The new chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s sea-power subcommittee is calling for a bigger Navy fleet. “Numbers do matter,” Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss, said last week. Taylor’s district includes major shipyards. Noting that the Navy has shed around 50 major warships under the Bush Administration, Taylor added, “I want to turn that around.”
Taylor is not the first admiral, wonk or elected official to lament an apparent erosion of the Navy’s strength. Problem is that Taylor, like many others, is fixated on numbers of ships, which these days is one of the least reliable metrics for quantifying naval power. In fact, today’s Navy, while operating fewer warships than at any time since the 1930s, remains more powerful than the next 17 largest navies combined -- a “17-navy standard.” This is the greatest margin of superiority in modern history. The 19th-century British Royal Navy, the world’s previous great naval power, was only slightly larger than its nearest competitor the French navy. What’s more, our 17-navy-standard lead is probably going to grow in coming years.
And it only grows further if you count ships operated by other U.S. services including the Coast Guard, Military Sealift Command and the Army. The Coast Guard alone has embarked on an expansion that will transform it into one of the world’s top 15 navies. Military Sealift Command operates the majority of the world’s large sealift ships.
Today’s numbers game started in the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship buildup plan. We never quite got there, and post-Cold War cuts resulted in a shrinking force, which alarmed Navy types and resulted in the first of several plans establishing a minimum number of ships. The 1992 Base-Force plan called for 450 major combatants. But aging ships, rising shipbuilding costs and the 1990s “procurement holiday” steadily eroded numbers. “In 1997, the Navy said we’ve got to establish a floor and that’s going to be 300 ships,” says Robert Work, senior defense analyst at Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “So the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review says we’ve got have 300 ships.”
That’s slightly more that what we’ve got right now, if you count only major Navy warships. The problem, Work says, is that “the Navy was psychologically incapable of accepting that number.”
Why? Because of tradition, a very powerful force in today’s U.S. military.
“There was thing called the TSBF -- the Total Ship Battle Force,” Work explains. “It has an old history in navy-versus-navy conflicts, where attrition was high and numbers were very important. From 1890 to now, the Navy has followed the TSBF.”
Obsessed with numbers, in 1997 the service and its congressional and think-tank allies launched a campaign to grow the fleet. Recent plans for 375 ships gave way to a more realistic total of 313 endorsed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen. Critics such as Taylor seem to think even that number is too low. But those 313 ships would mean an only slight improvement to our current superiority over every other navy in the world.
And here’s why: due to huge advancements in weapons, sensors and aircraft, today’s fleet carries more missiles than ever, can launch more aircraft sorties than ever and has brand-new capabilities that no earlier fleet has possessed. Plus, today's ships are big -- much bigger than past ships.
In subsequent posts, we’ll take a look at all the reasons why today’s U.S. Navy is more powerful than ever, and probably does not need to grow or get more money. Part two will address the “Vertical Launch System revolution.”
Cross-posted at War Is Boring