WASHINGTON — Nearly a century ago, during World War I, the US Navy had a fleet of about 245 ships. Today it is 282.
The relatively similar size of the fleet, traditionally a topic for naval buffs and military historians, is now a flashpoint in the presidential campaign, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney trumpeting the comparison as evidence that President Obama has allowed American naval strength to dangerously erode.
“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” the former Massachusetts governor repeated in the debate with Obama on Monday. “The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through [planned defense cuts]. That’s unacceptable to me.”
The current fleet is actually slightly larger than it was during the Bush administration, when ship numbers dropped to 278 in 2007. But any comparison of fleet sizes says little about their composition, according to data provided by the Navy. For example, nearly 100 years ago the service still had more than two dozen gunboats, 18 torpedo boats, and three dozen battleships. With new ship designs and more advanced weaponry, the first two classes were quickly phased out in the 1920s; battleships disappeared in the 1950s.
A century ago, there were no aircraft carriers, each with its own small air force, or warships and nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching dozens of cruise or ballistic missiles from hundreds of miles offshore. All are key components now.
Obama ridiculed Romney for the simplistic comparison.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama said. “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,” Obama added, “is not a game of ‘Battleship,’ where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities?”
A number of naval specialists agreed that the comparison Romney is making is analytically unhelpful.
“Any comparison of the Navy of 1917 to the Navy of today is nearly meaningless,” said Loren Thompson of Source Associates and a consultant to defense companies. “Naval technology barely progressed beyond the Steam Age.’’
But the Romney campaign insists that providing combat power on the high seas is not the Navy’s sole role — nor necessarily its most common one.
For example, Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of defense who advises the governor, said last week that the nation’s aircraft carriers also serve as a tool of diplomacy.
“The biggest supporter of aircraft carriers is not the Defense Department,” Zakheim told a conference sponsored by Military Reporters and Editors. “It’s the State Department. The reason is that carrier presence has an unbelievably effective deterrent effect.”
He cited, for example, the decision to dispatch a pair of carriers to the Taiwan Straits in 1996 in response to Chinese threats. China backed down.
Some former naval commanders insist that both the Obama and Romney camps are right: Equally important are the number of ships and what each of them can do.
“They both matter,” said retired Admiral William Fallon, who commanded an aircraft carrier group and the Second Fleet before retiring in 2007 as head of US forces in the Middle East. “You have to have numbers. We at least have to sustain the numbers we have.”
According to its 30-year shipbuilding plan, released in March, the Navy is set to grow to about 300 ships by 2019 and average about 298 ships each year through 2042. That assumes the defense budget remains at its current rate of growth and the second round of cuts passed by Congress and set to go into effect next year is overturned.
An increase in Navy orders would almost certainly benefit General Dynamics’ shipyard in Maine and its submarine plant in Connecticut, as well as the government-run Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. “This would be a windfall for New England,” Thompson said.
By staking out his position, Romney could also garner votes in other areas of the country that depend on ship manufacturing, especially the battleground state of Virginia.
At the height of World War II the Navy had a fleet of more than 6,000 warships and submarines before significantly dropping over the decades. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War and the so-called Reagan buildup, the number of ships was 571, according to the Navy Heritage Command.
Fallon said he believes the current fleet of aircraft carriers — 11 active and one reserve, with each assigned a flotilla of other vessels — is overextended. Others agreed. Retired Admiral Robert Natter, who served as commander of the Atlantic Fleet until 2003, cited as an example the recent decision to deploy two aircraft carriers to the Indian Ocean — one to support operations in Afghanistan and another to deter Iran.
To sustain that pace — while also being able to position one or more carriers in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, or elsewhere — crews will have to be at sea for nine to 12 months at a time, compared with six months a few years ago, Natter said. But Natter, who also had commanded the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, noted that one consideration often gets left out of the comparisons.
“The Navy of 1917 had to contend with navies of relatively the same technology,” he said. “The Navy we have to today, and the technology we have today, is superior to our potential competitors.”