(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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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