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David Perdue rose on the Senate floor last week to lay out his vision for the country as Georgia’s freshman senator.
The former Fortune 500 CEO talked about his fiscal priorities and concerns with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, before tying the two together with an oft-repeated claim.
The United States is "about to have the smallest Army since before WWII, the smallest Navy since WWI and the smallest Air Force ever," Perdue said. "This is simply unacceptable."
Republican leaders have made similar claims as a talking point against President Barack Obama since Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid in 2012.
The Truth-O-Meter has spun wildly on those statements about military size, and the implications that a shrinking military is a threat to national security, based on how they were framed. (Read more about those rulings here and here .)
PolitiFact Georgia decided to see how Perdue would stack up in his statement.
We reached out to Perdue’s staff, which cited a 2011 letter from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, warning that including the Pentagon in sequestration cuts would be devastating.
"Rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts," Panetta wrote, "we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history."
The problem with that sourcing: the cuts have not come to pass.
The Defense Department’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review shows the Army is on pace to pare down to about 450,000 soldiers by 2019. Under sequestration cuts – which lawmakers have so far kept from hitting the military – the number would drop to 420,000.
But today, the Army has about 490,000 soldiers. That is a down from the 570,000 soldiers serving during the height of recent wars - but still not as small 460,000 soldiers serving at the turn of the century, after the end of the Cold War but before the 9/11 terror attacks, said David E. Johnson, a military historian and political scientist at the Rand Corporation.
And it’s more than double the 269,000 Army soldiers in 1940, before a draft was enacted.
"By strict numbers, at this moment, it is heading to among the smallest," Johnson said. "One of the smallest, but not at all the smallest."
The Navy counts about 326,000 active-duty sailors today.
But experts measure the Navy and Air Force size in terms of ships and aircraft available for deployment.
The quadrennial review estimates a fleet of 234 battle force ships by 2019.
In 1915, two years before the U.S. became part of World War I, the Navy had 231 deployable ships.
Projected cuts have also not hit the Navy, which has 273 deployable ships today, according to the Department of the Navy website.
And 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.
In other words, the Navy has been small since WWI not because of any single administration decision but due to a nearly century-old disarmament accord.
The Air Force’s history dates back to 1947, when it became a separate military branch after being part of the Army during World War II.
The 2012 fact check on the same claim from Romney found that the branch had about 6,000 aircraft as of 2009. That was the lowest number since 1950, the earliest year available.
That means Perdue, is most likely correct on the size of the Air Force, as commonly measured by experts.
Moreover, the active duty strength of the Air Force – now at 359,000 – is projected to drop to about 328,000 by 2019, according to Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Coleman. That would be the lowest active duty strength since the 1947 tally of about 309,000, Coleman said.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
So, if Perdue is right on the size of the Air Force but off on the other two branches, what does that mean for his overall point?
Perdue used military size as evidence that the national debt is crippling the national security and specifically attacked the Obama administration for cutting military spending.
Military history experts, though, warn that the comparisons on size are inaccurate, given advances in warfare technology.
Johnson said that only 20 percent of bombs dropped in World War II hit within 1,000 meters of their target. Those planes carried up to 10 people.
Today, one pilot and one plane can strike with the same precision.
"The real issue to be addressed is the U.S. ability to project military power abroad to achieve its key national security objectives and how that power compares to others in the present who seek to prevent us from achieving them," said William Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia.
Even with recent cuts, the U.S. also still spends as much as the next seven biggest defense-spending countries combined, said Alex Roland, a military history professor at Duke University.
While that does not resolve the question of whether current budgets are enough, it helps show that the national interest is clearly focused on spending resources on national security.
That’s why sequestration cuts have yet to truly affect the Pentagon, even as resources were shifted to battle a bad economy while also winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stueck said.
Perdue might have been better off leaving the numbers out of his argument then, and instead discussing the need to change priorities now that the economy has stabilized.
The size does matter, Johnson said. But mostly as a way to show the presence of the United States globally and what happens if a crisis occurs and the U.S. does not have the presence to act swiftly.
"The real comparison is, we didn’t do anything until 1942 in World War II," Johnson. "His point is better made to ask: In the world we are now, can we wait until there is an attack and then take another year to get anyone anywhere to do something about the problem?"
That’s not what Perdue said. In his first Senate floor speech, he cited a shrinking military that the numbers do not fully bear out.
Perdue does have a valid point to make, about a historical success in paying for a military whose strength and size make it more likely to be a deterrent than a singular battle force.
But he complicates his point by relying on dated information and the wrong comparisons. His argument can be supported, but not with the numbers he provides.
We rate his claim Half True.
Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, March 2014
The U.S. Department of the Navy, Status of the Navy, April 29, 2015
The U.S. Air Force Personnel Center, Air Force Military Demographics, accessed April 29, 2015
The New York Times, "Pentagon plans to shrink Army to pre-World War II level," Feb. 23, 2014
The Heritage Foundation, 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, accessed April 29, 2015
The U.S. Department of State, The Washington Naval Conference, accessed April 29, 2015
The Washington Post, "Debt-panel failure would result in ‘devastating’ defense cuts, Panetta says," Nov. 14, 2011
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says U.S. Navy is smallest since 1917, Air Force is smallest since 1947," January 18, 2012
PolitiFact, "Lindsey Graham: Army is smallest since 1940, Navy smallest since 1915," Oct. 5, 2014
Email interview with Mark Bednar, spokesman for U.S. Senator David Perdue, April 28, 2015 to April 30, 2015
Email interview, Alex Roland, military history professor at Duke University, April 29, 2015
Phone interview with David E. Johnson, senior political scientist, RAND Corporation, April 29, 2015
Email interview with William Stueck, historian, University of Georgia, April 30, 2015
Email interview with Lt. Col. MIchael Coleman, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, April 30, 2015 to May 1, 2015
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