uss new hampshire

USS New Hampshire in the Hudson River, New York, 27 December 1918. US Navy Image

(Bloomberg) — Mitt Romney, vowing to expand the Navy, said the U.S. has fewer warships now than in 1916. Back then, a battleship’s main guns had a range of about 20,000 yards.

By comparison, jet fighters flying today off the Navy’s Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can reach targets thousands of miles inland.

Romney’s pledge in a foreign-policy speech this week to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions” ignores technological advances that have increased the reach and capabilities of U.S. sea power, according to Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based policy research organization.

“Using ship count is an imprecise measure” of naval power, Harrison said yesterday in an interview. “In 1916, how many super-carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines did we have? While we do have a smaller number of ships, they are much more capable. A single attack submarine can project power up to 1,000 miles away.”

Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, said in his Oct. 8 speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, that “the size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916” and pledged to build “15 ships per year, including three submarines.”

The Navy intends to buy 10 ships in 2013. Over 30 years, the Navy’s ship purchases will average about 8.9 vessels per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Naval History

Nautical and technological advances aside, Romney also was incorrect to assert that today’s fleet size is the smallest since 1916, Harrison said.

The most recent low was in 2007, when the Navy had 278 ships compared with 285 today, according to the Navy’s History & Heritage Command. At the end of 1916, the Navy had 245 ships, according to the command.

The nation’s largest inventory was in 1944 when the Navy had 6,084 ships, including 367 destroyers and 2,147 amphibious ships, according to the command.

The biggest boost to ship production of the last century came before the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to pass the Naval Act of 1916, according to “One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990,” a 1993 book by George Baer. The legislation let the Navy begin construction of 156 ships within three years, according to the book.

Telegraph Messages

The battleships and destroyers of the U.S. Navy in 1916 operated in an era before radar and sonar, according to Navy historian Timothy Francis.

“Radio communication was just being instituted, and ships back then still used a lot of telegraph” to communicate once they pulled into port, Francis said in a phone interview.

Crews on destroyers in the early 20th century could only spot threats within sight because they lacked modern sensors that can “see the entire ocean around them,” Francis said.

Destroyers from the early 1900s, whose role was to protect battleships, had four 4-inch guns and two 1-pound anti-torpedo guns with an effective range of a few thousand yards, Francis said. Today’s Aegis-class destroyers carry Sea Sparrow anti- aircraft missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles that can hit targets thousands of miles away.

Romney’s defense adviser John Lehman told Defense News last week that the candidate supports a fleet of 350 ships. Serving as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, Lehman backed a plan to create a 600-ship Navy.

Virginia Vote

The push for a bigger Navy has political appeal in Virginia, a closely contested state in the presidential election. After his foreign policy speech, Romney spoke at a rally in Newport News, Virginia, in an area that is home to the largest U.S. Navy base and the headquarters of shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.

Romney’s approach won backing from two naval analysts who said the Navy is being asked to take on more missions, requiring a larger fleet, even though modern ships and submarines have greater reach and are more capable than their predecessors.

“Our interests now are more geographically dispersed and our economic interests are deeper than in 1916 and the distances to those interests have gotten no shorter,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy commander who’s now a consultant at Delex Systems Inc. based in Vienna, Virginia. “The fleet we have today is not sufficient to cover our interests.”

McGrath said he has provided advice to the Romney campaign, although he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the candidate.

Mideast, Asia

The U.S. is likely to continue fighting terrorists in parts of the Middle East and Africa while also rebalancing its forces toward Asia, placing greater pressure on the Navy to provide a maritime presence in both regions, said Norman Friedman, a New York-based naval analyst and author.

“A ship, no matter how powerful, can only be at one place at once,” Friedman said.

Romney’s goal of building 15 ships a year was probably based on affordability, and the composition of ships in the fleet would be determined by strategy, Friedman said.

While Romney has criticized Obama and called for reversing cuts to U.S. defense spending, he hasn’t said how much his naval plan would cost or how he would pay for it while also reducing the federal deficit.

Defense Spending

Defense spending today remains more than double what it was when President George W. Bush took office in 2001, adjusted for inflation. A first round of cuts to the Pentagon budget — $487 billion over 10 years — was the product of an August 2011 bipartisan agreement between Congress and the Obama administration.

An additional $500 billion in defense cuts will start in January if Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach an alternative deficit-reduction deal. White House officials and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said the second round in reductions should be avoided.

Even if Romney were to find the money to boost shipbuilding, he would have to spell out a strategy, Harrison said.

“Will it be $2 billion destroyers or half-billion dollar Littoral Combat Ships?” Harrison said. “There are a lot more unanswered questions.”

- Gopal Ratnam, Copyright 2012 Bloomberg
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  • tyler

    While the title of the article is technically correct, the article does little to support it’s own position. The fact is, under the current admin, we are headed to a 250 ship navy. LCSs have little combative power and I think you could argue that they shouldn’t be counted as combatants in the ship count which would mean more of a 200 ship navy in the future count.

    Modern ships are more capable but in a war ships are lost and the only substitute is more ships with trained crew. A 200 ship navy could not effectively protect this country much less the commitments to our allies. Also, despite the authors poke, i’m betting there would be little gains in the Virginia shipyards. Most of the ships will be built elsewhere.

  • Sean Danvers

    LCS’s are a debacle in and of themselves but that is not the fault of the current administration or really the previous one. If anything is the current administrations fault its that they have not halted the construction of those useless ships and put the money into worthwhile, proven patrol boat designs.

  • Arctic Fox

    The headline here is both incorrect, and misleading. The headline does not describe the text of the article.

    Here’s the key point. No president builds his own Navy — excepting only FDR in WWII. Generally, one builds a Navy for the next president, and for several presidents afterwards. Thus I don’t bedrudge Romney the rhetorical point of criticizing “the smallest U.S. Navy since World War I.” In the wake of the very un-navalist characters Clinton-Bush-Obama, Romney (not even a Navy guy) is inheriting a maritime mess.

    So Romney makes an important strategic point — to which any operational Sailor can attest. Considering the scope of national commitments, the U.S. does not have enough Navy to go around. Either scale back the commitments, or scale up the Navy.

    Oh, and the comments by Todd Harrison in the article, about how the U.S didn’t have “super-carriers” in 1916 are just silly. Really? Duh.

  • Doug

    We also have a smaller number of cavalry horses. How about building a few icebreakers instead

    • Arctic Fox

      Yes indeed. Looking back, Pres. Obama spent $787 billion on “stimulus.” Too bad he didn’t lay down a couple of keels for icebreakers. It’s not like the need for new icebreakers was a state secret back in 2009. Heck, Obama could be cracking champagne bottles over the bows about now.

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