As previously discussed here, at least a few aspiring Republican presidential candidates have a bad habit of using misleading numbers while arguing in favor of increased defense spending. In that previous case, Jeb Bush cited defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in an attempt to make the Pentagon’s budget seem unreasonably low—despite it currently being well above its Cold War average. But Bush is hardly alone. Other candidates have a bad habit of making misleading claims about the projected size of America’s armed forces in the coming years.
In a post for the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” Michelle Ye Hee Lee takes on the “zombie claim” Republicans continue to make about the size of the U.S. Navy. Ye Hee Lee quotes both South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who, in an appearance at the New Hampshire Republican leadership summit last weekend, echoed claims Mitt Romney made during the 2012 election about the Navy being the smallest it has been since 1915. She also quotes Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who unfavorably compared the possibility of a 250- or 260-ship Navy to that of Ronald Reagan’s planned—but never actually achieved—600-ship Navy.
As mentioned previously, the Navy has funny, often politically-motivated, rules for how it counts ships. But the numbers themselves do not matter as much as what is being compared. And there is no comparison between the types of ships in the fleet on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, and those in the fleet today in terms of technology and capability. Moreover, the comparisons to Reagan’s 594-ship Navy fail to take into account the lack of an adversary with a blue water navy. China’s naval modernization will continue to demand attention, but given Beijing’s focus on anti-access/area-denial capabilities, ship-type will likely be more important here too.
GOP presidential aspirants’ continued abuse of numbers goes beyond ship counts though. While Ye Hee Lee does not address it, the quote she cites from Lindsey Graham also claims that the Army will be the smallest its been since 1940. The Washington Post’s fellow “fact checkers” at Politifact tackled that claim last fall, citing several experts in its refutation of Graham, including Duke University military historian Alex Roland:
“One of the reasons for the decrease in size — both Army and Navy — is that we now rely far more on technology than on sheer numbers,” said Roland, the military history expert from Duke. “The question is not how we compare to our Army in 1940 or our Navy in 1915, but how we compare with our potential enemies in 2014. We are head and shoulders above them.”
However, there is another reason why today’s Army is smaller that went unmentioned by Roland or the other experts cited: the United States Air Force. In 1940, the 264,000 troops in the Army included the Army Air Corps, which later became the Army Air Forces during World War II, and eventually won its independence after the war. The United States Army in 2019 is projected to have around 440,000, though possibly as low as 420,000, active-duty troops. It will also have an independent Air Force in addition to its ground forces. In 1940, it had an Army of 264,000 that included its air force.