Media Focus On Bayonet Numbers, Ignore Romney's Bogus Claim About Navy Fleet Size


In response to Mitt Romney's debate claim that the Navy's fleet "is smaller now than any time since 1917," President Obama noted that military also has fewer bayonets and horses because it has modernized. Rather than discuss President Obama's accurate point about military strength, members of the media are trying to figure out how many bayonets the military actually uses.

Obama Rebuts Romney Claim About Navy Size With "Horses And Bayonets" Reference

After Romney Claimed Navy Is Smaller Now Than It Has Been Since 1917, Obama Replied, "We Also Have Fewer Horses And Bayonets." During the October 22 presidential debate, Mitt Romney claimed that the Navy is smaller now than it has been since World War I. President Obama replied that the armed forces also has "fewer horses and bayonets" because the military has modernized and the number of ships is no longer an accurate measurement of military strength:

ROMNEY: Our Navy is older -- excuse me -- our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the -- to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.


OBAMA: Bob, I just need to comment on this. First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed. It's something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we're talking about is not reducing our military spending. It's maintaining it.

But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You -- you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets -- (laughter) -- because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities.

And so when I sit down with the secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home. And that is not reflected in the kind of budget that you're putting forward, because it just don't work. [Presidential debate, 10/22/12, via NPR] 

The U.S. Currently Controls A Large Share Of World Naval Power ...

Report: U.S. Controls 50 Percent Of World's Naval Power, Up From 11 Percent In 1916. A blog post by political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva pointed out that Naval power measured by firepower is higher than it has ever been. According to the report, the United States now controls about 50 percent of the world's naval power. In 1916, the U.S. controlled 11 percent:

We recently compiled a new data set on naval capabilities and created a measure of state naval strength for all countries from 1865 to 2011. As such, we are in a position to address the claims of the Romney campaign.

Broadly stated, our measure of state naval power is based on a state's total number of warships (non-fighting ships are excluded) and each ship's available firepower. To make comparisons over time, our annual measure is based on available firepower within the international system in that year. (For more information, see our paper here.)

In 1916, the US controlled roughly 11% of the world's naval power. This is an impressive number that ranks the US third in naval strength behind the UK (34%) and Germany (19%), and just ahead of France (10%). What about the US navy in 2011? In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world's naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%).

The US Navy has decreased in absolute size as Governor Romney argues (although this decline has been ongoing since the end of Cold War). U.S. warships are more powerful now than in the past, as President Obama implied. However, neither the number of warships nor the power of our ships is what is most important for understanding military and political influence. It is relative military power that matters most. In this respect, the U.S. navy is far stronger now than in 1916.


[The Monkey Cage, 10/23/12; Mother Jones, 10/23/12]

...  And Fact-Checkers Say Romney's Navy Claim Is "Meaningless," "Basically Pointless"

Wash. Post's Kessler: Romney Making An "Apples-And-Oranges Comparison." An article by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler pointed out that comparing the size of the current naval fleet with the size of the fleet in 1916 is an "apples-to-oranges" comparison because the Navy operated many more, but smaller, boats now that are no longer necessary:

The historical records of the Navy show that in 1916, the Navy had 245 ships. This was also the year that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class Navy.

But take a look at the types of ships on the list. Yes, there are cruisers and destroyers but also:


Steel Gunboats

Torpedo Boats

Monitors (that's kind of a small warship)

These types of boats aren't on the list anymore. Instead, the current list of Navy ships includes behemoths such as aircraft carriers, "SSBN" (nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile carrying submarines) and "SSGN" (cruise-missile submarines).

In other words, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Romney's line reminds us of a similar strained comparison he made last year regarding the workforce needs to make ships during World War II and today. But in this case he goes even deeper back into history. After all, 1916 is not only before computers, it is before television -- even before regular radio broadcasts. [The Washington Post, 10/9/12]

PolitiFact: Romney Making A "Meaningless Claim," Rates It "Pants On Fire." PolitiFact noted that because of advanced technology, more powerful ships, and more trained personnel, a smaller number of ships does not indicate that the Navy is weaker in relation to other nations than it was with more ships in 1916:

Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four specialized submarines for launching Cruise missiles -- all categories of vessels that didn't exist in 1916.


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. [PolitiFact, 1/16/12]

CNN: Navy "Does Not Need As Many Ships As It Did In 1916," Romney's Claim Is "Basically Pointless." A fact-check by national security producer Mike Mount quoted the director of a defense policy analysis organization who pointed out that the number of ships in the Navy is "not a valid measuring stick" of strength:

The U.S. Navy of 1916 utilized ships in which each platform played a single role, according to Navy spokesman Lt. Cdr. Chris Servello. The fleet was this size and makeup to meet the threats of its day.

Today, a single Navy ship can serve many roles. Because of this, the military branch does not need as many ships as it did in 1916, because technology has advanced to such a point one ship can be used in numerous battle scenarios.

In short, Servello said you cannot compare the two generations: It's like comparing apples to oranges.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington defense policy analysis group, adds that the total number of ships itself is not a valid measuring stick of the Navy's strength.

"Ship numbers are driven by two things -- war fighting requirements and the need for a forward presence," said Pavel.

By that, he means that political and military officials work to make sure they have the right number and kind of ships to match their capabilities, and enough to allow them to rotate vessels in and out of regions.

It is wrong to assume that fewer ships translates to a weaker military, Pavel said. Because of the technological supremacy of current Navy ships, the military can get more from each one than it did even 10 to 15 years ago.


While Romney is fairly close in assessing the size of the U.S. Naval fleet, his claim is basically pointless.

Having more ships does not really mean anything, according to experts. And making more ships does not necessarily mean anything, unless you have a plan for them. [ 10/9/12]

Meanwhile, The Media Is Counting Bayonets

After Listing Number Of Bayonets In Armed Forces, Fox's Kilmeade Asks, "What Does That Say About The President's Military Knowledge?" On the October 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson played a clip of Obama during the debate, then claimed the military currently has more than 500,000 bayonets. Co-host Brian Kilmeade responded by saying, "All right, so now that you know the facts, what does that say about the president's military knowledge?" [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 10/24/12]

CNN's Piers Morgan Declares Obama Wrong Because "We Actually Have More Bayonets In The American Armed Forces Today." On the October 23 edition of CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight, host Piers Morgan responded to Obama's claim by saying "apparently we actually have more bayonets in the American armed forces today ... than we had in 1916":

MORGAN: The president was actually wrong about this, and I've got a very pedantic piece of literature which proves this, and apparently we actually have more bayonets in the American armed forces today, in the Army and the Marines, than we had in 1916, over 650,000.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF (New York Times columnist): Yeah, three times as many bayonets as we did back then. [CNN, Piers Morgan Tonight, 10/23/12]

NBC's Chuck Todd: "A Quick Search Of The Marine Corps Website Shows Bayonets Among The Weapons Actively Used In Combat." On Today, NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd "did a little research" about Obama's remarks and found "bayonets among the weapons actively used in combat":

TODD: Now, we know there was a lot of attention to the bayonet line, so we did a little research. While it's true the U.S. military doesn't use bayonets as much as they did a century ago, a quick search of the Marine Corps website shows bayonets among the weapons actively used in combat. To quote from the website's description: "From 500 yards, every Marine is accurate with a rifle. Attach the OKC-3S Bayonet, and the weapon becomes just as effective in close combat situations." And Savannah, the Marine Corps website adds, it's the weapon of choice when shots can't be fired. [NBC, Today, 10/23/12]

Breitbart: "Some Users On Twitter Have Claimed That ... There Actually Are More Bayonets In Use Than 1916." In a post, blogger A.W.R. Hawkins wrote that Obama "ended up revealing an astonishing level of ignorance about the state of military technology." As part of his argument, Hawkins claimed that Twitter users said "there actually are more bayonets in use than in 1916":

Some users on Twitter have claimed that, by virtue of the USMC still using bayonets, there actually are more bayonets in use than 1916, when the army had between 100,000 and 140,000 enlisted members. As of 2010, the Corps boasted 203,000 active duty members and 40,000 reserve marines. [, 10/23/12]

National Review Blogger: "At Present, We Have Almost A Million Servicemen Who Have Been Issued A Bayonet, If Only For Training." In a post on National Review's blog The Corner, Charles C.W. Cooke argued "we probably don't have fewer bayonets now than in 1916" because the Army is larger now, and estimated that "the United States now purchases ten times more bayonets than it did in 1916":

To bayonets. Actually, we probably don't have fewer bayonets now than in 1916. Back then, the army was about 108,000 men strong, and the National Guard boasted about 90,000 men. There are no reliable numbers on the number of bayonets issued -- and so chronic was the shortage that American soldiers preparing for war in 1917 were relegated to using brooms instead -- but, arguendo, let's be generous and assume that every man in any sort of defense capacity was given one. That's 200,000 bayonets at the most. At present, we have almost a million servicemen who have been issued a bayonet, if only for training -- they are standard issue for Marines -- and around the same number of reserve bayonets. (The U.S. did not have a substantial reserve of men or weapons in 1916.) Even with these generous back-of-the-envelope calculations, the United States now purchases ten times more bayonets than it did in 1916. [National Review Online, 10/23/12]

Wash. Times: Bayonets "Are Still Part Of The Inventory." A "Robbins Report" item at The Washington Times by James S. Robbins asked that President Obama "produce detailed figures to justify this claim of fewer bayonets." Robbins also guessed "a force seven times the size of the one in 1916 has more, not fewer, bayonets":

In Monday night's debate President Obama attempted to mock Mitt Romney's valid point about the shameful shrinkage of U.S. naval assets by saying "we also have fewer horses and bayonets" than we did in 1916. The horse point is a given, but bayonets -- particularly the M9 -- are still part of the inventory. And U.S. Army and Marine forces -- the primary bayonet users -- are much larger than they were in the old days. In June 1916 the U.S. had 108,399 active duty Soldiers and 10,601 Marines, or 119,000 total. The numbers in September 2011 were 565,463 Army and 201,157 Marines, or 766,620 total.

Granted the bayonet has lost the importance it had in military doctrine 100 years ago, but if we are simply fact-checking their number, I would guess a force seven times the size of the one in 1916 has more, not fewer, bayonets. Around 400,000 M9s have been procured since 1984. In 2011 the U.S. government posted a solicitation for 40,000 new M9 bayonets, which would have supplied 40% of the 1916 Army, or four for every Marine.

The Obama campaign needs to produce detailed figures to justify this claim of fewer bayonets. Also the White House needs to explain in detail the impact of the bayonet deficit on American national security and perceptions of U.S. weakness among countries with more robust bayonet inventories. The American people deserve to know if the country faces a growing bayonet gap. Either that or Mr. Obama should admit that this was just a cheap stunt to try to stick it to Mr. Romney. [The Washington Times, 10/23/12]

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.