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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CNN's "State of the Union" Oct. 5, 2014. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CNN's "State of the Union" Oct. 5, 2014.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CNN's "State of the Union" Oct. 5, 2014.

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll October 5, 2014

Lindsey Graham: Army is smallest since 1940, Navy smallest since 1915

The United States has upped its operations in Iraq and Syria, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says the military is shrinking.

On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning, Graham criticized President Barack Obama for what he said are "half-measures" in thwarting terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. While Obama has focused on avoiding sending in combat troops to the Middle East, Graham said up to 4,000 troops may be necessary.

The issue of military size resurfaced when host Candy Crowley asked Graham what his plans are if Republicans take control of the Senate in November. He said replacing sequestration-style budgets is priority No. 1.

"You just heard a segment about the spread of Ebola throughout Africa," he said. "We're cutting the CDC's budget, the NIH budget. We're taking the military budget under sequestration cuts down to the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915. We're destroying the Intelligence Committee."

There’s a lot in there, but the idea that the U.S. military -- by far the largest in the world in terms of spending -- is as small as it was nearly a century ago caught our attention.

We found that Graham has accurate numbers regarding the Army and Navy. However, comparing today’s military to that of decades ago is comparing apples to oranges because of massive growth in technology and overall capabilities.

The numbers

Graham was referring to the number of ground forces and the number of ships, which is the traditional way of measuring the size of the Army and Navy, respectively, said Alex Roland, a professor of military history at Duke University.

Graham’s staff pointed us to a letter written by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2011.

Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- both supporters of robust funding for the Defense Department -- requested the letter amid Congress’ budget talks in fall 2011 that led to sequestration legislation.

In the letter, Panetta said, "Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply. Rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history."

As far as we can tell, Panetta’s assessment is accurate.

The Army already is reducing the number of soldiers to 440,000-450,000 -- down from its recent war-time high of 570,000, according to the Defense Department’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. (Those reductions are the result of the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not mandated budget cuts as part of the sequestration.)

Going forward, if sequestration-style cuts go into effect for fiscal year 2016, the number of soldiers will likely have to drop to 420,000.

This is the lowest number of soldiers since 1940. Before the draft went into effect later that year, there were about 264,000 troops in the Army.

Turning to the Navy, there are currently 289 deployable battle force ships. According to the quadrennial review, there will be an estimated fleet of 234 ships in Fiscal Year 2019.

That is the lowest number of ships since 1915 -- two years before the United States got involved in World War I.  That year, the Navy had 231 deployable ships. In 2016, it jumped up to 245 ships.

To summarize:



Featured Fact-check

2019 (est.)

Number of troops






2019 (est.)

Number of ships



Still, Graham was trying to make the point that the budget cuts have weakened the military to points not seen in decades. However, we learned from experts that comparing the number of troops and ships doesn’t say much about military might.

The context

We took Graham’s claim to several experts, who told us that comparing the American military of 2014 to that of the early 20th century is irrelevant. Because of technological advances, the ships and troops of today’s military have greater capabilities than they did in the world wars.

"One of the reasons for the decrease in size -- both Army and Navy -- is that we now rely far more on technology than on sheer numbers," said Roland, the military history expert from Duke. "The question is not how we compare to our Army in 1940 or our Navy in 1915, but how we compare with our potential enemies in 2014. We are head and shoulders above them."

For example, the Navy did not have any aircraft carriers in 1915, but now it has an active fleet of 10. David E. Johnson, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, estimated that just four modern aircraft carriers would have capabilities equal to that of the entire Navy before World War I.

At that time, the military also did not have radar, satellites, computers, virtually undetectable ballistic missile submarines, drones and other advanced technology that allow the military to do more with fewer soldiers.

Also, in terms of military spending relative to other countries, the United States accounts for 37 percent of the world’s total military spending. China follows, at 11 percent of the world’s spending, as of 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (Put another way, the United States spends as much on its military as the next 8-12 biggest defense-spending countries combined.)

Warfare also has changed, Johnson said. It’s been decades since the United States has been involved in a war, like the world wars, where the country lost numerous ships and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. While the military should continue have a robust number of ships and soldiers, it does not necessarily need as many as it did in previous conflicts.

That being said, Johnson said sequestration has hindered military capabilities -- particularly in light of recent developments in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon has had to make cuts to its day-to-day operations, while carrying out missions in the Middle East that were not budgeted for.

Our ruling

Graham said that under sequestration, the military was cut "down to the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915."

Graham was counting the number of ground troops in the Army and the number of ships in the Navy. 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. The Army and Navy of today are much more capable than they were decades ago, even with fewer soldiers and ships. A better comparison is to look at how the U.S. military stands up relative to other nations.

Graham’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details and takes things out of context, so we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

CNN, "State of the Union" transcript, Oct. 5, 2014

Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, March 2014

Department of the Navy, Status of the Navy, Oct. 3, 2014

Department of the Navy, Active Ship Force Levels 1886-present, accessed Oct. 5, 2014

Department of Veterans Affairs, "America’s Wars," accessed Oct. 5, 2014

New York Times, "Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-WWII Level," Feb. 23, 2014

Washington Post, "Debt-panel failure would result in ‘devastating’ defense cuts, Panetta says," Nov. 14, 2011

Center for a New American Security, "Gambling with Ground Forces," March 2014

SIPRI, Share of the world’s military spending, 2013

PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says U.S. Navy is smallest since 1917, Air Force is smallest since 1947," Jan. 18, 2012

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Jim Sensenbrenner says under proposed Obama budget, Army would be smaller than before Pearl Harbor," May 4, 2014

Email interview, Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop, Oct. 5, 2014

Email interview, Alex Roland, military history professor at Duke University, Oct. 5, 2014

Email interview, John W. Hall, military history expert at University of Wisconsin, Oct. 5, 2014

Email interview Eugene Gholz, national security experts at University of Texas, Oct. 5, 2014

Email interview, Owen Cote, national security expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oct. 5, 2014

Email interview, military expert James Dunnigan, Oct. 5, 2014

Phone interview, David E. Johnson, political scientist at the Rand Corporation, Oct. 5, 2014

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