Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fleet Size - Going Up or Down?

Publicly, at least, the Navy talks about wanting to maintain a fleet size of 300+ ships;  313 being a commonly cited goal.  Desired fleet size should be a function of strategic requirements rather than available budget or whatever factors but let’s set that issue aside for the moment and look, instead, at the arithmetic of fleet size.

In order to maintain a fleet size of X ships and given an average ship life of Y years, one has to build (X/Y) new ships per year.  So, for a 300 ship fleet with an average ship life of 30 years we need to build 10 new ships per year (300 ships / 30 years = 10 ships/year). 

Speaking in general terms, an average life of 30 years per ship sounds about right.  Thus, the Navy must build 10 new ships per year to maintain a 300 ship fleet. 

A Shrinking Fleet ?

Listed below are the actual life spans for ships in recent history.  For the 39 major class ships retired from 2008-2012, inclusive, as reported in the annual Naval Review issues of the Naval Institute Proceedings, the average age at decommissioning by class was,

Carriers (CV) –              44 years
Aegis Cruisers (CG) –    21 years
Frigates (FFG) –            29 years
Submarines (SSN) –      33 years
Amphibious (LHA) –       32 years
Amphibious (LPD) –       41 years
Minesweepers (MHC) –  11 years

For discussion purposes we’ll use 30 years as the average life span of a ship.

The Navy’s shipbuilding construction budget is around $15B per year.  From the 2012 Dept of Navy Highlights (1) the specific budget figures are,

2011  $15.3B
2012  $14.9B
2013  $13.6B

For sake of discussion let’s stick with a round figure of $15B per year for new construction.  So, if 10 ships per year are needed and $15B per year is the budget then the average cost per ship is $1.5B.  However, if ships actually cost more than that then the Navy can’t build 10 per year and the fleet size will shrink.  If the ships cost less than that the Navy can build more and the fleet will grow. 

What do ships actually cost?  From various sources, here are some individual ship costs.  The number in parentheses is the source reference citation listed at the end of the post.

Ford (CVN) -                          $13.4B each (4)
Virginia (SSN) -                       $2.5B each (5)
DDG-51 Flt III -                        $3.6B each (2)
DDG-51 Restart -                    $1.9B each (2)
LPD-17 -                                $2.0B each (3)
LHA-6 -                                  $3.8B each (4)
Zumwalt (DDG-1000) -             $3.9B each (7)
Ohio Replacement (SSBN(X)) - $5.6B each (6)

All of these ships cost more than the $1.5B average cost for the required build rate of 10 ships per year.  In fact, most cost significantly more and the average cost of the listed ships is $4.6B;  of course, that’s not a realistic average because the average would depend on the relative numbers of each being built each year and that varies widely from year to year.  Nonetheless, it’s instructive.  An average cost of $4.6B means that only 3 ships per year can be built with the $15B annual shipbuilding budget.

So, how many ships have been built recently?  For the years 2008-2012, inclusive, 21 combat ships have been built (commissioned) according to the Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review Issues, for the corresponding years.  Non-combat vessels such as JHSV, patrol craft, and the like are not included in this count.  That’s an average of 4.2 ships built per year.

What does this mean?  A build rate of 4.2 ships per year with an average life of 30 years equates to a fleet size of 126.  Given that the current combat fleet size is 210 (Naval Vessel Register website,;  total fleet size is 285 which counts various non-combat support ships), that’s quite a potential drop coming. 

Why, then, does the administration and the Navy still say that they are on course to a 300 ship fleet?  This quote from the Dept. of Navy budget highlight report (1) may explain things a bit.

“In FY 2013 seven battle force ships will be delivered: one Nuclear Attack Submarine (SSN), one Transport Dock (LPD), one Dry-Cargo Ammunition ship (TAKE), one  Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), two Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs), and one Mobile Landing Platform (MLP).

Eleven battle force ships will be retired: one Aircraft Carrier (CVN), six Frigates
(FFGs), and four Cruisers (CGs).”
Note that of the “seven battle force ships” to be delivered in FY2013, five are non-combat vessels as counted in this discussion.  Compare the combat capability of the ships being retired to that of the ships being delivered.  One way to reach a fleet size of 300 ships is to count non-combat ships that were not previously counted.  This has been discussed on other websites and I’ll let the subject go, for the moment.

In summary, it’s clear that the Navy’s stated goal of a 300 ship fleet cannot be achieved with the current shipbuilding budget and individual ship costs.  The Navy has averaged only 5.8 new combat ships per year over the last 20 years.  The combat ship fleet will continue to decrease in size.  It’s clear that the administration and Navy leadership know this and have already begun to lay the groundwork for counting hospital ships, patrol craft, JHSVs, and other clearly non-combat ships so as to be able to claim to have a 300 ship fleet.  Unfortunately, it will be a very hollow fleet.

(1)   Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2013 Budget, Feb 2012,
(2)   GAO, Arleigh Burke Destroyers, Jan 2012, GAO-12-113
(3)   CRS, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, March 16, 2011
(4)   Selected Acquisition Report (SAR), Program Acquisition Cost Summary, 31-Dec-2010,
(5)   CRS, Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, April 2, 2012
(6)   CRS, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, April 5, 2012
(7)   CRS, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, March 14, 2011

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