments with fewer resources, O’Brien said: “It’s a heck of a price we’re asking them to pay because we don’t want to pay for the [sufficient] number of ships.”

Jerry Hendrix, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Defense Strategies and Assessment Program, placed his estimate at about 355 ships. Hendrix is the former director of Naval History, which meant he kept the historical ship count, and he was responsible for force structure when he was in the Navy. The Navy has made the decision to focus on the quality of ships rather than quantity for at least the past decade, Hendrix said.

So if comparing numbers isn’t the best practice, what is? We asked Hendrix what he would advise 2016 candidates to consider when they talk about naval fleet needs: “What the question should be is, what type of ships and where. … If I was going to tell a candidate where to look for his numbers, I would look first to the combatant commanders and see what they’re listing. I’d advise the candidates to make a decision to look inside those numbers, and find out how many of them is required,” Hendrix said. “I’m afraid ship counts in Navy structure is a very arcane art.”

The Pinocchio Test

This is a cautionary tale to 2016 candidates putting together their talking points. We have been through this ship-counting comparison the last presidential cycle, and fact checkers agreed it is a poor way to depict the country’s naval fleet needs. Gunboats of 1915 and aircraft carriers of 2015 are not the same. Military budget, fleet needs and historical circumstances are much different in 2015 than they were in 1915 or in the 1980s. The current fleet is smaller than what combatant commanders report they need, and their figure would be a more responsible one to use.

We gave Romney Three Pinocchios, and we will repeat the same rating. It is time to put this zombie comparison to rest.

Three Pinocchios

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