Pop quiz: On the high seas off, say, South Florida, the U.S. Navy from about 1915 is churning toward a confrontation with the U.S. Navy of 2015. Who would you put your money on?
To listen to presidential contender Marco Rubio recently, today’s Navy might need to be worried – which defense experts say would misread the true nature of how a country measures the strength of its military.
In his pivotal speech before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Rubio – a freshman Republican senator from Florida – laid out a broad critique of Barack Obama’s military policy, saying the president has made the United States weaker.
“He enacted hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts that left our Army on track to be at pre-World War II levels, our Navy at pre-World War I levels, and our Air Force with the smallest and oldest combat force in its history,” Rubio said.
It was a reference Rubio had made before, including a showcase speech in 2014 focused on rebuilding American strength. In that speech, he did add a qualifier – but quickly indicated it didn’t matter.
“Some argue our equipment is more capable, so our forces don’t need to be as large,” he said. “But the world is still the same size. And even the most advanced combat aircraft, ship or soldier can only be in one place at a time.”
The issue isn’t a new one – and in fact came up in a 2012 presidential debate. And trotting out the startling historical numbers is something the Obama administration itself has done when trying to argue against certain budget cuts.
To Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, the “picture is probably a bit more complicated and a bit less catastrophic than Sen. Rubio suggests.”
“Sen. Rubio’s numbers are accurate on their face, but they don’t tell the whole story,” she said. The numbers, for example, don’t capture any of the improvements in naval and aviation technology that have dramatically expanded the speed, range, lethality and survivability of ships and aircraft.
She said, for example, that the United States has 10 aircraft carriers and another nine amphibious assault ships that can launch fighter jets. The rest of the world combined has 12 – most not nearly as capable as U.S. ships, she said.
James R. Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, said the only way to measure the adequacy of a military force is to determine whether it can be stronger than its adversary at the right place and the right time.
“Yes, it is true that the world is the same size as always, and that one soldier, ship or aircraft can be at only one place at a time,” Holmes said in an email. “But it’s also true that each soldier, ship or aircraft boasts far greater striking range than was the case a century ago. Weaponry can reach out across larger swathes of the map.”
America’s enemies have made advances, too, meaning “you can’t just count heads and widgets, then and now, and reach some firm conclusion about our military adequacy,” Holmes said.
That said, Holmes and many other experts agree with Rubio that the U.S. military has been depleted and needs to modernize.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a 2010 report detailing the size of the U.S. military – documenting, for example, that the Navy has the smallest number of ships since 1916, just before U.S. involvement in World War I. (Eaglen wrote the report for the Heritage Foundation, where she was at the time.)
She said it’s true that the oceans didn’t get any smaller, and a ship can only be in one place at one time. But it’s also true, she added, that ships are more capable than they were.
Just looking at the numbers as a measure of weakness doesn’t tell the whole story, she said.
She does believe the U.S. military is declining in capacity and readiness – and that China and Russia are catching up.
“By any metric, we are weaker,” she said. The peak of the United States’ post-World War II strength, she said, was about 20 years ago.