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Presidential debate 101: Is Romney right that Navy is smallest since 1917?

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(Read caption) President's comment about horses and bayonets
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Is the US Navy now smaller than at any time since 1917? That’s what Mitt Romney charged during the final presidential debate on Monday night. The former Massachusetts governor vowed that if elected president he’d rebuild America’s declining maritime power.

“The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285.... I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy,” Mr. Romney said.

President Obama replied with sarcasm, saying the comparison wasn’t apt because the US has ships called submarines, which sail underwater, and aircraft carriers, upon which planes can land. We’ll get to this qualitative judgment in a moment, but first let’s look at the numbers. Is Romney right?

Yes, partly. In December 1916 the US Navy consisted of 245 ships, according to Naval History and Heritage Command data. That’s certainly fewer than it has today. But that year also saw the passage of the Naval Act of 1916, meant to help counter Germany’s strength afloat. By the middle of 1917, the US had 342 active warships. By 1918, it had 774.

But Romney didn’t just say the Navy was smaller now than in 1916. He implied that it was at a historical nadir – his exact words were “smaller now than any time since 1917." That further implication isn’t correct.

In 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, the Navy bottomed out at 278 total active warships. The Naval History and Heritage Command chart notes that this number represents the service’s low since the 19th century.

It’s crept up a bit since then to the current 285 level.

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