National Security

PolitiFact Gets the Question of the U.S. Navy’s Size Very Wrong

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, near Yemen / AP

The Weekly Standard‘s Mark Hemingway has written a harsh and richly deserved takedown of PolitiFact's fact-free foray into opinion journalism on the issue of how many ships the U.S. Navy has, or should have:

For several years now, PolitiFact has been waging war on anyone who points out that America has the smallest Navy it's had in nearly a century. Mitt Romney pointed out this fact in a presidential debate in 2012 and PolitiFact rated his statement "pants on fire" even though the number of ships in the U.S. Navy dropped below 300 in 2003 and the last time the U.S. Navy had fewer than 300 ships was 1916. It would seem Romney got his facts from no less an authoritative source than the secretary of the navy, who said a few years back, "We have 288 today in the battle fleet: the lowest number since 1916, which – during that time, the intervening years, our responsibilities have grown somewhat."

And yet, PolitiFact called Romney's statement "pants on fire" despite the fact that the very military historian PolitiFact consulted to verify Romney's statement was appalled at their ruling

Flatly declaring this statement false under the rubric that media fact checkers somehow more about the Navy's capabilities and readiness than the secretary of the navy, who clearly thinks the diminished number of ships is a problem, is incredibly arrogant and misleading.

Hemingway has been on the PolitiFact beat for some time, and his brutal survey of their work here—"PolitiFact has zero credibility on this issue"—is worth reading in full. A highlight is when he points out that, in one of its many attempts to promote the argument that the Navy has enough ships (despite the analysis of, among others, the Navy) Politifact suggests that the reason the United States has so few ships is because it and everyone else still adheres to the 1922 Washington Naval Conference. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, Politifact does not seem to be aware that since 1922 there have been one or two reasonably well-publicized incidents that have shaken the otherwise ironclad grip of the Conference's moral appeal.

In their most recent effort to kill the argument that maybe Mitt Romney had a point about a dangerously under-resourced surface fleet, PolitiFact seems to have had trouble finding anyone credible to go on the record for them, and have had to settle for quoting a single expert, Lance Janda, a "military historian at Cameron University." Janda provides PolitiFact with the following argument:

Ultimately, Janda said, fans of the talking point will ultimately have to answer this question: "If you could choose, would you go to war with the Navy we have now — at 288 ships — or would you rather have the Navy of World War II, which had well over 1,000?"

"The answer," he said, "is pretty obvious."

None of this, of course, has to do with factual verification, but that ship seems to have sailed for PolitiFact. But even as an argument, this is risible. Why should we have to choose between 288 of today's ships or 1,000 of 1945's? Why wouldn't it be better, from a point of view of national security, to have significantly more of today's ships than the dangerously small number currently afloat? All questions of the current fleet's superior capabilities aside, today we have so few ships that there will have no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf for much of the fall.

Janda's alternatives present, amusingly enough, exactly the kind of "false choice" that our current commander in chief is always advising us to reject.