How Many Ships Do We Need?

Aircraft Carrier
Aircraft Carrier

A recent article posted on Face Book by a former shipmate, and the resulting discussion, has gotten me thinking about our current Navy.

The Wall Street Journal opinion column”America’s Incredible Shrinking Navy,” written by Mr. Steve Cohen, discusses the current number of Navy combat ships in the fleet.  Mr. Cohen is described in his byline as “an attorney at KDLM in New York and a former director of the U.S. Naval Institute,” implying that he actually knows something about the Navy. In his article, Mr. Cohen claims the Navy is down to 283 warships but through a “slight of hand” by “the Obama Administration” has recently added ten combatant ships by changing their ship designations.

After this lead-in, Mr. Cohen goes on to relate the many military-related dangers throughout the world, downplays the significance of our “eleven” nuclear-powered carriers(1) to claiming only three are usable, and complains that we don’t have enough forward-deployed naval units to do whatever it is Mr. Cohen thinks they should be doing. Mr. Cohen states that our Navy is the smallest now than it’s been since 1917, with only 35% of the fleet actually deployed. He ends his article with an apparent slam against our present Commander-in-Chief stating:

No commander in chief should be deprived of these meaningful options—even if the president has little intention of using them.

In my opinion Mr. Cohen has written an opinion column that is inherently dishonest. In fact, his claim of “fewer ships than at any time since 1917” appears to parrot a claim made by then Presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney during one of the 2012 presidential debates, which is an incorrect statement (2).

My first issue is how Mr. Cohen defines the number of “warships” in the fleet. Using the Wikipedia entry “List of current ships of the United States Navy,” we see that as per the US Naval Register, current as of 10 November 2013, there were 430 ships in active service with the United States Navy, in reserve, or under construction. In fact, the Wikipedia article reports that “the U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined.

Then there is the issue of deployed ships. Having 35% of the fleet forward deployed at any given time isn’t bad, it’s normal. Ships need a lot of maintenance. At any given time, about one third of our fleet will/should be undergoing some type of maintenance, one third will/should be either coming off deployment or working up to deploy, and the remaining one third will actually be deployed.

This is as it has been, especially since the mid 1990s when the late CNO Admiral Mike Boorda instituted a six month restriction per year on the amount of time sailors could be deployed away from home port. This restriction continues to hold today; not necessarily because of the wear and tear on sailors and their families from being deployed for as long as twelve months at a time as our carriers were in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The restriction holds because changing deployment schedules dramatically increases the cost and schedules of maintenance periods for those ships, which in turn disrupts future planned deployments and increases fleet operating costs.

In fact, when a navy ship is commissioned the cycle of deployments, work-up periods, and major maintenance periods are already programmed into the life-cycle of that ship. As is the expected decommissioning date, which in turn drives planning for future ship acquisition programs.

The development of new ship construction and availability of ships for deployment is a function of military budgets. Last year Congress, in their tea party-fueled drive to cut the size of Government, cut an across-the-board ten percent from the military budget. This was on top of already shrinking budgets from previous years, and anticipated additional cuts over the next several years. Not that cutting military budgets is a bad thing; the United States still spends almost as much on our military as the entire rest of the world combined(3). But arbitrarily and suddenly cutting budgets is bad for ship construction and maintenance which is planned out for as much as 20 years into the future.

So if Mr. Cohen wants to make the point that “No commander in chief should be deprived of these meaningful options” he might want to talk to members of the Republican Party about their budget-cutting fetishes. But the larger question which Mr. Cohen manages to avoid discussing is “how many ships does our Navy really need?”

The Naval History and Heritage Command shows that as of April 6, 1917, the US Navy had 342 ships in service of which 37 were designated as battle ships, the heaviest category of ship. We had a variety of other ship types including destroyers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, and “surface warships,” in service as well, but no aircraft carriers (which didn’t enter the fleet until 1924). Radar had not yet been invented. Our heaviest Delaware-class battleships burned coal, carried 12″ guns and could steam a maximum speed of 21 knots.

I’m not sure that comparing a 1917 vintage coal-fired battleship to a modern nuclear-powered aircraft carrier capable of carrying 85-90 combat aircraft (as many aircraft on one ship as the entire air force of many smaller nations) is a fair comparison. Let’s not mention our 54 nuclear fast attack cruise-missile equipped submarines, and 14 ballistic missile submarines that are each capable of destroying multiple cities.

Then we have 22 Aegis Cruisers and 62 Destroyers which carry long-range cruise missiles, harpoon anti-ship missiles, a variety of guns, and a main radar system with a 100+ nautical mile range. We also have a variety of amphibious assault ships, logistics support ships, and small high-speed combatants. All-in-all, more combat tonnage than the next 13 navies combined.

So how many ships do we need?


(1) The Wikipedia entry “List of current ships of the United States Navy” cites the US Navy as having only ten aircraft carriers in active service with two in active reserve, two under active construction, and eight more planned.
(2) The Naval History and Heritage Command shows that by July 1, 1931, our Navy had shrunk to a total of 308 total active warships.  We regained a total of 430 warships sometime between June 1939 and June 1940.
(3) Wikipedia Entry: Military Budgets-World

Cross posted on Daily Kos at “How Many Ships Do We Need?

Update March 24: This Diary Made the “Daily Kos – Community Spotlight” list!

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