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Fleet Size Matters

March 29, 2008

The US Navy is struggling to maintain an adequate size fleet, while fighting a War on Terror and keeping guard on the world’s sealanes against future threats. This article from the US Navy League sums up this dire need:

Little more than 13 years ago, with the public release of the
U.S. Maritime Strategy, then-Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr.
effectively argued that a 600-ship Navy was necessary to meet a U.S.
national-security requirement for maritime superiority. Remarkably, the Navy
today is on the threshold of falling be-low 300 ships–the smallest fleet since
1931. If increased ship-construction funding does not become part of the current
Future-Years Defense Plan, the Navy’s force structure inevitably will decline
below the level specified in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) issued by the
Department of Defense (DOD)…
There is a real risk under this scenario that
the burden of extended deployments and inadequate resources will fall on the
backs of individual Sailors and Marines–repeating the debacle of the U.S. military’s hollow force of
the 1970s. Worrisome world events continue apace to present new and disturbing
national-security risks–from the Korean peninsula to the Taiwan Strait and
beyond to the Indian subcontinent, Southwest Asia, and the Balkans. On average,
roughly 50 percent of the U.S. Navy’s active fleet is underway on any given day,
and more than a third is forward-deployed.

I agree with the threat and the need for an increased shipbuilding. How we get there is a different matter:


The U.S. Navy’s operations of the past several years demonstrate
that a fleet of approximately 330 ships–including at least 12 carrier battle
groups, 12 amphibious ready groups, 107 surface combatants, and 65 attack
submarines–would be the valid baseline for a Navy able to accomplish its
present engagement and warfighting missions.

One of the few issues my friend Galrahn and I agree, is that the USN places too much emphasis on battle force ships, not enough on the essential littoral mission which we find ourselves contending with. In the Middle Eastern conflict, the Navy’s principle role has been interdicting terrorist pirates on the high seas, and occasionally providing close air support for the ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the Navy can do the former mission, while the Air Force, Marines, and even Army aircraft can contend with the latter mission well enough.

The fleet composition mentioned above looks pretty good on paper, in a strictly Mahanian, Cold War view. The writers contend only about 50 new ships will solve the world-wide strain on our sea services, while my own idea is that a bare minimum of 450 will do. I’ve mentioned before that an All Submarine Navy could carry out all the battle force and sea control duties currently performed by vulnerable and too costly surface battleships, or in other words, the entire force structure of 330 ships from the article.

About 150 submarines of various composition such as SSGNs, attack subs, and even small conventional littoral subs would maintain our sea dominance for decades. Meanwhile, the show the flag, amphibious missions, and anti-piracy duties can be carried out by small, inexpensive, and expendable littoral ships. Not the too costly, too big, and too complicated Littoral Combat Ship currently facing constant delays, but warships bought off the shelf, like the Austal ferries used successfully in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and even European designed stealth boats.

Until the Navy leadership and its supporters get over their obsession with fighting hi-tech Industrial Age warfare, however, we may pretty soon pine for the days when we had even a 280 ship Navy!

Thanks to Phelps Hobart of Sea Power Ambassador for the article!
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 31, 2008 12:10 am

    As usual, the west neglects ASW to its peril. Sadly I think we’ve gone too far and the submarine will reign supreme for awhile.

    I still believe in the battle fleet, but think we have gone too far with an all-battleship navy. In the 90’s we built nothing but these Burke heavy destroyers. Awesome ships, but they can’t and shouldn’t do sea control on their own. When 9/11 occurred, it was those aging Perry frigates which seemed very valuable to guard our ports, all of a sudden.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 30, 2008 4:49 pm

    The fregates and scout cruiser of days gone by are today’s aerial and orbital assets.

    Re the other-than-war side of littoral warfare: Relative to the expenses of the big Navy a USMC manned flotilla of Super Dvoras, Haminas, or even militarized crew boats wouldn’t even show up on the budget tables. Could be an expansion of the USMC riverine flotillas.

    That it is not done is pure ideology (no USMC on the seas, no small vessels for the Navy), panic that commanding a FAC does not get you fast promotion like commanding a DDG, &c.

    I always thought it was a mistake to dissolve the jet flying boats. For ASW, special forces, SAR and general CS/CSS mission. Helicopters can’t do all the jobs.

    For a lot of low intensity conflicts a mix of large fregates (motherships), flying boats (buy Berievs), and FACs would be quite useful.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 30, 2008 12:24 pm

    Galrahn said:”we all know what Lord Nelson was famous for saying. He constantly asked the admiralty for more ‘cruisers’.. what the rest of us call frigates in the age of sail.”

    Right! He was asking for scouts, jack-of-all-trades, workhorses. Ships to do the dirty work he refusd to risk his battleships in doing. Today we have battleships doing everything. Aegis cruisers in Somali waters guarding against terrorist pirates in speed boats? Please!

  4. Galrahn permalink
    March 30, 2008 6:36 am

    I can get behind the unclassified ways and ends of the classified strategy, I don’t think the strategy is the problem.

    I just don’t believe in the strategy of the means, the strategy for fleet constitution.

    What would Corbett or Mahan say about a fleet of battleships and a flotilla of unrated ships… only..?

    Corbett actually wrote about that, and said a Navy cannot command the sea with only a fleet of battleships. Mahan also wrote about it, and highlighted the importance of the cruiser, what is the guided missile frigate today.

    And we all know what Lord Nelson was famous for saying. He constantly asked the admiralty for more ‘cruisers’.. what the rest of us call frigates in the age of sail.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 29, 2008 11:21 pm

    Just wanted to add concerning the modern nuclear-powered attack sub versus the wartime German U-boats:

    1).The modern attack boat currently matches and often surpasses most surface ships in speed and endurance, even when submerged. Older boats could barely compete with their antagonists when surfaced.

    2).The subs’ weaponry, i.e. cruise missiles outrange nearly every anti-sub weapon of the surface ship, save for the latter’s helicopters. These aircraft may not be of much use if its parent vessel doesn’t survive an encounter with the undersea menace.

    3).While, the attack sub has greatly evolved since the second world war, specifically in stealth, hull forms, propulsion, and speed, the modern surface combatant remains virtually the same, while still tied to a subsidiary role of escorting the aircraft carrier.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 29, 2008 8:58 pm

    The sub as a “poor man’s cruiser fleet”? At $2.5 billion a pop, the Virginia’s are hardly that!

  7. Anonymous permalink
    March 29, 2008 6:40 pm

    The numbers game. What’s it good for? In the last years – Did the Navy ever really answer what the strategic goal of the Navy is? Maybe in classified docs, but not in public. And only with a reasonable strategic goal one could start to think about numbers and composition. Basics. Right?

    Ok. So let’s think about China. Whom else? Russia? You can do Russia when you can do China. Russia has, or let’s say the USSR VMF had during its last years, the instruments to deny the USN operations in the North Atlantic, force a Jutland-sized battle somewhere between Jan Mayen and Iceland, AND would probably have won. But Russia never managed to create a strategic fleet, remained on a status the German Kriegsmarine had in its hey-days. And now, at least for the next generation Russia has other problems than fighting with the West. And I have to say Russia would turn nuclear these days, out of a feeling of unsecurity in this country. (I’m living in Moscow, Western European expat though, not Russian). Russia is NO strategic enemy any more.

    So back to China. It’s Home Fleet vs Hochseeflotte all over again. This time not how to keep the Germans in the North Sea, but how to keep the Chinese in the South China Sea. Or, how to keep a (future) strong theatre fleet from becoming a strategic fleet. And that should be what drives the numbers and composition game.

    And for that I don’t think the USN needs more than three Battle Groups (I don’t say CBG/CSG) on the inner Chinese perimeter in the WestPac. Each Battle Group with 3 carriers and 12-15 large surface escorts, strong enough to contain any break-out of Chinese surface formations (those that survived the land-based aerial and the sub attacks) and hold the mainland under threat of air attacks. Such Battle Groups should be all nuclear (except the replenishers) to be able to move up and down the perimeter fast, and do high-speed dashes for point attacks without being too predictable by the need to refill.
    Plus also needed a bunch of SSK to make life hard for the Chinese within the perimeter; at least 20 boats on station during wartime. That is the big Navy.

    Leaves the “minor” Navy to play around with people like Persia, regional powers with ambitions, for humanitarian ops, to secure the SLOCs, &c. Two or three Amphib Assault Groups with CVEs (aka LHA), LPDs, and three dozen or so large fregates with large flight decks as Galrahn’s “motherships”, but a little bit more warlike than the Absalons, to patrol the world’s oceans.

    At some point it might become necessary to wage a covert war against Chinese expansion in the Philippines/Sunda Islands/MalayaPen theatre. But that would be via proxies and special forces and would have only very limited influence on the big Navy.

    Btw, that 150 subs fleet you mentioned would be very Donitz, wouldn’t it? The poor man’s cruiser fleet. The U.S. is not (yet?) on the defensive.

    And of course there is always the possibility that the Chinaman is a friendly chap and don’t mean no harm?

    But such thoughts should be the basis and not number fetish. And based on the above scenario even a 170-190 ship Navy (excl sealift) should be enough.

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