Center for Arms Control

Security Spending

1917’s Navy is Not 2012’s Navy

By James Lewis

In the third presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney attempted to critique President Obama’s record on military strength claiming: “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now at under 285.”

Romney has his facts mixed up. In addition, the number of vessels in the U.S. force is not the most important predictor of military capacity or the Navy’s ability to achieve its mission objective.

In the midst of World War I in 1917, the U.S. Navy totaled 365 active ships. This number decreased in peace time to 225 by December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy ballooned to more than 6,700 vessels in August 1945.

The number of U.S. naval vessels hit its lowest point since WWII (278 ships) under President George W. Bush.

The U.S. naval fleet in 1916 was designed to fill a singular role, ship-to-ship combat or transport, a fact affirmed to CNN by Navy spokesman Lt. Cdr. Chris Servello. Conversely, today’s naval fleet is designed to be versatile and multi-objective.

Under the Obama Administration, the Navy has begun to increase the number of ships through strategic investments in new systems, such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCSs) designed to address 21st century security threats.

The LCS, for example, is designed to operate in shallow water near the shore to carry out mine extraction, anti-piracy efforts, track and disable submarines and to engage land-based and sea-based targets such as terrorist compounds or missile sites. This ship class will replace three other classes of ships that are being decommissioned because they lack the versatility required by today’s Navy.

Former Navy Secretary and current chairman of the Center for a New American Security, Richard Danzig said: “We're spending in an intelligent way to make that Navy yet stronger, and that's basically unassailable position, assailed only by throwing up a lot of smoke, dust and distraction.”

To meet the Navy’s 21st century objectives, in February 2006, the Navy presented to Congress a plan to develop and maintain a force of 313 ships and submitted a 30-year shipbuilding plan to achieve that goal. The Administration and Congress have continued to fund shipbuilding projects to allow the Navy to achieve its missions.

Over the next five years, the Navy is preparing to build 41 ships including 1 aircraft carrier, 9 Virginia class attack submarines, 9 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, 16 LCSs, 1 amphibious assault ship, 2 fleet tugs, 1 mobile landing platform, 1 Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) and 1 TAO(X) oiler. Ten will be completed in 2013. This plan does include the elimination of nine vessels, mostly JHSVs, and deferrals of seven vessels beyond fiscal year 2017.

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the top Congressional Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittees, wrote in a blog post for The Hill that: “One ship can only be in one place at a time. ” New military technology allows for the expanded reach of America’s military might. While their point is spatially true, it does not hold true for projecting military power.

Today, America’s Navy stands in a position of naval primacy, which indicates a military force superior to any enemy. “The reality is we have the strongest Navy in the world by far. It's bigger than the next 13 navies put together and 11 of those are allies of ours,” said Secretary Danzig.

Currently, the U.S. operates 11 Nimitz-class supercarriers, which the Navy lovingly refers to as “4.5 acres of sovereign and mobile American territory. ” Only 9 other countries (Russia, China, India, Thailand, Spain, Italy, France, United Kingdom and Brazil) operate carriers; Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are the only nations with two carriers.

However, the number of naval vessels is by no means a predictor of naval power. Following the recent debate, Secretary Danzig agreed saying, “You don't measure efficacy by the number of ships. You measure it by your firepower, by the character of your people, the character of your equipment."

In a May 3, 2010 address, then-Secretary of Defense, Robert M Gates said, “the United States stands unsurpassed on, above, and below the high seas.”

He then listed America’s superior force in several subcategories:

  • “The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines – again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells. In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies. ”

During the debate, President Obama countered Romney’s charge with what has become an oft-repeated retort: You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting slips. It's what are our capabilities. ”

The modern American Navy is positioned to address a host of global security threats including piracy, terrorism, illegal trafficking and foreign enemies. It is not the number of vessels within the catalog of the Navy that attest to its strength but rather the capacity of its vessels, superior abilities of American servicemen and women and strategic development of innovative vessels prepared to engage 21st century threats.

James Lewis is the Director of Communications at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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