Sunday’s edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes sounded the alarm on China’s rapid naval expansion and included premier PLAN expert Toshi Yoshihara warning that China is outbuilding several Western nations combined and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday declaring his top priority is cutting down the Navy’s excessive maintenance delays that limit the Navy’s ability to keep up. The warning is long overdue and upends over a decade of liberal fact-checking that argued that Republican warnings about this were wrong.
In January 2012, Mitt Romney alleged that the military was in danger of losing its superiority and the Navy was at risk of becoming the smallest it’s been since World War I and PolitiFact gave him a “pants-on-fire” rating:
This is a great example of a politician using more or less accurate statistics to make a meaningless claim … 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.
China is “outbuilding many of the western navies combined.”— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) March 20, 2023
Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says by investing heavily in defense industrial infrastructure, China’s navy now builds warships more quickly than the U.S. https://t.co/bMXDcIb2Yk pic.twitter.com/Ym2JAPRskU
During the general election campaign, CNN also sought to debunk the claim “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… So Romney’s point cannot really be justified.”
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler gave Romney three Pinocchios, “This is a nonsense fact. In his counting of ships, Romney equates gunboats with aircraft carriers and torpedo boats with nuclear-powered submarines. For such an important speech, one would think the candidate would resolve to use the most relevant facts possible.”
October 2014 saw PolitiFact condemn Sen. Lindsey Graham for making the same point, “He’s got the numbers right, but it’s not a fair comparison because technology and capabilities have grown so much in the past century.”
In May 2015, PolitiFact self-parodied while attacking Sen. David Perdue, “Our allies and foes alike have kept their word to the 1922 Washington Naval Conference, which limits the world’s navies by tonnage as a solution to an early arms race.” That treaty went defunct in 1936.
A few months later in July, PolitiFact gave E.W. Jackson a “mostly-false” rating, “Even if the number of ships is cut to a pre-World War I quantity, would that mean, as Jackson wrote, that Navy fleet has been reduced to almost a 100-year low point in readiness and capability? Many military analysts answer with a resounding no, saying those who utter such claims confuse quantity with quality.”
During the 2015-16 GOP Primary season, the Washington Post declared that Graham, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Marco Rubio were all repeating a “zombie claim” and cited Obama-era Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus as an authoritative source, “that’s pretty irrelevant. We also have fewer telegraph machines than we did in World War I and we seem to be doing fine without that.”
In March 2017, the Associated Press fact-checked President Donald Trump, “For the last few decades the Navy has dramatically increased the warfighting effectiveness of its ships, meaning it can do more with far fewer vessels than it could during the Cold War, for example.”
Yes, ships today are more capable than they were in World War I, but whether they are in the Atlantic, the Pacific, in port for maintenance, or lying sunk at the bottom of the sea, they can only be in one place at one time. Fewer ships also mean longer deployments which means greater strain on crews which means more risk for at-sea mistakes. Fact-checking ship numbers is one thing, but the opinions used to defend Obama’s “horses and bayonets” zinger have aged very badly. Hopefully, it isn’t too late.