It was one of the defining moments of the 2012 presidential campaign. "Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917," Republican Mitt Romney charged during the third and final debate, adding, "Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947." President Obama responded with overwhelming force--and deadly accuracy:
"We also have fewer horses and bayonets. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines...
And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting slips. It's what are our capabilities. And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops."
Now, four years after Obama blasted the BSS Romney out of the water, would-be Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump has decided to resurrect the same discredited argument about defense spending and military preparedness. As Trump put it in his address to the Union League on September 7:
History shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.
Under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, defense spending is on track to fall to its lowest level as a share of the economy since the end of World War II. We currently have the smallest Army since 1940. The Navy is among the smallest it has been since 1915. And the Air Force is the smallest it has been since 1947.
Trump proceeded to offer a laundry list of examples of supposed reductions in strength, much as Mitt Romney did four years ago. In January 2012, Governor Romney charged, "President Obama has put us on course toward a 'hollow' force."
The Obama administration's cuts have left us with a military inventory largely composed of weapons designed forty to fifty years ago. The average age of our tanker aircraft is 47 years, of strategic bombers 34 years. While the weapons in our arsenal remain formidable, they are well along on the path to obsolescence. Along with the aging process, there has been a precipitous decline in sheer numbers. The U.S. Navy has only 284 ships today, the lowest level since 1916. Given current trends, the number will decline, and the additional contemplated cuts will cause it to decline even further. Our naval planners indicate we need 328 ships to fulfill the Navy's role of global presence and power projection in defense of American security. Our Air Force, which had 82 fighter squadrons at the end of the Cold War, has been reduced to 39 today.
Unsurprisingly, Politifact rated Romney's gambit a "Pants on Fire" lie. It's no mystery as to why:
Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney's comparison "doesn't pass 'the giggle test,' " said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia.
Now, accusing Democrats of gutting America's national defense is a tried if untrue Republican talking point. During his 2015 announcement speech, failed presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) similarly slandered the Obama administration, claiming the President:
"...wasted no time stripping parts from the engine of American Strength. He enacted hundreds of billions in defense cuts that left our Army on track to be at pre-World War II levels, our Navy at pre-WWI levels, and our Air Force with the smallest and oldest combat force in its history."
Sadly, George W. Bush successfully catapulted the propaganda of a hollow American military during the 2000 campaign. As he famously--and falsely--put it during his August 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:
"We have seen a steady erosion of American power and an unsteady exercise of American influence. Our military is low on parts, pay and morale. If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, 'Not ready for duty, sir.'"
In reality, those two divisions weren't "not ready for duty," but already on duty. As Josh Marshall documented just four days after Bush spoke:
[T]he reason those two divisions had their readiness downgraded was not because they were unfit for duty or lacked equipment. It was because portions of each division were on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia and Kosovo. The military's definition of readiness has to do with a particular division's ability to go into combat immediately in the hypothetical case of two major theater conflicts breaking out simultaneously. The commanders doubted their ability to quickly extricate their troops from their positions in the Balkans.
By Bush's own standard, virtually the entire U.S. Army would have been "not ready for duty" in 2004 and 2008. It was already deployed--or more accurately, overdeployed--in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hopefully, Donald Trump won't be able to repeat Bush's success and instead be condemned to suffer Mitt Romney's fate. When he starts ranting about the smallest military since 1917, Hillary Clinton might consider responding, "Please continue, Mr. Trump."