The U.S. Navy: 1916 vs. 2012
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The U.S. Navy: 1916 vs. 2012


At last week’s US Vice Presidential debate, Representative Paul Ryan repeated a claim that has become a staple of the Romney campaign’s military and foreign policy presentation.  Ryan argued  “If these cuts go through, our Navy will be the smallest — the smallest it has been since before World War I.”

Politifact calls this claim “Pants on Fire,” because of some minor arithmetical errors, while noting that the theory of military power that seems to underlie the claim appears suspect. Nevertheless, the talking point has a certain power because the underlying facts are (somewhat) true, and a full appraisal of the claim requires space, time, and an over-developed appreciation of the silly.

Relative Naval Power

Part of the job of a Navy is to prepare to fight other navies. How do the USNs of World War I and 2012 stack up against their closest competitors?

May 31, 1916 marks a convenient snapshot for the relative position of the USN.  The two largest flotillas in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, had agreed to conduct a joint fleet review in the North Sea ( ).  The capital ship strength of the Grand Fleet consisted of twenty-eight dreadnought battleships and nine modern battlecruisers. These were supported by eight armored cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, and seventy-eight destroyers. With the exception of the armored cruisers, virtually the entirety of the Grand Fleet had entered service in the seven years prior to the battle.  The High Seas Fleet brought a smaller posse to the party, with only sixteen dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers, plus six pre-dreadnought battleships.  Eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers rounded out the German contribution, which was of similar vintage to that of the Royal Navy. Both the British and the Germans left reserve forces at home.

By comparison, the USN possessed twelve dreadnoughts (including USS Oklahoma, commissioned just weeks before Jutland) and no battlecruisers. The second string was made up of a bewildering array of light, armored, and protected cruisers, few equal to their German or British contemporaries. The USN operated sixty-one destroyers, although most were older and smaller than their European equivalents

In short, the USN of 1916 comfortably held third position behind the British and the Germans. Whether the U.S. was at the back of the first rank of naval powers or the top of the second rank (ahead of France, Italy, and Japan) is largely immaterial.  Either the German or the British fleet could destroy the USN, even on “ground” of the latter’s choosing. Moreover, the two ocean responsibilities of the USN made confrontation with even a second tier naval power a sketchy proposition.

By contrast, today debate rages as to how long the second largest navy in the world could keep the USN out of its own littoral.  That the relative capabilities of the PLAN have increased dramatically over the past decade only serves to underscore the continued gap between the USN and its closest rival. Allowing for a very few exceptions , the USN has the best ships, the most ships, and the most developed support system for making its ships effective.

Absolute Maritime Influence

Navies do more than simply fight other navies; they directly affect events on land, and they patrol the maritime space for commercial shipping. Has the ability of USN warships to carry out such missions improved since 1916?

The ability of the USN to strike land targets in 1916 was limited to roughly 13 miles, the range of a heavy shell fired from USS Oklahoma and her contemporaries.  Older battleships and support vessels had correspondingly shorter ranges.  Setting aside the ability of an Ohio class SSBN to reduce a country the size of Bangladesh to radioactive ash, modern USN warships have more discriminating options for affecting events on land. A Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, fired from US surface warships and submarines, can strike targets up to 1000 miles inland, with considerably greater accuracy than a 14” gun.  Eighty-three surface ships and fifty-nine submarines carry or can carry Tomahawks.  With the benefit of in-flight refueling, F/A-18s launched from carriers can deliver even greater amounts of ordnance at similar ranges.

Maritime patrol depends on reach and sensor capacity. The sensor capacity of 1916 battleships was limited to the ability of sailors in mast-top posts to visually identify targets.  Modern USN warships carry radar and sonar equipment that operate at far beyond visual ranges.  Moreover, modern Navy warships can share information with one another in real time in order to create a more full picture of the maritime space, while the signaling technology of 1916 was severely limited.  In terms of reach, the development of the shipborne helicopter dramatically increased the ability of warships to respond to and control events up to 200 miles from the ship itself.

There is no direct 1916 analogue to the modern amphibious warship, but it’s fair to say that the amphibious platforms that the USN operates today give more capacity for deploying and supporting troops ashore than the admirals of 1916 could possibly have imagined. 

Grand Strategy and Political Strategy

The 2012 USN fulfills an infinitely more ambitious set of missions than the USN of 1916.  However, the individual ships enjoy considerably more formidable capabilities, not to mention presumptive superiority over any potential foe or collection of foes on the high seas.  The current USN may or may not be too small to fulfill these tasks; reasonable people disagree.  However, the ideal size of the USN depends on its ability to meet the commitments set for it by Congress and the President, not on a comparison to an entirely different fleet that sailed under wholly different circumstances.  Decrying the size of the current USN compared to its 1916 antecedent makes as much sense as bemoaning the precipitous drop in the number of steel gunboats and coastal monitors from the 1898 peak . Talking points notwithstanding, changes in strategy, technology, and the international environment since 1916 render comparisons between the two areas both misleading and irrelevant.

Bill Haimes
October 30, 2012 at 19:29

I was leaving the Navy in 1087 and was glad to see the progress toware the 600 ship Navy.  I signed on to a near-1000 ship Navy.  The fact remains that the US is an island nation surrounded by water and the oceans are still the same size.  We may have shrunk the World virtually but not physically.  Two to four hundred miles in radius is the practical area that can be controlled by a carrier strike group.  Cover the potential hot spots with that template and count the number of carriers we need.  Policy may have abandoned the "Two Ocean Navy" idea but reality and geography have not.

Jon Merritt
October 28, 2012 at 18:48

This article  and Romney's critiques are missing the underlying point entirely – a decline in the number of  US Navy warships is evidence of the current Foreign Policy of retreat and disengagement from international affairs and the appearance of weakness to US foreign economic competitors and political/military foes. 
The severe decline in number of warships, active US Army divisions, and US Air Force Fighters and Bombers available to meet commitments around the world is symptomatic of the rejection of Peace through Strength Doctrine and communicating a return to a policy of appeasement.   We are setting historical conditions which will repeat the 1920s and 1930s and will reduce readiness and number of Defense Forces ready to counter any rising form of extremism which has been growing throughout the Middle East and will become a threat once again from Europe, North Africa and Asia.

Jerry Cox
October 27, 2012 at 21:00

Secret Squid, thanx for your service from a brother-in-arms. Although I was a land warrior, I've always had a deep respect for those that serve in or under the deep blue. I fear for the survival of our navy for a deeper reason. In the 70's when I served, the true power in the Navy rested not only in the numbers and technology of our fleet (thank you Ronal Reagan), but in the artistry and knowledge-base of the machinists that served. I transport a retired Senior Master Chief for disability treatments. I agree whole-heartedly with his professional assessment. Back in the day, if a part broke or wore out, the fleet could repair, fabricate and replace a part or critical piece of machinery underway. Now if a part breaks, they often lose that part or system until they reach a fleet base. This is insane and can kill sailors under deployment. Part of our dominance was American can-do and ability to improvise at sea. Now crewshave to hope something doesn't go wrong, because they are not training true machinists, but parts replacers. And when you compound that with the less than robust design of many of today's systems, it's a recipe for didaster. Leon Panetta is an idiot. That's harsh, but he is a lifelong political figure that is clueless in the real world. Our misguided reliance on technology is going to eventually bite us. A true tactical EMP weapon would instantly incapacitate our forces, informationally and techno-whiz weapons will be instantly neutralized. And dollars to donuts it WILL BE China that does it. They have silently built an entire generation of new air-mobile, air droppable armor systems and a nuclear component in their navy that truly concerns me because they have absolutely no value for human life and have always taken the looong view in strategy. Unless we cut them off at the knees, visciously and decisively in the first confrontation that is coming, we are gonna get knocked off our pedestal in a spectacular fashion! And if you base your opinion on what is coming out of Washington these days, you are going to have a rude awakening in the not-to-distant future. Our allies in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait are holding their collective breaths as we speak. And the current regime has neither the resolve or courage to defend or act in a timely manner, as so clearly demonstrated in Libya… 

October 25, 2012 at 18:29

"…in the age of satellites, missiles, and air power, a navy can be sunk in hours."  This statement wouldn't pass the giggle test either at the Air War College or at the Naval War College.  All of the satellites and aircraft of all the nations of the Earth working together wouldn't be enough to achieve sufficient surveillance of the world's oceans to acquire, track, target, engage and sink all the ships of even a second rate navy in a week. And keep in mind, the majority of those satellites and aircraft have other tasks to perform and are not dedicated maritime surveillance assets.

October 24, 2012 at 21:39

Jim from BC…you misunderstand the role of US Navy aircraft carriers.  It's not just to fight an adversary carrier force at sea — in fact we haven't had to do that since 1945. 
However, let's say we needed to project tactical airpower say in the Taiwan Strait (to use a potential future contingency) or land-locked Afghanistan (to use a recent historical example), where the US has few nearby land-based airfields from which to operate.  Large-deck aircraft carriers enable the US to generate fighter sorties at a rate that enable us to compete with (and hopefully overmatch) a local land-based adversary force.  Back in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, the majority of airstrikes were flown by US Navy carrier-based aircraft, rather than by USAF fighters, because at that time the US lacked secure air bases in the region.
With China's increasingly capable Air Force, if the US ever had to defend Taiwan, we would need every carrier we could field in the Western Pacific.  

October 24, 2012 at 21:26

Funny to see the naval warfare know-nothings at Politifact get this so completely wrong.  But it's just downright embarrassing to see a supposed naval warfare expert pile on in this orgy of error. 
First, Mitt Romney's claim that Obama's Defense budget reductions, combined with the impact of sequestration, would lead to the smallest US fleet since WWI and the smallest USAF since 1949 did not come from the Romney campaign — it came nearly verbatim from Obama's own Secretary of Defense!
Second, the US Navy is a global force with worldwide commitments.  Our current threat environment forces the US to contemplate contingency responses in Iran, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait, all of which would require significant naval forces for power projection and sea control.  The Obama Administration's own missile defense strategy has added to the demands on the fleet by expanding the mission of Aegis cruisers and destroyers from their fleet air defense role and adding the new sea-based missile defense role.  Because of the math of time and distance, these commitments demand a large number of naval ships.  Those aircraft carriers the President mentioned need escorts.  When it comes to projecting naval power, numbers matter!
And if we look to our potential adversaries, they are building their naval capabilites.  China is undertaking a massive naval modernization program, as has been well documented on these pages.  Iran is similarly building its own naval and air power capabilities.
Just 25 years ago, when I first joined the Navy, the size of the fleet very nearly approached SECNAV John Lehman's 600-ship target.  Today our fleet is half that size.  In every category, from carriers to cruisers to destroyers to submarines, amphibs and auxiliaries, our fleet is smaller.  Does anyone seriously believe we have offset the decline in numbers through increase in firepower…or in "information dominance?"  Does anyone seriously believe our naval commitments today or in the next decade are less than they were in 1987?  No one who thinks seriously about our national security.

Jim from BC
October 18, 2012 at 19:06

Not only does it have more aircraft carriers, but each US carrier carries an airwing more than twice the size of any carrier floated by any other nation (Nimitz class has 90 aircraft the Charles De Gaulle or Admiral Kuznetzov have 30-50 each). Also the only  non-american nuclear powered carrier is the Charles De Gaulle. Not to mention that under current diplomatic circumstances, it's almost inconcievable that the US could find itself at war with spain, france, the UK, or Italy, which account for more that half of the non-american carriers right off the bat.

October 18, 2012 at 18:02

I strongly agree that a strong and vast USN is key to the survival of our country. If we show our weakness to others what is stoping them from comming to claim our rich supply of natural resourses that is only second to Russia.

October 18, 2012 at 16:45

A very good question, although it seems to presuppose that our navy as currently configured offers the most effective way to exert naval power.
I wonder whether we are actually only really prepared to fight some earlier-generation war, with our large, sophisticated and very expensive ships acting as vulnerable money pits instead of viable extenders of military advantage.  As a potential adversary, I would focus on developing the ability to strike at US ships with multiple waves of large numbers of missiles, hoping to overwhelm their defenses by brute force. 

October 18, 2012 at 05:12

Can we agree that Panetta's observations on the 1915 comparison are equally compelling?  The "fairness" of Dr. Farley's treatment of those two gentlemen is not really a policy question of much interest.

Delmar Jackson
October 18, 2012 at 03:14

Until the Navy is capable of using lasers to disable current supersonic anti ship miisiles, it is foolish to spend a lot of money on ships that are floating graveyards for all our men and women that sail on them.

October 18, 2012 at 00:14

The article argues that a smaller Navy is just as or more capable than Navies of the early 1900's compared to our competitors.  Fact is when you are trying to cover and protect 2/3 of the world's surface, size matters.  The reduced numbers of ships we are about to inherit will result in a diminished presence and capability.

October 17, 2012 at 20:58

This article misses the point. The ships of 1916 only had to fear enemy ships within the range of their weapons. Now, in the age of satellites, missiles, and air power, a navy can be sunk in hours. How much reserve capacity does our Navy need for even just one war at a time?

October 17, 2012 at 19:50

My question is, how can we reasonably be expected to protect our coasts with no working Martello towers?

And how can we in good conscience send our men and women in the military overseas without proper puttees?

Bill Altreuter
October 17, 2012 at 19:15

So, using the same basis for comparison as in your 1916 example, where does the US rank relative to the rest of the world? I know the US has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined– right?– so how does it measure up over all?

Bruce Klingner
October 17, 2012 at 17:19

Secretary of Defense Panetta made similar statements in his Nov 14, 2011 letters to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "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."  copy of Panetta letter at:
Did you assess Panetta's statement as equally as "misleading and irrelevant" as Ryan's statement?

H. Lucien Gauthier III
October 17, 2012 at 14:29

Interesting that you would cite the KDX as being an exception to the USN's superiority in naval ships.  
No love for the Absalon or  Iver Huiyfeldt?

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