Romney lied about the number of ships in 1917

Number of Ships
Obama: 285
GW Bush: 278
1916 (Romney, of course, made a mistake in quoting the lie, it’s 1916): 245

As you may all now know, Mitt Romney raised an odd complaint during last night’s debate: He claimed – falsely – that America’s Navy has fewer ships today than since 1917.

ROMNEY: Our Navy is old — excuse me, 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. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.

kaiser wilhelm

Mitt Romney, keeping America
safe from Kaiser Wilhelm.

Except he’s wrong.

America has more ships now than in 1917.  From Politifact (Politifact notes that Romney also got his year wrong – the lie, traditionally told by Republicans on this point, claims 1916 as the year, not 1917):

We looked up the original data, and the Heritage report does reflect the trend line correctly (though Romney said 1917 rather than 1916, something we won’t quibble with). In 1916, the U.S. Navy had 245 active ships, a number that eventually peaked during World War II, then fell, then peaked again more modestly during the Korean War, followed by a slow, consistent decline over the next five decades.

In recent years, the number of active ships has fallen low enough to approach its 1916 level. In both 2009 (the most recent year of the Heritage report) and 2011, the number was 285.

And guess who had fewer ships than us today?  George W. Bush.

The same data set shows that during 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.

Such figures undercut Romney’s use of the statistic as a weapon against Obama.

Politifact goes on to explain that the number of ships doesn’t matter, it’s not an indication of relative military power, especially when comparing two different centuries.

But what do those numbers mean? Not much, a variety of experts told us.

Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney’s comparison “doesn’t pass ‘the giggle test,’ ” said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia.

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.

When will the media start asking Mitt Romney whether he’s incredibly sloppy or an incredible liar? Either way, it hardly passes the commander-in-chief test.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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