Yeah, I mean, I absolutely see what you’re saying.
Alex Danvers

Yo, the idea that technology compensates for small fleet size isn’t a fact — that’s just an argument some of the “experts” made. At this level it’s too vague for me, and it was arbitrarily applied to the status quo without any analysis of the specific size and context of the US Navy.

What I mean is that we can argue that more advanced technology means we can get by with a smaller fleet than in the old days, but “smaller” is vague and it definitely doesn’t have to mean 275 ships (FY2016). After doing the appropriate analyses, we might decide that we need 320 ships or 405.

Those would be smaller than what the Navy historically has had, but they’d be big bumps from the status quo. Last I knew, the Navy said they needed 321 ships, or 340-ish, depending on which report we look at. They’re not going to get either, though I think Trump’s defense proposal would ramp the Navy up to 320+ ships. There’s no money for an increase in defense spending, so I’m not sure how Trump planned to pull it off, or what Congress will say.

I think a very serious issue with small fleet sizes, a small Air Force, etc. is that being hit with a surprise attack will be much more costly. The fewer ships, fighters, and bombers you have, the easier it is for someone to destroy a large chunk of your inventory in a surprise strike. We have very little of everything now dude, because these platforms are insanely expensive for reasons that haven’t been rigorously addressed or reformed.

  • We have 20 stealth bombers (B-2s). Just to reiterate, I’m saying twenty — tw0 zero, son :-) We used to have 21 — man, those were the days, yo, feeling like the ultimate superpower with our mighty 21-plane stealth force. But then one day, moisture in the Port Transducer Units triggered a chain of events that led to the accident you see here. On that sad day we lost 5% of our stealth bomber fleet.
  • We have 184 F-22 stealth fighters. These are marvelous birds — just 30–40 of them could destroy most other countries’ air forces (it might take a few sorties over a few days). But we only get to enjoy these large technological advantages for a few years before others catch up. China and Russia are working on their own counterparts, while one of your boys had the brilliant idea to suddenly and permanently shut down F-22 production in 2011, at only 187 aircraft (not counting test planes). The Air Force originally wanted 750 F-22s, similar to the number of F-15s they’d replace. They got knocked down to 648, then to 339, then 277, and then finally the Air Force had to settle for 187.
  • We’re down to 184 now, due to accidents, and that figure will get chewed down a bit from more accidents. So with really small fleet sizes like we have these days, accidents enter the picture as a major variable driving attrition, and the cost of accidents just skyrockets when you only have 21 or 187 birds to spare, and you know that that you can’t get any more of them since the production lines were shut down.
  • A successful surprise attack could be catastrophic. The Air Force bases F-22s next to major airports in Honolulu and Anchorage. That’s just nuts — someone could come in on an airliner track and start blowing up F-22s. That kind of thing isn’t going to happen anytime soon — Russia and China have no interest in starting a war right now. But things change, and ten years from now could be a different world. It’s clear that the US military isn’t ready for a surprise attack — such attacks on us are always successful. For example, in 2012 the Marines lost eight fighter jets, jets that were parked on the ground, when Taliban soldiers surprise-attacked Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. If someone were to take out eight or eighteen F-22s just by overrunning an Air Force base (easy), that would be a disaster. Right now, I’m pretty sure you could park at an off-base Taco Bell (outside a USAF base in the US), setup a mortar, and start blowing up F-22s. I don’t think they have any live point-defense systems — they’re just manning the gates and stuff.

So this whole small fleet thing could turn out very badly. There is plenty that a person could say to the “technology compensates for the small fleet” argument, lots of issues, tactical, and strategic. It’s definitely not a fact that technology will save the day — that’s a prediction, an opinion, and things get complicated fast. I’ve got a little bit more at Quora, and a paper in progress.

I didn’t elaborate with all this earlier because I didn’t have time — my point was that Politifact’s stance could be robustly disputed in many ways. Now I’ve laid out one way, and that’s just me at midnight. One of their experts even weighed in with the argument that having a smaller number of super-expensive high-tech platforms makes them precious, increases the cost of a surprise attack on us. They ended up ignoring that argument. It sounded like they counted up the expert opinions, and there were more “experts” who disagreed with Romney (on whether a small fleet is a problem, not on the factual question of whether the fleet is smaller than it’s been since 1917) than who agreed with him, therefore they solemnly ruled that Romney was a liar, pants on fire, yada, yada.

Who knows what Romney and his people would say if they’d been part of the conversation (another weird thing about fact-checks is that they just grab a sentence and pick it apart without the presence — the benefit of — the person whose sentence they’re adjudicating…) I doubt he’d disagree with the importance of technology — it sounded like he just wanted us to have more of it, more of these high-tech aircraft and ships, the next-gen ballistic missile sub, etc.

Even though I think we have too few of everything, I think we already spend way too much on defense, and we get very little for what we spend–we have a historically tiny Army, Navy, and Air Force, with small numbers of every major platform. I disagreed with Romney’s proposal to increase defense spending (to 4% of GDP), and I’d oppose an increase now by the Trump administration (unless something major changed, like China invading Taiwan or something). But my agreement or disagreement is irrelevant, as was Politifact’s.

Finally, I wouldn’t get too excited by the technology argument when it comes to the Navy. The USN has a terrible track record defending its ships from attack — see the USS Stark, Cole, Liberty, Pueblo, etc. Also see the ridiculous, new, and insanely expensive Littoral Combat Ship, which is so lightly armed that it would be outgunned by an Iranian Coast Guard training vessel. I don’t think the Navy will necessarily do well in combat with a major power. They’re the least-tested branch of the US military, and haven’t had to go all out since WWII.

I worry a little bit that the Navy brass’s terrible decisions are going to get a bunch of sailors killed if things get hot. They have a weird cognitive defect where they don’t arm ships adequately for air defense, like they’ll have 1 (one!) point defense system on a ship (usually the Phalanx CIWS 20mm autocannon to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles that have closed within a mile or two of the ship). Jesus, if that thing goes down (like it was for the USS Stark), then you’ve got no point defense. It’s only on one side of the ship in many cases, so if you’ve got missiles coming at the other side, you need to turn the damn ship just to point your CIWS at the missiles, and you might not complete that turn before they kill you. The Navy needs to understand the importance of redundancy, of layers upon layers of defense. They should have two CIWS on each side of a ship, not just one for the whole damn ship. And they should be backed by point defense missiles, the RAMs (on both sides), which are outstanding. Then medium-range ESSM missiles behind them… Navy ships should be spilling over with air defense systems and layers — it should be falling out of their pockets. If they don’t bolster their air defenses, I think we’re going to lose some ships if we ever send them into a real war.