American Naval Power in 1916 and Today

A pair of political scientists who did a study on the naval power of all the nations of the world over time are reinforcing, with specific measures, just how dishonest the Republicans, and Mitt Romney specifically, are being with their ridiculous claims about our Navy being smaller now than in 1916.

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%).

So the Navy today is not only 5X more powerful than it was in 1916, relative to the technology of the day, but it’s also 5X more powerful than the next closest nation. They’re just plain lying.

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  • Randomfactor

    And reached its low point in terms of ships…under Dubya.

  • This is just a classical example of lying with statistics (all around). All of these metrics are arguable. Saying “available firepower” is b.s., too, because it buries the question “what is ‘firepower’?” Is it high explosive that can be sent downrange? Total throw-weight?* Number of guns (omitting CIWS and antiaircraft)? What about missiles – weight of warhead or fuelled missile or what? Anyone who knows anything about naval warfare is also going to know that it’s not necessarily throw-weight it’s accuracy of fire-control systems and effective range. We could construct a metric around effective range that would show that a single modern ship is probably better than the whole WWI navy – and, btw, that’d be defensible because it could sit at sniper-range forever and they’d never get in range to strike back. Anyone who does not understand the difference in # of guns versus distance/accuracy of modern systems seriously misunderstood what one Exocet did to the Sheffield.

    It’s just a silly argument. Even saying something so silly is, um, proof of silliness. Ryan said something stupid and there’s no need to provide a detailed analysis of various models of stupidity.

    (* weight of broadside was a good metric in the napoleonic wars, maybe not so good now)

  • It doesn’t even MATTER.

    Rmoney wants to spend $2 trillion that the Navy doesn’t want to spend! They don’t want, or need, that money, but it’s Rmoney’s budget!

  • brianthomas

    Funny how spending trillions on aircraft carriers is just fine with the self-professed “fiscally responsible” republican swinebags…

    ….but spending far less on Obamacare?!?!?

    America will COLLAPSE!!!!!

    I’m tired of it. Time to start throwing all this “wanting to bankrupt America” rhetoric back at these assholes.

  • prtsimmons


    The original paper does not use some kind of metric like weight of broadside, it compares navies from the same era to each other and ranks them. A modern aircraft carrier does not get compared to a WWII battleship, unless that battleship is still in commission in a modern navy. Countries are ranked based on the number of ships that meet a certain set of criteria (for example, a ‘major’ aircraft carrier for the 1947-1958 period needs to displace 20,000 tons and have 10 jet fighters). It makes no comparison between navies of today versus navies of the past. It only compares the relative power of a country’s navy in relation to its contemporaries. The original talking point from the Romney/Ryan camp was stupid, but the question of relative naval strength is not intractable (or unimportant).

    The paper is right here:

  • And isn’t the point of all this lots of money and jobs for Virginia? An electoral bribe?

    I know, government doesn’t create jobs or wealth… unless it creates jobs and wealth for potential Republican voters.

  • lofgren

    The solution is simple. Use the Obama time machine to send today’s navy back to 1916 and let them duke it out.

  • unbound

    Actually, Newport News Shipbuilding (one of the 2 big shipyards that builds the major ships – Carriers and Submarines – for the Navy) announced that they are looking at hiring 10,000 to 15,000 more over the next few years…and this article is from more than a year ago (

  • fergusdk

    I can play this game too.

    I have a 2008 Macbook.

    The 1960’s had the Burroughs 205 computer. It was huge and filled up the space of several large living rooms. It needed that space for the 1800 vacuum tubes in it’s central processing system. The cost of the computer system was over one million dollars and one million dollars was a lot more in the 1960’s than it is today.

    So even though my Macbook has thousands of times more computer memory, speed and power than the Burroughs 205 did, the Burroughs 205 was more computer.

    From the logic of the Right’s mind.

  • Doug Little

    The solution is simple. Use the Obama time machine to send today’s navy back to 1916 and let them duke it out.

    No it’s ships, so therefore we can break out the Philadelphia Experiment Mark II for the time travel.

  • The real answer is more like 100%. We have complete and uncontested naval superiority, especially when you add our allies into the mix. Russia’s navy is a rusting shadow of its former self and China’s navy is effectively nonexistent. And besides them, who else is there?

    I think it’s safe to say that there has never been this degree of naval dominance by any one country/alliance in all of human history, except possibly at the end of WWII. Clearly, this is all Obama’s fault.

  • whheydt

    Re: MRcus Ranum @ #2;

    And even when looking at the Napoleonic Era, you have to take into account weight of shot from each gun that is used.

    After all, how many frigates with 24-pounder cannon would it take to beat 104 gun ship of the line with 32-pounders firing back?

  • It makes in perfect sense. In Opposite-World, where most Republicans live, reducing tax revenue and exploding government spending reduces the deficit.

  • lclane2

    Naval power today is determined primarily by aircraft carriers. Of the 22 aircraft carriers in the world and we have 11. Our worst aircraft carrier is the 11th best in world. Our present Navy could probably sink the 1916 navy in less than an hour. It could probably sink all the rest of the worlds present day navies, but it might take a few days.

  • Ichthyic

    it might take a few days.

    well, not if we got them all to gather together in one spot.

    one nuke from a ballistic sub would do.

  • t compares navies from the same era to each other and ranks them

    On what? Tonnage? What does that have to do with how ‘powerful’ a navy is? It’s about as relevant as their horoscope!

  • The Iranian Navy is impressive. Their ships can reach the Mediterranean by way of Syria. Our ships can’t even move on land.

  • Woof

    (Dr X wins one Internet.)

  • The Iranian Navy is impressive/i>

    Damn it! N3x6 they are gpong to develop civilization!!

    Those mesopatamians mst be stopped!!

  • Paul W., OM

    Another crucial factor left out of these ridiculous comparisons is that much of the work done by the US Navy in 1916—projecting US might beyond our borders—is largely done by two other kinds of US forces that were negligible or nonexistent in 1916.

    We have medium-range, long-range and even intercontinental ballistic missiles that can people anywhere in the world any time we want, in small numbers or huge numbers. We can launch medium- and long-range missiles from sufficiently friendly country, and have those missiles fly over a number of unfriendly or neutral countries, to devastate any small or large area we want.

    We can even devastate entire cities anywhere in the world, within less than an hour, without even leaving home.

    Plus we have an Air Force that can likewise fly from any sufficiently friendly country in a region, or even from a great distance, using airborne refueling.

    Without using our Navy at all, we can drop you any place, any time, and in any numbers, in any of several ways. We can destroy an individual house, a city block, a neighborhood, or an entire city, at will.

    We did not have anything remotely like such godlike power to smite anybody we fucking want in 1916.

    Even looking at the Navy alone, ignoring the Air Force and missile command, the same principle applies.

    In terms of projecting serious power, the Navy now serves largely as a set of convenient launch platforms for a what is really

    (1) a whole other missile system (using submarines, which can launch cruise missiles or ballistic missiles, either with conventional or nuclear warheads) and

    (2) a whole other air force (using aircraft carriers that can launch cruise missiles and nuclear-armed bombers)

    both which just happen to be under the administration of “The Navy” but are qualitatively different kinds of forces than we had in 1916.

    Comparing old and new counts of gunboats and battleships utterly misses the point that the Navy, as a navy, simply is no longer the main way we project power, and we have two dramatically more devastating and far-reaching ways we do it—with missiles and bombers.

    It’s like comparing the number of telegraph stations then and now, as though that was how we projected information around the world, and ignoring the fact that we have telephones, radio, television, cell phones, satellite phones, etc.

    In 1916, if we really wanted to flex our muscles beyond our borders, we used the Navy, and used it as a navy.

    These days, the Navy, qua a navy with gunboats and battleships, is what we use when we don’t want to really flex our muscles.

    It’s the intentionally weaker system we use when we don’t want to bring out the big guns. (And for intermediate situations we can use the Navy as a launch platform for our other missile system and air force, again intentionally avoiding using their “big guns,” e.g., using conventional weapons rather than nuclear ones.)

    The crucial question of military weakness in 1916 was how much of the world is beyond our geographic military reach. The Navy allowed us to patrol the oceans themselves and to reach some people in coastal regions that we otherwise couldn’t. (But nowhere near all coastal regions, or all of the oceans, because there were more powerful navies to contend with.) Much of the ocean and most land areas in the world were beyond our military’s effective reach, as were the large majority of people.

    Now we can apply any amount of devastating force any place, any time we want. Problem solved.

    Romney is trying to make the case that Obama has made us weak.

    But if you actually compare our 1916 and 2012 military weakness in that basic sense—what parts of the world we can’t easily reach and destroy—you get a divide by zero error.

  • Lithified Detritus

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

  • So even though my Macbook has thousands of times more computer memory, speed and power than the Burroughs 205 did, the Burroughs 205 was more computer.

    Now, imagine the Macbook sitting on your foot.

    Next, imagine the Burroughs sitting on your foot.

    Which is more computer?

  • trucreep

    Look at us

  • An additional point against Romney’s claims vis-à-vis the US Navy is the differing geopolitical situation between 1916 and the present.

    First, in actual fact the US was sitting on the sidelines of the Great War (although by then I believe it was starting to favour the Entente over the Central Powers), and would shortly become involved in the conflict. The Great War, of course, was at the time the latest in an ongoing cycle of general great-power wars stretching back to the Thirty Years’ War.

    Today, there is IMO currently a near-zero probability of a general great-power war, due to the nuclear arsenals possessed by the great powers. Nuclear weapons will IMO either deter or decide future great-power conflicts.

    Secondly, before and after the Great War, the great powers were engaged in what amounted to a zero-sum competition over political & economic control of the Earth’s resources. The US was not heavily involved in direct competition the way the European powers were, but it was part of the competition nonetheless. The leadup to the war saw the great powers’ shifting alliances crystallize into what would be the wartime Entente and Central Powers coalitions. However, the baseline zero-sum competition meant the US had to look after itself to some extent, even in the context of becoming a wartime ally of the Entente.

    Today, the US is formally allied with essentially every great power in Europe (save Russia) and Asia (save China & India). Russia and China are the only two major powers which, presently, there is any non-infinitesimal probability the US would engage in hostilities with (although see above about nuclear weapons). At any rate the US still does business with and cooperates with Russia, China & India on many matters.

    Thirdly, in 1916 making war was just part of the business of being a sovereing nation-state (although that attitude was changing mightily considering the scale of the slaughter and devastation and the follow-on societal transformations demanded by the war effort).

    Today, waging aggressive war is effectively illegal and widely revile although the veto-holding members of the UN Security Council can, in effect, get away with it because a resolution made to stop them with force cannot pass.

    All this said, because of the mythos of American exceptionalism many Americans assume that the Lilliputian UN ought not to be able to tie down American power with attempts to build a genuine rule of law at the international scale, and Romney definitely is playing to this feeling with his comments.