There are only three things certain in life: death, taxes, and professional fact-checkers condemning Republican politicians for lamenting the small size of the U.S. Navy. The latest installment in this nearly-decade long exercise of opinion-checking disguised as fact-checking came on Monday as PolitiFacat’s Louis Jacobson only gave presidential candidate Nikki Haley a “half-true” rating for her comparison of the American and Chinese navies, despite conceding she was completely correct.
The exact quote from Haley was that China has "the largest naval fleet in the world. They had 370 ships. They'll have 400 ships in two years. We won't even have 350 ships in two decades."
Seems like a pretty straightforward fact-check and in the “if your time is short” summary, Jacobson writes, "Numerically, Haley is on target with both countries’ ship counts."
However, Jacobson was unwilling to give Haley a true rating, "Military experts caution that other factors, including ships’ capabilities and advanced technologies, are just as important, if not more so. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has called ship counts ‘a one-dimensional measure.'"
This is not a fact-check; it is an opinion-check. But Jacobson’s opinionating was just getting started:
China is surely gaining ground on the U.S., both in ship counts and overall tonnage — the combined weight of all ships, which helps quantify how many assets a navy has. When Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, compared the two countries’ ship tonnage a decade ago, the U.S. had a roughly 3-1 edge.
Now, he said, it’s closer to a 2-1 margin. Although ‘tonnage is not a perfect metric,’ O’Hanlon said, simply counting ships 'is a terrible one.'
Tonnage is a 1920s—or even 1820s—way of looking at a 2020s problem. A proper 2020s way of looking at combat strength is missile capacity and one missile from a cheap, Iranian speedboat does just as much damage as one missile from a major American surface combatant and it takes just one missile for a ship’s crew to have a very bad day. So, not only is PolitiFact opinion-checking Haley, it is not even good opinion-checking.
Moving right along, Jacobson cites Cameron University’s Lance Janda, “Ours is a true blue water navy capable of deploying anywhere in the world for an extended period, and we have many more aircraft carriers, far more naval aircraft, more advanced submarines and a larger Marine Corps.”
He also cites the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Mark Cancian saying "The U.S. Navy has global responsibilities, whereas (China’s navy focuses) exclusively on the region."
Jacobson meant that as a criticism of Haley, but it actually makes her point more relevant as China’s larger fleet is concentrated in the likely area of combat operations, while the U.S. fleet is dispersed across the world on a wide variety of assignments.
PolitiFact should not be in the business of opinion-checking, but if it is going to insist, at the very least it should quote experts on both sides of the debate and let readers make up their own minds.