Last night, one of the most searched terms according to Yahoo was “horses and bayonets.” That’s because President Obama used the phrase to bash Mitt Romney’s attack concerning the depleted state and shrinking American military might. Obama said:
“Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed. 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 ships. It’s — it’s what are our capabilities.”
So is the “horses and bayonets” line true? We decided to do a quick fact check. And unfortunately for the president, here’s what we found:
1. There are big plans to cut the military budget, including cuts to the Navy — and the number of Navy ships has been declining
According to Politifact [emphasis added]:
In January 2010, Heritage published a report titled, “The State of the U.S. Military.” Citing data from the Naval History and Heritage Command, a part of the Defense Department, the report said that “the U.S. Navy’s fleet today contains the smallest number of ships since 1916. The total number of active ships in the Navy declined from 592 to 283 between 1989 and 2009.”
We looked up the original data, and the Heritage report does reflect the trend line correctly (though Romney said 1917 rather than 1916, something we won’t quibble with). In 1916, the U.S. Navy had 245 active ships, a number that eventually peaked during World War II, then fell, then peaked again more modestly during the Korean War, followed by a slow, consistent decline over the next five decades.
In recent years, the number of active ships has fallen low enough to approach its 1916 level. In both 2009 (the most recent year of the Heritage report) and 2011, the number was 285.
So Romney has a point. However, even using this metric — which, as we’ll argue later, is an imperfect one for measuring military strength — this is not the lowest level since 1916.
The Navy’s budget for FY2013 does include a decrease in ships:
• Overall Battle Force Ships continue to decrease to 284 in FY13. These changes will result in a Navy fleet size of more than 280 ships by the end of the FYDP.
• Aircraft procurement funds 192 airframes in FY13 and 765 airframes across the FYDP. Decreased aviation quantities for: F-35 B/C, C-40A, KC-130J, P-8A,MV-22B, MH-60R, and E-2D.
In addition, if automatic budget cuts called “sequestration” take place at the end of the year, the military will be affected.
The Naval Strategic Business Plan released in 2008, is an operating guideline the Navy produced to stay competitive around the world. The plan highlights the outdated state of the American Navy and eventually calls for a 10% increase in the number of ships in the American fleet.
2. Bayonet & knife combat training is on the rise; we could be using more bayonets now than in 1916
To make bayonet training relevant again, the Army got rid of the bayonet assault course, in which soldiers fixed a bayonet to the end of a rifle, ran towards a target while yelling and then rammed the bayonet into the target center. Instead, soldiers learn in combatives training how to use a knife or bayonet as a secondary weapon.
The United States Marine Corps, however, still trains every Marine with traditional bayonets and issues them as standard equipment. Special Forces also have intensive training with knives and bayonets as tactical weapons. As the size of these forces using bayonets have grown, one can easily argue that there are more bayonets in use now than in 1916.
3. The use of horses is on the rise and statues are being erected in their honor
“The first time we used our horses to train Special Forces was right after 9/11,” explains Mark Rossignol, business manager for Smith Lake Stables. Fort Bragg is home to the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces. “They were being sent to Afghanistan, and often the only way they can travel over there is by horse.”
Additionally, a sculpture depicting a US soldier riding horseback during the invasion of Afghanistan was unveiled near its new home on Friday near One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The 16-foot-tall bronze statue, titled “De Opresso Liber,” depicts a Special Operations soldier in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and commemorates the first time US troops used horses in combat since 1942.
4. Horses are also used for state and military funerals
Most state funerals include a horse drawn procession through the nation’s capitol. President Obama will receive one as well someday.
5. We no longer technically use “battleships”
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This story has been updated with additional information.