There’s a ridiculous meme making the rounds from defense budget-boosters that needs to be put to rest. Mitt Romney broadcast it to a national audience at the South Carolina Republican primary debate on January 16th when he claimed that the United States Navy “is smaller than its been since 1917. Following the debate the nonpartisan political “fact check” organization, PolitiFact, gave the former Massachusetts governor a “Pants on Fire” rating for the statement. Which, in turn, led to Politico’s “Morning Defense” news round up giving PolitFact an “Epic Fail” for its rating. So who’s right: Romney and Morning Defense or PolitiFact?
Well, in 1917, just prior to America’s entry into World War I, the United States Navy maintained a fleet of 342 ships. And, as of September 30, 2011, the United States Navy consisted of 285 ships. Pretty obvious, right? Score one for Governor Romney and Morning Defense.
Eh, not so fast…
If the PolitiFact post is read even part of the way through it is laid out very plainly:
[D]uring the years 2005 to 2008, the number of active ships was 282, 281, 278 and 282, respectively — each of which were below the levels of 2009, 2010 and 2011. In other words, each of the final four years under George W. Bush saw lower levels of active ships than any of the three years under Obama. The number of surface warships also bottomed out in 2005 under Bush, later rising by about 10 percent under Obama.
But Morning Defense somehow missed that. Coming to Romeny’s defense, Politico’s Charles Hoskinson writes,
Romney was just repeating a point Navy leaders themselves have made numerous times over the past year. Here’s [Secretary of the Navy Ray] Mabus, speaking last April at the Navy League’s annual meeting: “One of our main areas of focus has to be the size of our fleet. The CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] has repeatedly said, and I repeatedly have strongly supported him, that the minimal number of ships we should have is 313. We have 288 today in the battle fleet: the lowest number since 1916, which – during that time, the intervening years, our responsibilities have grown somewhat. But if Congress funds the shipbuilding program that we have laid out, we will reach a fleet of 325 ships in the early 2020s.” [emphasis in original]
So, apparently it’s okay that Romney was wrong because he was merely repeating the incorrect assertion of a government official? Intellectual honesty on the part of presidential candidates is obviously too high of a bar for at least one of Politico’s defense writers.
Of course, all this ship counting is completely meaningless. For example, if one navy had, say, 1,000 ships and another had 2—which would be the better navy? Okay, what if those thousand ships are Roman triremes and the two are the USS John C. Stennis and USS George Washington? Who would come out on the better end of that battle? Which fleet would conduct better maritime operations? This is obviously an extreme example, but it’s done to make a point: simply counting ships says nothing about a navy’s capabilities. Even though the United States Navy was numerically superior in 1917, it couldn’t boast the power projection capabilities of its eleven carrier battle groups or the secure second strike capability provided by its fourteen SSBNs as it does today. As PolitiFact points out later in its post:
Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four specialized submarines for launching Cruise missiles—all categories of vessels that didn’t exist in 1916.
Yep, that 1917 U.S. Navy sure doesn’t stack up so well in a side-by-side comparison.
Still, even capabilities don’t tell the full story. To that end, the position staked out by Secretary Mabus—about the role the U.S. Navy must play in the world—is itself far from immune to challenge. Former naval officer and Cato Institute Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble has put the problem of the U.S. Navy’s current role in context when responding to previous attempts to conflate the Navy’s size with its capability:
Piracy is a nuisance best handled by a coalition of navies contributing forces to escort vulnerable ships, and to carry out punitive raids, not a single global U.S. sheriff that treats every body of water as though it were synonymous with the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is not…on the cusp of the “gratuitous abdication” of our naval supremacy. The U.S. Navy dwarfs any other navy, or combination of navies, both in terms of numbers of ships, and in terms of effective striking power. The global trading system is…resilient…and…complex…it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. Navy to commit itself to policing every sea-lane on the planet. The many beneficiaries of global trade should share in the costs of keeping the seas free and open.
He goes on, “In short, numbers of ships are misleading. What types of ships? At what cost?” And to sum up what Romney and Morning Defense apparently can’t seem to grasp, Preble concludes that the “greatest error is in conflating numbers of ships with effective striking power.” For example, Naval War College Professor James Holmes believes a much larger Navy might be a better way to confront China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by keeping it “tie[d] down” and unable to push around its smaller neighbors or project power beyond the Western Pacific. But Professor Holmes, like Preble—and as opposed to Governor Romney, and apparently, Secretary Mabus—bases his reasoning on cost effectiveness as well:
Small, simple craft can be mass-produced at less expense and in greater numbers than complex men-of-war. They can also be sent into harm’s way with less fear of political blowback should the fleet suffer heavy losses in battle. An aircraft carrier or Aegis cruiser is “lumpy capital,” meaning that the American taxpayer invested lavishly in building, equipping, and manning it. Commanders and political leaders think twice before hazarding such resource-intensive assets in combat, where they could be crippled or sunk – vitiating that investment of lives and treasure. Lesser craft like the LCS are less prone to activate decisionmakers’ reflex for risk aversion.
The strategic logic is obviously different from that advanced by Preble—who would likely appreciate more risk aversion by political leaders under the circumstances Holmes describes—but the need to think about force structure in terms of cost effectiveness, and not simply number of ships, is the same. Determining the role a navy should play, the effectiveness of its ships in meeting those responsibilities, and the cost involved in matching the two should determine the size of the fleet. Simply citing the number of far less capable ships from a bygone era is the type of simplistic argument one expects from a presidential aspirant but should hope a Secretary of the Navy would avoid.