Good morning,Here is what I wrote back:
Hope all is well! I wanted to throw a new military-related PolitiFact fact-check your way.
In last night's South Carolina debate, Mitt Romney said, "Our navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947."
(1) Is this technically true, and if so, by what metrics?
(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?
Thanks so much!
Lou,The final article is here. Jacobson's Truth-O-Meter conclusion, which is based on much more than just my response, is "Pants on Fire," because while the numbers are basically accurate, the context makes his claim a lie. Jacobson writes:
1. On the Navy question, Romney appears to be accurate using the standard Navy metric, which is number of active ships. In 2003, the US Navy dropped below 300 active ships, and is currently at about 285. The last time the number was below 300 at the end of the year was 1916, when it was at 245. By the end of 1917, the number was 342. An excellent source is the Naval Historical Office, here: http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm
I suppose you could ding Romney for personnel numbers, which were lower in the 1930s than they are now, but navies usually are judged by ship totals. See here: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq65-1.htm
As for the Air Force, that one is trickier, because I cannot find a good single source to point the way. That said, the Air Force has a large statistical collection at this page: http://www.afhso.af.mil/usafstatistics/index.asp
It appear that the figure is accurate personnel-wise. The current force has about 332,000 active duty, and the last time it was that low was in 1947, when the number was 305,000. As for numbers and ages of aircraft, the numbers vary based on active duty or counting reserves, but generally it appears that aircraft were slightly fewer and a bit older in the mid 2005-2008 range. I am not a statistician, but the specific numbers seem a bit more complicated than the statement from Romney implies. Then again, the overall statement appears to be accurate about the trend--the Air Force is older and smaller than it has been for almost its entire history.
2. As for the issue of context, it cuts both ways. Certainly the Navy had to deal with rivals of varying strength and compositions throughout the era from 1917 to now, much as the Air Force was dealing with a peer competitor in the Soviet Union for most of its history. Likewise, newer technologies for the Navy and Air Force are probably more lethal, both absolutely and relative to most competitors, than they were in the past. So, given the geopolitical situation and the state of technology, it seems that the Navy and Air Force can stand to be smaller than they have been in the past. But there is a key contextual difference. Because the forces are so reliant on a small number of expensive and highly sophisticated ships and aircraft to to the job of large numbers of less sophisticated technologies in the past, the current technologies are more valuable and the overall system is more fragile.
If the Navy loses one carrier to enemy action, for any reason, that loss would be catastrophic in a way such a loss would not have been in the past. Likewise, the Air Force cannot afford to lose even small numbers of the highly sophisticated airframes of today. An additional contextual difference is that the U.S. military used to prepare during peacetime to mass produce weapons and material in the event of war. That is not the case today. For better or worse, the military is stuck with what it has for a long time once war begins, and regardless of losses (e.g.: the delay in producing up-armored Humvees and MRAPS for Iraq). In that sense, the small but sophisticated military is also risky.
Sorry for going on so long. I hope this helps.
This is a great example of a politician using more or less accurate statistics to make a meaningless claim. Judging by the numbers alone, Romney was close to accurate. In recent years, the number of Navy and Air Force assets has sunk to levels not seen in decades, although the number of ships has risen slightly under Obama.
However, a wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel.
Thanks to the development of everything from nuclear weapons to drones, comparing today’s military to that of 60 to 100 years ago presents an egregious comparison of apples and oranges. Today’s military and political leaders face real challenges in determining the right mix of assets to deal with current and future threats, but Romney’s glib suggestion that today’s military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947 is preposterous.
In addition, Romney appears to be using the statistic as a critique of the current administration, while experts tell us that both draw-downs and buildups of military equipment occur over long periods of time and can't be pegged to one president. Put it all together and you have a statement that, despite being close to accurate in its numbers, uses those numbers in service of a ridiculous point. Pants on Fire.
I do not have a dog in this hunt. I am ambivalent about Romney and his candidacy, and I think the issue of defense spending is enormously complicated. I did not watch the debate, and I have not read the entire transcript. So, like Jacobson, my focus is entirely on the question of the relative size of the U.S. Air Force and Navy.
Jacobson did a remarkable bit of research in a very short period of time. However, I did think his questions to me were leading. Remember, Mr. Jacobson asked "(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?," which both assumes and implies to the interviewees that Romney ignored those specific contexts.
Additionally, in his final few paragraphs, Jacobson refers to Romney's statements as "meaningless," "glib," "preposterous," and "ridiculous." To be frank, I'm a little surprised by that wording, especially in writing for a site that strives for objectivity.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that since Romney's base statement was factually accurate when it came to most numerical metrics, it would seem that he could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter.
In any event, that is how PolitiFact worked in this case. Just in case you are interested.