Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Neither "Horses or Bayonets" - Why the Size of the Navy Matters

From the Third Debate:
ROMNEY: “Our Navy is old — excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.”

OBAMA: “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, 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. ”
Well,  I am counting ships. The Navy has, in fact, said this country needs a minimum of 313 ships to fulfill all the missions assigned to it. That 313, by the way, includes those marvels described by the President - aircraft carriers and submarines.

What do we actually have?

I put up a post that talked about the size of the fleet the other day. You can visit it here. In that post I discussed the size of the surface combatant force, which is on its way down to something under 108 ships. There are at least two more ships in commission today than at the end of the period shown in the chart above. One is a new LCS, USS Fort Worth, and one is USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112).

Now, for those you who might think a ship is a ship, let me suggest that there is a rather large difference between a ship intended to take the fight to an opposing force (a combatant) and the other ships which are intended to either support the combatants (the auxiliary force consisting of refueling and ammunition ships) and the "follow on force" designed to deliver land combat power from the sea (the amphibious force).

The total includes, as I have indicated, submarines (67 of which 14 are ballistic missile boats or strategic assets, the others are definitely combatants), aircraft carriers (10 after the Enterprise is decommissioned and before the Ford enters the fleet). We have 31 amphibs, 47 auxiliaries.

So, how do we use our fleet? From the Navy's own website::
Ships and Submarines
Deployable Battle Force Ships: 287
Total Ships Deployed/Underway Ships Deployed: 114 (40%)
Ships Underway for Local Ops / Training (USFF / 3rd Fleet) Ships Underway for Local Ops / Training (USFF / 3rd Fleet): 45 (15%)
Ships Underway
Underway Aircraft Carriers:
USS Enterprise (CVN 65) - port visit Naples, IT
USS Nimitz (CVN 68) - Pacific Ocean
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) - 5th Fleet
USS George Washington (CVN 73) - West Pacific
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) - 5th Fleet
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) - Atlantic Ocean
Underway Amphibious Assault Ships:
USS Peleliu (LHA 5) - 5th Fleet
USS Bataan (LHD 5) - Atlantic Ocean
USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) - port visit Subic Bay, RP
USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) - 5th Fleet

Aircraft (operational): 3700+

USS Enterprise is on her way back home to be decommissioned after a zillion years of good and faithful service with a crew none of whom were born when she was commissioned in 1961.

Okay, 287 total ships.

And, as noted in my earlier post, plans are to shrink warships while slowing the building of new ones.
What does it mean if we have fewer than 313 ships?

It means longer deployments for aging ships. It means a greater demand on a shrinking sailor "workforce" - it means that our carrier fleet, so condescendingly described by the President to Governor Romney, goes to sea with escorts that cannot then be used for other missions. It means the ships we do have are ridden hard. It means maintenance slips.

It means that, as many us who are former Navy officers keep saying, that at some point the Navy will have to tell the President that there are missions we cannot do because we don't have the ships, despite the language of the poster nearby.

We don't have the ships because we cratered to the Russians on anti-ballistic missile sites in Poland and decided to put ABM ships into the Black Sea or off Spain or someplace where they cannot be diverted to other missions.

We are scheduled to build 55 Littoral Combat Ships which are proclaimed to be the "Swiss Army Knives" of multi-mission warships, but only if they have their modules (which they don't quite yet), their helicopters and a logistics support system that, in my view, has not yet appeared. We will use these under-gunned, undermanned but expensively high speed ships to show the flag.


They may have a great potential - but do a Google search on "LCS" and then decide how you will feel when you or your son or daughter is assigned to one to "show the flag" to the growing Chinese fleet which, while it has problems of its own, has hardly under-armed the ships it obviously perceives it needs to push into the Cow's Tongue of the South China Sea.
As shown in my earlier post, of the 287 (+/-) ships of the U.S. Navy, less than 1/2 are meant to be combatant warships capable of gaining sea control by force. Amphibious ships and the auxiliary ships are "follow on forces" - they come in after the sea and air space are ours. Leave out the 10 carriers remaining after the Enterprise retires and we are scheduled to have 107 war fighting surface ships next year.

We are more than a "two-ocean Navy" - we operate world-wide, in the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf. We keep 40% of our force deployed; 15% in training for deployment; and the remainder in the shipyards for repair or in port doing other maintenance.

Why the heavy maintenance schedule? The sea is a harsh operating environment. And, unlike a company that operates a fleet of trucks or cars, we can't just pick up a bunch of the new model year from the local dealer. You have to have a plan - have a strategy and build a fleet to match that strategy.

I guess shrinking your fleet because you can't budget to keep the minimum you need is a sort of strategy. Just not a winning one.


  1. From political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva on themonkeycage.org:

    "In 1916, the US controlled roughly 11% of the world’s naval power. This is an impressive number that ranks the US third in naval strength behind the UK (34%) and Germany (19%), and just ahead of France (10%). What about the US navy in 2011? In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world’s naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%)."

    Also, it is misleading at best when you claim that the Navy "has said it needs 313 ships" and leave out the "by 2042" part. http://foxnewsinsider.com/2012/10/23/fact-check-foreign-policy-debate/

    Personally, I like to keep it heavy on facts and low on fear. How about you?

    1. I would suggest that both U.S. and the U.S. Navy roles in the world have shifted significantly since 1916. As a result, the comparison of fleet strength percentages is misleading at best when the comparison should be to what strategy is driving fleet size. However, given the greater maritime role and obligations taken on by the U.S. since 1916 (or since WWII), a comparison to the sizes of the fleet is perfectly valid.

      If the U.S. Maritime Strategy is to have 313 ships by year X, then steps need to be taken to get the fleet to that level. Further, I assume that the intent is not just to put any old hull in the water, but rather ships that capable of responding to force in kind.

      If the strategy is to back off from the obligations of the current Navy, then someone should man up and say so. Something like, "We are cutting back on the size of the Navy because we are not longer the world's freedom of navigation enforcer" would at least clarify things. Pretending that fewer, though higher tech ships, can cover all the missions of a larger force is just wrong. A ship can only be in one place at a time, even if the area it might be able to "control" is greater, it isn't that much greater regardless of the the technology.

      Further, have fewer but more high tech ships means the loss of any one ship has more impact than losing a slightly less, but more numerous ship in a larger fleet.

      Part of my point is to note that the decline in the fleet has not been solely during the current president's watch but has been a long, slow downward spiral. This has not been helped by coming up with new "gee whiz" ideas as replacement vessels when those ideas look great in PowerPoint. Out of a planned fleet of 313 (all ship/sub types including auxiliaries and amphibs) having 55 of them LCS-class, as those ships are currently capable, is troublesome to me.

      That 20+ units of the current fleet are de-missiled Perry class frigates all 23+ years or older is worrisome to me.

      As for that 2042 date, in my world we should have 313 ships right now.

    2. Jon B3:13 PM


      Thanks for the response, and I'm glad I got some discussion going!

      Keep up the good work.


  2. Shipbuilding programs take time to develop and reach fruition. Thirty years is not a long time to reverse the current decline *and* reach the 313 goal. The decision to reverse the decline needs to be made very soon because the ships we have now will only continue to deteriorate, straining our material, fiscal, and manpower resources as operational requirements increase.

    1. Jon B3:10 PM

      We have added three ships to our fleet since 2007. How is that a decline? The increases may not be happening as quickly as you would like, but to call it a decline seems incorrect to me.

    2. Mark's laid it all out pretty well in his reply above and his original posts on the topic. The bottom line is 1) We will soon be retiring ships faster than we will be building them; 2)The ships we are building, specifically the LCS, are unproven designs that are over-budget, past deadline, not built to take much punishment, short-legged, and lacking significant armaments; 3) The frigates we have are not capable of engaging enemy ships, and we are not replacing these frigates with new, stronger ones, just weaker LCS's.

  3. PS...Crisher is a PhD candidate at Florida State, and Souva is his professor. Their CVs reflect expertise in international relations, international conflict, and foreign policy, but make no mention of expertise or interest in naval affairs or of military service. Their observation that we possess 50% of the world's naval power is not impressive. Of course the US Navy is 2011's strongest, but will it be 2031's strongest or 2041's strongest? Will it be able to fight a two-ocean war if necessary? These are the questions and concerns I've seen raised on this blog and others for years, and they're raised by practitioners. It's not being heavy on fear. It's being heavy on forward-thinking realism.

    1. Jon B3:17 PM

      Wouldn't forward thinking realism take into account American allies and realistic American foes. Who would these two ocean going wars be fought against? Are we assuming that NATO is abolished when these wars are going on, or that one of these wars will be fought against a NATO ally? Shouldn't we wait for another navy to reach, say, a quarter of the size of ours before claiming that the U.S. is losing its grip? It seems that the scenarios you are gaming out is something of a 100-year proposition. I doubt it would sneak up on us.

    2. NATO could very well be abolished 30 years from now. Russia may or may not be a world power. The Chinese probably will have a substantially powerful navy, and the Indians may as well. (Who's to say they will always be our friends?) Iran already has enough shore-based missile capacity to make operations in the Gulf delicate. If Turkey (speaking of NATO allies) were to turn against us, we'd be facing a local challenger in the Med.

      These are all hypothetical scenarios, of course. We don't know with certainty what the future will hold. What I do believe, however, is that our Navy's current force level is not adequate for maintaining long-term, simultaneous combat operations in the Western Pacific and the Middle East, a scenario we may likely face in the next 30 years, even if we aren't facing it today.

      Basing realism (as opposed to hope)on historical precedents, we will have to defend two coasts in depth once again.

      Would these scenarios sneak up on us? Probably not. But as complex as warships have become, it will take decades to get shipbuilding levels up to speed.

  4. very good post EXCEPT for the fact that the Navy website routinely overlooks the 100+ MSC ships. Specifically the CLF are not in the numbers on the Navy.mil link.

    I know we went around awhile back about which ships are in the "Battle Force", but I think most folks acknowlege that CLF and even MPF ships must be included. The unsexy support ships while NOT always on the front page are usually counted on the NVR website.
    I noted on the NHHC "US Ship Force Levels" this:
    "For consistent historical comparison, Naval Reserve Force (NRF) and Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force (NFAF) ships, and Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet support ships, are included in current and recent active totals. Figures, and conclusions drawn from them, would, otherwise, be historically inconsistent, and comparisons would be skewed."

    1. Well, what exactly are those 46 auxiliary ships on the chart?

      As far as I know, there are no USN auxiliaries but I am happy to be corrected.

  5. P.S. I would like to send a hat tip to a Capt Hendrix at Naval History and Heritge Command for showing real history data.

  6. I thnk the Under might disagree with your calling the "amphibs and auxilary ships" part of the "follow-on forces"?

    For instance, the CLF usually travels WITH Battle Force ships. Special mission ships frequently go to places the Battle Force will be in the future.

    The MPF ships often accompany the Gators. And if you read the article by Adm Harvey MSC sealift ships should be itegrated into the ARGs which are by definition the assault echeolon NOT Assualt Follow-on Echelon (something that is a touchy subject with Marines~).

    1. Asa former MLF sailor, I can say we usually stood off from the places where the guns were shooting. Not very far off, but . . .

      Not so true in a carrier task group where the HVUs tend to cluster in the middle of a "protected" area.

      Still, my point is about surface combatants. No one is taking MPF or MSC ships inshore for ops unless a path has been cleared.

  7. To get a true picture of our seapower, in addition to Leesea's CLF, Coast Guard large cutters should also be counted. Unfortunately, their numbers are also in decline.

    1. Let's see - 2 or 3 new National Security Cutters, 9 WHECs (all over 35 years old), 13 (270') WMECs (all over 20 years old), 14 (210') WMECs (all over 40 years old).

      That's an old fleet. But about 39 ships.

    2. Three National Security Cutters delivered. Only 8 WHECs still in service. Three more NSCs funded, probably no more. Offshore Patrol Cutter yet to be designed, first delivery not before near end of 2019. There is a one of a kind MEC, a former ARS, so total is 39. It was 44 in 2000.

      I expect total will get down to the low 20s by 2022. If everything planned now is built there will be 33 total but not until 2032.

  8. Anonymous8:28 AM

    That's all money, folks. There's not enough and nowhere to get, as of current outlook. Prepare to more cuts