So yesterday I got an email from Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact. It said:
Hope all is well! I wanted to throw a new military-related PolitiFact fact-check your way.
In last night’s South Carolina debate, Mitt Romney said, “Our navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.” …
Here is what I wrote back:
1. On the Navy question, Romney appears to be accurate using the standard Navy metric, which is number of active ships. In 2003, the US Navy dropped below 300 active ships, and is currently at about 285. The last time the number was below 300 at the end of the year was 1916, when it was at 245. By the end of 1917, the number was 342. An excellent source is the Naval Historical Office, here: http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm
I suppose you could ding Romney for personnel numbers, which were lower in the 1930s than they are now, but navies usually are judged by ship totals. See here: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq65-1.htm
As for the Air Force, that one is trickier, because I cannot find a good single source to point the way. That said, the Air Force has a large statistical collection at this page: http://www.afhso.af.mil/usafstatistics/index.asp
It appear that the figure is accurate personnel-wise. The current force has about 332,000 active duty, and the last time it was that low was in 1947, when the number was 305,000. As for numbers and ages of aircraft, the numbers vary based on active duty or counting reserves, but generally it appears that aircraft were slightly fewer and a bit older in the mid 2005-2008 range. I am not a statistician, but the specific numbers seem a bit more complicated than the statement from Romney implies. Then again, the overall statement appears to be accurate about the trend–the Air Force is older and smaller than it has been for almost its entire history. …
PolitiFact gave Romney a — you guess it — pants on fire.
Jacobson did a remarkable bit of research in a very short period of time. However, I did think his questions to me were leading. Remember, Mr. Jacobson asked “(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?,” which both assumes and implies to the interviewees that Romney ignored those specific contexts.
Additionally, in his final few paragraphs, Jacobson refers to Romney’s statements as “meaningless,” “glib,” “preposterous,” and “ridiculous.” To be frank, I’m a little surprised by that wording, especially in writing for a site that strives for objectivity.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that since Romney’s base statement was factually accurate when it came to most numerical metrics, it would seem that he could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter.
In any event, that is how PolitiFact worked in this case. Just in case you are interested.
You definitely want to read his entire post and the comments.