After last week’s VP debate, everybody and her damn brother asked me about the Paul Ryan “Navy is smallest since World War I” line.  And so I decided to devote this week’s Diplomat column to just this question:

May 31, 1916 marks a convenient snapshot for the relative position of the USN.  The two largest flotillas in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, had agreed to conduct a joint fleet review in the North Sea.  The capital ship strength of the Grand Fleet consisted of twenty-eight dreadnought battleships and nine modern battlecruisers. These were supported by eight armored cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, and seventy-eight destroyers. With the exception of the armored cruisers, virtually the entirety of the Grand Fleet had entered service in the seven years prior to the battle.  The High Seas Fleet brought a smaller posse to the party, with only sixteen dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers, plus six pre-dreadnought battleships.  Eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers rounded out the German contribution, which was of similar vintage to that of the Royal Navy. Both the British and the Germans left reserve forces at home.

By comparison, the USN possessed twelve dreadnoughts (including USS Oklahoma, commissioned just weeks before Jutland) and no battlecruisers. The second string was made up of a bewildering array of light, armored, and protected cruisers, few equal to their German or British contemporaries. The USN operated sixty-one destroyers, although most were older and smaller than their European equivalents.

Tragically, the editors at the Diplomat had the good sense to cut this line short:

Nevertheless, the talking point has a certain power because the underlying facts are (somewhat) true, and a full appraisal of the claim requires space, time, and an over-developed appreciation of the silly. The Diplomat has space, I have time, and I regularly interact with three year olds. Let’s take Representative Ryan’s claim seriously.


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