What kind of Navy did we have before World War I?

What kind of Navy did we have before World War I?

Rep. Paul Ryan asserted last night that if defense cuts mandated as part of a bipartisan budget deal go through, “our Navy will be “the smallest it has been since before World War I.”

This echoes an even more dire warning on the Romney campaign’s website:  “The U.S. Navy has only 284 ships today, on track to hit the lowest level since 1916. Given current trends, the number will decline, and the additional contemplated cuts will cause it to decline even further.”

Fact-checkers are dinging Ryan for the statement, noting that ship numbers have gone below 284 several times in the 20th century, but in his defense, he’s only echoing a warning by Obama’s own defense secretary. Leon Panetta wrote in a Nov., 2011 letter to Sen. John Mccain that,  “Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

Whether or not the cuts would actually be this dire, measuring naval strength in terms of number of ships is a bit misleading. Here are the numbers from the 1915 fleet of 231 total ships, according to the U.S. Navy website

  • 32 battleships
  • 30 cruisers
  • 3 monitors
  • 57 destroyers
  • 18 torpedo boats
  • 37 submarines
  • 17 steel gunboats
  • 26 auxilliaries
  • 11 gunboats

Here’s the current fleet:

  • 11 aircraft carriers
  • 22 cruisers
  • 61 destroyers
  • 26 frigates
  • 2 littoral combat ships
  • 53 submarines
  • 14 ballistic missile submarines
  • 4 cruise missile submarines
  • 14 mine warfare vessels
  • 31 amphibious vessels
  • 47 auxilliary vessels

Even after a 19 percent cut, I think I’d take the navy with the aircraft carriers and the nuclear subs in a fight. 

Moreover, the pre-World War I line gives the impression that the number of ships has steadily increased since that time and is in danger of staring to decline. The U.S. fleet actually hit its high point at the end of World War II with 6,768 ships. In the post-war era, it hit its high with 1,122 ships in 1953 and has been steadily declining ever since. 

This isn’t because of spending cuts, it’s because of changes in military priorities. As Naval analyst and FP contributor Michael Peck points out:

In 1916, the largest navy in the world belonged to Great Britain (the U.S. devised plans for war with Britain as late as the 1930s), while Germany and France built powerful fleets. Fears of a German invasion of New York were improbable, if not utterly fantastic, but in a pre-nuclear weapon, pre-smart weapon age, the size of a navy really mattered.

There’s certainly a legitimate case to be made that the U.S. should reinvest in Naval power as part of a shift in priorities to the Asia-Pacific region. (See Douglas Ollivant for the counterargument.) But the Defense Department and the Romney campaign’s framing of this issue in terms of number of boats in the water is probably not the best starting point for the conversation.