Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Combat Fleet Count - Update

We know the fleet size is trending upward because the Navy and the current administration assure of this.  Further, the various 30 year shipbuilding plans all describe a fleet solidly in the low to mid 300+ range.  A couple of years ago, the fleet size was around 280 so by now it must be in the 290-300 range, right?  Go ahead, take a guess – what is the current fleet size? 

Answer:  It’s 290.  Hmm …  I thought it would be a bit higher but, hey, we have been under pretty tight budget constraints, so I guess that number isn’t bad.

I wonder, though, what the combat fleet size is?  Setting aside the JHSV, MCM, PC, hospital ships, LCS (we’ll count them if and when they ever get any combat capability), tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A”, what do you think the combat fleet size is?  Hint:  it was 225 in 2010.  By now it must be up to around 235 or so, wouldn’t you think? 

Answer:  It’s 205.  Wait a minute!  It was 225 four years ago and now it’s 205.  That’s a drop of 20 ships in a four year period.  But, isn’t the fleet growing on its way to 300+?  How can the fleet be growing and the combat fleet be dropping sharply?

This is an update to our previous discussion about fleet size (see, “Combat Fleet Count”).  Here’s the updated Combat Fleet Count numbers.  The count includes carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships. 

1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210
2014  205

You can check the fleet size for yourself at www.nvr.navy.mil .

So, what do we make of this?  The combat fleet size is steadily decreasing.  Deceptively, even the overall fleet size isn’t actually increasing.  We’re just counting previously uncounted ships like hospital ships, PCs, tugs, salvage ships, and whatnot.  The overall fleet count is being politically manipulated to seem like the current administration and Navy leadership aren’t gutting the fleet.  Check out SECNAVINST 4030.8B at www.nvr.navy.mil/5030.8B.pdf for the new counting rules.  We’re going to be counting rowboats, soon.  Fortunately, you and ComNavOps know better.  We’ve dug a bit deeper and see the facts. 

Sadly, it’s worse even than this.  You recall that the Navy is planning to “idle” 11 Aegis cruisers?  You and I both know that those are never coming back despite what the Navy claims.  Once laid up, the Navy will never find the funding to reactivate them.  As now, all available funding will go to new construction.  So, instead of 205 combat ships, we actually have only 194.  The Navy is already talking about early retiring a carrier and more amphibious ships as well as looking at the possibility of “idling” additional ships.  We are headed for a combat fleet count of 150 or so in the not too distant future.

I’ll close this post with the same statement I closed the previous Combat Fleet Count post:

Compare the Navy’s trend to China’s and ponder the implications for yourself.

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.


  1. Maybe its time for the US to start cutting commitments around the world. Instead it appears that the politicians with the help of the military brass are increasing the number of countries where US forces are expected to operate, while at the same time cutting the forces that will be needed to cover those commitments

    Giving commitments is cheap and easy until the bill comes due.

    Sure it will be embarrassing to cut commitments now but better to be a little embarrassed then to be in a war without the forces to win. How many think that our “pivot to the Pacific” is more bluff then anything real since we are cutting forces everywhere, just not as much in the Pacific.

  2. Here's what I'm thinking. We need to cut defense spending. The deficit and debt are national security issues, and defense has to help get rid of the deficit. At the same time, we need to maintain capability and even improve in some areas. So how to do that?

    1. The key to having a top rate defense force without spending top dollar is to keep a lot of it at a reduced state of readiness until you need it. Do like Israel, Switzerland, and Sweden--reduce the active forces and keep huge reserve forces. Right now we have something like 1.4 million active and 0.9 million reserves, for a potential end strength around 2.3 million. Go with 1 million active and 1.8 million reserves for an end strength of 2.8 million.

    2. Reform procurement. Go back to Elmo Zumwalt's high/low mix. Fly before you buy. Shoot for 80% proved, 20% new technology in new systems, instead of what seems like 80% new, 20% proved now. License build someNATO designs. Build 6 Fords and 6 Enterprises for half the cost. Build Knoxes and Perrys instead of some Burkes and all LCSs. Cut the J-35 buy in half, and fill it out with F/A-18s or Rafales for the carriers, adapt SAAB Gripens or Eurofighters for the Marines, and F-16/F-22's for the AF. Build Juan Carloses instead of LHA/Ds, Albions instead of San Antonios, and so forth.

    3. McKinsey did an interesting study a couple of years ago where the broke down personnel into combat, combat support, and other. Average for developed countries was 26% combat, 11% combat support, 63% other. UIS was 16% combat, 7% combat support, 77% other. Bottom line--that cut in active forces from 1.4 million to 1.0 million could be done with all cuts in the other category, and you'd still be at just 23% combat, 10% combat support, and 67% other. Get rid of 1/3 of DOD civilians and 1/3 of defense contractors while you're at it.

    You keep the 300 ship Navy by filling it out with cheaper ships.

  3. Comparisons with China are going to paint a worse picture for the USN westpac vs PLAN ratio.

    Consider that the PLAN's major blue water capable surface combatants are divided among 6 destroyer flotillas, each made of 4 DDGs and 4 FFGs each, for a total of 24 DDGs and 24 FFGs each (not counting older FFGs in smaller frigate squadrons).
    Early to mid 2000s, only a quarter of the PLAN's 48 DDG/FFG force was considered modern and anything near capable.
    2010, over half of the PLAN's 48 DDG/FFG force was modern.
    By 2018-2019, all of the 48 will be modern, capable, and have capabilities that only top tier navies have -- and that is assuming they maintain a 6 flotilla fleet. They may seek to expand flotilla numbers, and/or expand the number of ships in each flotilla. That also goes for other ship types too -- carriers, LPDs/LHAs, submarines.

    Does the USN expect their western pacific forces to face down 24 aegis-like DDGs with another 24 near-aegis FFGs?
    How about 36 DDGs and 36 FFGs, potentially by 2025? Or 48 of both, by 2030+?

    Eventually the PLAN will reach a stage where their fleet size will outmass the USN's permanently forward deployed ships in westpac -- their blue water capable forces already outdisplace the JMSDF, and if you add in green water ships as well, then the JMSDF looks even smaller -- and if you think of it from the PLAN's perspective, they won't have stop their naval growth until they are able to reach parity or superiority with the USN and JMSDF on their doorstep.

    If the USN is intent on maintaining its current fleet ratio relative to PLAN, they're going to have to either cut back on other deployments around the world, or find a way to hinder the PLAN's growth -- namely, either incite a conflict to hamstring the PLAN before they can truly challenge the USN (or PRC before they can truly challenge the USA), or they can try to have other neighbouring states pick up the slack and build their own navies in an anti-China pact -- however the economic relations between China and most westpac nations makes such a choice have high risk and low reward for the majority of nations in the region, and further, few nations have the resources to seriously compete with the current pace of PLAN shipbuilding, Japan, SK included.

    Take home message: the balance of power is shifting, and unless something drastic happens (either militarily or economically) in the near future, that shift of power may leave the USN's westpac forces in a much worse position than it is now.