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Fact Check: Romney's comparison of past, present Navy pointless

By Mike Mount, CNN National Security Producer
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Tue October 9, 2012
  • Romney says "the size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916"
  • In fact, the U.S. Navy has slightly more ships now than it did in 1916
  • Experts say it's not fair or telling to compare fleet numbers now vs. then
  • Romney says he'll build 15 ships a year, which may not be plausible

(CNN) -- Trying to equate the U.S. Navy's size to Obama administration policies, Mitt Romney said Monday that the fleet was as small as it was around World War I and vowed he'd boost its size if he became president.

During a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, the Republican presidential nominee said the number of ships in the U.S. fleet were equivalent to that of the fleet in 1916. And to address that, he wanted to bolster the Navy overall by building 15 ships a year, including three submarines.

While the ideas might sound good to his base supporters, it makes sense to look at the plausibility of an effort to create so many more ships and what the number of ships says about the Navy's capabilities.

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The facts:

First, Romney said the Navy was at its lowest level in terms of number of ships since 1916. The fact is, he is not that far off, but any assessment of the Navy's size -- relative to its number of ships -- needs to be taken in context.

What Romney didn't mention is that in 2007 under President George W. Bush, the Navy's ship tally hit a low not seen since the 19th century, according to U.S. Navy statistics.

Generally, between 2003 and 2011, the number of ships has fluctuated between a high of 297 and a low of 278. And under President Barack Obama, the number of ships has risen slightly.

Circling back, one needs to assess the size of the Navy fleet about a century ago, soon before the United States entered World War I.

In 1916, there were 245 ships in the U.S. Navy, according to the military. That figure includes 36 battle ships, the Navy's main large battle platform before the inception of modern aircraft carriers. There were also 61 destroyers and 30 cruisers, both mainstays for decades.

As of last year, U.S. Navy statistics show that there were 285 total ships in the Navy's fleet. With 11 carriers, some 61 destroyers and 22 cruisers, the Navy is a different service than it was decades ago.

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The U.S. Navy of 1916 utilized ships in which each platform played a single role, according to Navy spokesman Lt. Cdr. Chris Servello. The fleet was this size and makeup to meet the threats of its day.

Today, a single Navy ship can serve many roles. Because of this, the military branch does not need as many ships as it did in 1916, because technology has advanced to such a point one ship can be used in numerous battle scenarios.

In short, Servello said you cannot compare the two generations: It's like comparing apples to oranges.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington defense policy analysis group, adds that the total number of ships itself is not a valid measuring stick of the Navy's strength.

"Ship numbers are driven by two things -- war fighting requirements and the need for a forward presence," said Pavel.

By that, he means that political and military officials work to make sure they have the right number and kind of ships to match their capabilities, and enough to allow them to rotate vessels in and out of regions.

It is wrong to assume that fewer ships translates to a weaker military, Pavel said. Because of the technological supremacy of current Navy ships, the military can get more from each one than it did even 10 to 15 years ago.

At some point, though, numbers can matter -- especially if missions need to be cut because there are not enough ships in service to carry them out. And it is possible the fleet size could shrink in the coming years, given the looming possibility of $500 billion more in military budget cuts, and budget pressures, generally, in Washington.

Yet Pavel noted at the start of each presidential term, there is a review to assess how much military equipment exists and what will be needed in the future. And he doubts any president -- be it Obama or Romney -- would allow the number of ships to fall below minimum requirements.

Lastly, there is the matter of whether the United States can actually produce 15 naval ships a year, as Romney said Monday is needed to "restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions."

According to Servello, it would be next to impossible to make that many vessels given the current industrial base of shipyards in the United States.

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While Romney is fairly close in assessing the size of the U.S. Naval fleet, his claim is basically pointless.

Having more ships does not really mean anything, according to experts. And making more ships does not necessarily mean anything, unless you have a plan for them.

While Romney seems to use the statistics in an attempt to slam the Obama administration for cutting the military, experts point out that the number of ships fluctuate up and down over long periods of time. And the numbers one sees today reflect decisions under previous presidents, because it takes time to manufacture a ship.

So Romney's point cannot really be justified.

And as experts point out, lower numbers in the fleet does not mean a weaker Navy or military. Because of the technological advantage of current ships, you can leverage these ships more now than ever before. They can do more things, carry more sailors and go more places easily than the U.S. fleet in, say, 1916.

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