If not, it’s because determining naval strength, while never simple, is exceedingly complicated in these complicated times. All-of-the-above answers can be easily found among those who study the U.S. Navy. Sometimes, a single expert will voice many of the contradictions in the same statement.
For what they’re worth, the raw numbers: The U.S. Navy today has 286 ships. In 1916 it had 245, and by 1917, 342. By the end of World War II, it had 6,768 ships. At the height of the Cold War in 1987, the Navy boasted 594 ships. The recent low point came in 2007 when it had 278 ships.
But when looking at the numbers, Jacob Stokes, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, notes that it’s important to remember that when the U.S. force reached its peaks, there was always a similarly armed foe: Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union.
“Today, we don’t have a peer competitor,” he notes. U.S. naval superiority today is unquestioned. No other nation has more than two operational aircraft carriers. The United States has 11, and the other nations with two are Italy and Spain. China, the frequent foil in this discussion, just launched its first carrier but does not yet have planes capable of landing on it, and it does not yet have a single “carrier battle group.”
Max Boot advises Romney on defense issues, though his position is more nuanced than probably suits a presidential candidate during a debate.
When asked to gauge the strength of the U.S. Navy, Boot noted that it “is incomparably stronger today than it was in 1916. But today’s Navy doesn’t have to fight the Navy of 1916.”
He notes potential enemies, China and Iran, and pirates. The threats he notes include terrorism, missiles and cyber-weapons (none necessarily specific to naval power).
“No question, the quality of our ships today is the highest it’s ever been, but at some point quality can’t substitute for a lack of quantity, and that’s the situation we’re in today,” he argues.
The threat today’s Navy faces is multifaceted. But it can also rely upon a multifaceted network for response, from air support, missiles, unmanned drones and satellite intelligence.