The U.S. Navy: 1916 vs. 2012

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The U.S. Navy: 1916 vs. 2012

Why a Romney Campaign line concerning the U.S. Navy and its size might be misleading and irrelevant.

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 (http://www.battle-of-jutland.com/ ).  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 http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm#1910

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.