When the conversation turned to horses and bayonets in last night’s presidential debate, that sure rang a bell over here at CleanTechnica. The subject arose after candidate Mitt Romney challenged President Obama on the number of ships in the U.S. Navy, and since the Navy’s sustainability initiatives have been a favorite topic of ours, we just had to chip in with the clean technology angle, and green jobs, too.
Horses and Bayonets and Navy Ship Counts
First off, given last night’s twitterstorm over those horses and bayonets, it’s important to note who actually said what.
The President did not say that horses and bayonets are never used any more; he said that we have fewer of them. Regarding the use of horses in military action, that’s pretty clear. And the bayonet can still be vital for dismounted fighters, but its role in modern warfare is not what it was in 1917.
Let’s also note for the record that Mr. Romney did not compare the number of ships we have now to 1916. Mr. Romney used 1917 as his benchmark (more on that later!). The President mistakenly used 1916 in his response but did not challenge Mr. Romney on the basic premise of having fewer ships now than way back then.
How Many Ships Did the Navy Have in 1917?
As our source for the following information, we went to the Navy’s official online history, which provides a series of year-by-year charts detailing “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels” from 1886 to 2011.
Assuming that the Navy’s history pages are not too far off the count from any other Navy sources, yes, the Navy had a total of 342 active ships in 1917, and as of today it had 278.
Included in the 1917 total were 44 submarines (there were 53 in 2011), zero carriers, and no active aircraft, at least not in the fighting force.
As of April 1917, when war was declared with Germany, the Navy and Marines had 54 aircraft at a single land-based air station with 48 flyers, including students, though apparently none of those aircraft were equipped for warfare.
How Many Ships for World War I?
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Go back a few years before 1917 and you’ll see that the Navy was gradually building its force, but throughout that period it had significantly fewer active ships than it has today.
That pattern held right up to 1916 when the active force totalled 245 ships, still fewer than today’s count.
Given that history, it’s pretty obvious why Mr. Romney chose 1917 as his benchmark. The jump to 345 in just one year was an unprecedented but appropriate activity by the Navy, given that the U.S. was heading into war with a powerful force that had already laid waste across Europe.
After World War I, the Navy’s active force took a nosedive for reasons that are patently obvious. The same pattern, logically enough, occurred before and after World War II.
In other words, 1917 is a cherry-picked year of comparison. It does not account for the technological advances that President Obama pointed out, and it does not account for the state or nature of warfare during the periods of comparison.
The Great Green Fleet and Green Jobs
It’s no secret that the size of the Navy’s active ship force has become an issue in this election year, as the presidential candidates vie for votes in Virginia, where Navy ship-building translates into local jobs.
However, as covered numerous times on CleanTechnica (nevermind the links, just google us), the Navy’s ambitious biofuel programs and other energy initiatives have kickstarted the creation of thousands of new green jobs, especially in rural communities where the new biofuel economy is taking root.
The biofuel initiatives culminated in the Navy’s Green Strike Group, which debuted this past summer to participate in the important Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. The Green Strike Group is comprised of ships and aircraft powered with the help of non-petroleum fuels (it’s anchored by a nuclear carrier, btw).
The strike group is a precursor to the launch of a Great Green Fleet. Like the Great White Fleet that sailed the world at the turn of the 20th century, the Great Green Fleet is meant to usher in a new era of American naval power, showcasing the most cutting-edge technology of its time.
Just a quick note: Perhaps it’s no accident that the President mentioned Battleship during the debate. In its Hollywood incarnation, key scenes for Battleship: The Movie were shot with actual Navy ships during a previous RIMPAC exercise.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.