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President Donald Trump has vowed to rebuild the U.S. military, which he said during his inauguration speech represented a "sad depletion."
A page on foreign policy on the newly revamped Trump White House website includes some statistics about a shrinking military:
"Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one-third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned."
But many of the past claims we have fact-checked compared the fleet to 1917, or 100 years ago, when technology was considerably different.
Trump’s claim is a more reasonable comparison. We found that his numbers are correct, and that there are valid concerns about the size of the Navy. The Obama administration supported an increase in the number of ships.
Navy fleet size
A Trump spokesman referred us to a Navy website, which shows the annual number of ships dating back to 1886.
Trump’s numbers are accurate: In 1991 there were 529 total active ships, and in 2016 there were 275.
The number of ships peaked at 6,768 during World War II. Then the number drifted down during most of the 20th century, with slight upticks during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The number fluctuates a bit during each year as ships are rotated into and out of service.
Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University, said Trump's claim requires further explanation.
"The thing is, numbers are not everything," Janda said. "Ships today are much more expensive and more powerful than in the past, so it’s not like our Navy is less capable than it was in 1991. And it’s also a question of what kind of ships you want to have. We tend to have smaller numbers of really expensive, really capable ships. That’s nice when they work. It’s bad if you lose any."
While the size of the fleet has shrunk, it remains powerful compared with other countries.
"We remain the dominant Navy on the planet. Period," Janda said. "I’d like to see us go with less expensive ships so we can have more of them myself, but it’s not like we’re in danger of being surpassed as a naval power. We face much greater threats in the realms of cyberwar, space war and nuclear weapons than we do at sea."
Michael O'Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution, a centrist-to-liberal group, agreed with that assessment.
"The point is that no single metric captures all important trends," he said. "And the Navy has chosen to put more size, technology, and money into a smaller number of ships as a matter of policy. And our aggregate tonnage is still almost three times China’s."
But Naval War College professor James Holmes said there are valid concerns about the Navy’s assets. (Holmes said he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the college.) Navy leadership estimates it only has enough supply to meet 50 to 60 percent of the demand from U.S. regional commands around the world, he said.
It’s more complex than just looking at the sheer number of ships, he said. The first step is to determine how many ships are needed to deploy for a particular situation -- for example if the United States gets into a scrap in the South China Sea. Then, if the Navy has a sufficient amount of naval power, then the Navy can handle that contingency.
"Technology has advanced in areas like electronic or cyber warfare and missile defense, so we're stronger in those areas," Holmes said. "But we let a lot of basic skills and technologies atrophy after the Soviet Navy's demise in 1991. With no apparent foe to fight, we neglected combat skills such as fighting other surface fleets or hunting submarines."
Holmes was in the Navy of 1991 in a ship that carried Tomahawk anti-ship missiles that were able to strike at enemy vessels hundreds of miles away.
"That no longer exists, and we are worse off for it," he said. "We converted all of those Tomahawks for land missions, e.g., strikes against ISIS today or Saddam's military in 2003."
A review by the conservative Heritage Foundation of the military branches concluded that the Navy scored strong in readiness but that deferred maintenance is beginning to affect deployment.
Brian Slattery, Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense policy analyst, said that those who decry ship count as a valid measure of power "discount that our adversaries’ and competitors’ navies have advanced, as well.
"Even though American aircraft carriers are launching more sophisticated aircraft than they were decades ago, competitors such as China and Russia have developed new technologies to deny those carriers access to waters in their regions, including advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles, quiet diesel submarines, and their own modern aviation assets."
Former President Barack Obama has already begun the process of growing the Navy. The Obama White House embraced a long-term plan that would elevate the Navy to 300 active ships in 2019 and keep it at or above that level through 2045. The Navy completed a formal review process in 2014 to consider its future military needs, and then in March 2015 set a goal for a fleet of 308 ships.
In December 2016, the secretary of the Navy announced a recommendation of a 355-ship fleet and plans to include that in the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2018 30-year shipbuilding plan.
The Trump White House website says that "our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016."
Trump’s numbers are correct according to a document from the Navy, which shows the annual size of the fleet. However, sheer numbers do not tell the full story. The ships of today are more powerful than those in 1991. The United States remains the world's most powerful Navy.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
Donald Trump White House website, America First Foreign Policy, Accessed Jan. 20, 2017
Naval History and Heritage Command, US Ship force levels, 1886-2016
U.S. Navy, Program guide, 2015
Christian Science Monitor, "Why Trump says the state of US military is a 'disaster,'" Oct. 27, 2016
Military Times, "Trump promises to rebuild the military, make allies pay more," April 27, 2016
Heritage Foundation, 2017 Index of Military Strength
PolitiFact Florida, "Marco Rubio says the United States isn't building aircraft, bombers, nuclear subs," May 5, 2015
PolitiFact, "Anatomy of a talking point: the smallest Navy since 1917," Aug. 3, 2015
Interview, Steven Cheung, President Donald Trump spokesman, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, Lance Janda, professor of history at Cameron University, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, James R. Holmes, U.S. Naval War College professor of strategy, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, LT Marycate Walsh, Navy Office of Information, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, James Holmes, professor of strategy and former visiting professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and a former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer and combat veteran of the first Gulf War, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, Brian Slattery, Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense policy analyst, Jan. 20, 2017
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