Friday, June 12, 2015

Combat Fleet Dips Under 200

Here is another periodic update on the combat fleet size.  The fleet continues to shrink and for the first time has dropped under 200.  

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like 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” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.

Here are the updated numbers.

1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210
2014  205
2015  197

You can check the fleet size for yourself at .

The Perry class is now completely removed from service.

While the shrinking fleet size is appalling enough on its own, the really scary part is that the Navy is continuing to try to reduce the size even further.  Although prevented by Congress, the Navy has, at various times, proposed early retirement for 11 Aegis cruisers, a carrier, and a few LHDs.  In addition, they have proposed early retirement for several fleet supply vessels.

Despite this evidence, the Navy still claims to be on track for a 300+ ship fleet.  

CNO Greenert assumed his post in 2011.  At that time the Navy had around 220 combat ships.  Since then, the fleet has lost around 23 combat vessels.  Nice job of leadership! 

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

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. Of all the things we see on this site, the size of the Navy is the one that most highlights my bafflement.

    Its obvious that the fleet is being used hard and put away wet. Carl Vinson was gone for what, 10 months? Equipment and people are increasingly being cross decked from what I've heard?

    In my profession its part of my job to go to my bosses and say 'You want X result in Y timeline, but you've only given me Z resources. It can't happen unless you increase Y timeline to Y+2 months, increase Z resources, or reduce X result'.

    Its malpractice not to do that.

    Yet the Navy seems to be bending under its workload, and its not saying to Congress 'We need more ships, more planes, or fewer missions'.

    Lots of folks in Congress are all about having a tough foreign policy, but no one seems to be telling them that this costs more treasure and potential blood.

    This stuff about our combat fleet being X amount bigger than the next four combined is bunk. You size your fleet to your needs, not your neighbor.

    If you want to combat pirates, have a foreign presence, have the potential to thwart China's A2/AD environment, have humanitarian missions, Bomb Syria/ISIS, etc.... you need a strategy for that, and the right amount of ships and subs to execute that strategy.

    The future of the Navy just seems to get darker and darker.

    1. One of the things that I will note is that the military budget has actually not been cut anywhere nearly as much as people say.

      There are a ton of contradictions in policy right now, particularly from the political right (although "hawk" Democrats aren't much better)

      - They want low taxes
      - They want a "muscular" foreign policy
      - At the same time, they are unwilling to shoulder the costs (namely taxing people, taxing the corporate world, and soon )

      - There is also an unwillingness to take a serious look at the capabilities and limitations of the use of military force.
      - There is also no willingness to look at the past lessons.

      Compounding this:
      - Manufacturing in the civilian sector has been on the decline
      - For various reasons (people not being willing to pay for "made in USA", corporate short term greed, increased competition, etc), it represents a major threat to society's living standards yet relatively few are willing to fight for it.

      It strikes me how self-inflicted these problems have become.

    2. Alt, setting the political aspects, you're quite correct that the military still has vast amounts of money to work with. They're squealing because the "cash cow" days of unconcerned and largely unlimited procurement are over and they're reacting badly to having to live within a budget.

      Further, many of the acquisition programs are now being seen as the unwise, monetary black holes they are.

      With proper prioritization we have plenty of money for what we need. What we haven't yet mastered is wise prioritization.

  2. Total combat ship displacement is a better measure than ship number.

    The Chinese navy might have many more combat ships than the USN but if half of them are made up of 220 ton FACs and 1500 ton corvettes, and another quarter of them are old obsolete frigates, patrol boats and LSTs, and only a quarter of them are modern frigates, destroyers, LPDs, and carrier(s), then obviously ship number won't reflect actual combat capability.

    1. Think of it this way, for the price of a single Burke/Tic you could probably:
      1.) Build 1/2 nuclear powered Battle Cruiser.
      2.) Build 2 large frigates with area defence missiles
      3.) Build 3 medium frigates focused primarily on local defence.

      Currently the USN has about 84 Burke and Ticonderogas which probably cost the same. Consider even split in terms of resources:
      NC= Nuclear cruiser, D=Destroyer, HF=High-end frigate, MF= Medium end Frigate, T=total
      D30:HF108=138 (if you hate ships without area defense)

      Sure we are running pretty loose maths here, these ratios can be tweaked, but any of these seem to me to be a better force composition with higher combat potential than what we have now. And costs are probably pretty proportional to the size of the ship, not to mention with a larger number of ships of various sizes, the need to redeploy ships as often as they are now should be reduced!

    2. I absolutely agree that the USN's surface combatant fleet composition probably isn't the best for its needs. IMHO they should have capped Burkes at double the number of Ticos and then moved onto a true successor for the OHP equipped with VLS, an aegis-lite radar, for a ratio of 1:2:4 of CG, DDG, FFG.
      Mass producing a blue water capable, cheap, but competent frigate that can be used in ASW, AAW, and ASuW would have greatly supplemented the USN's surface combatant force and allowed them to perform lower intensity missions without a need for 9000 ton DDGs with Aegis and 96 VLS. A true frigate meant there would never have been a need for LCS, and the USN may even have had money left over to move on a true, sensibly sized Ticonderoga successor rather than forcing Flight III Burke on themselves.

      However, the point I was getting at, is that CNO's assertion that USN combat ship numbers are declining relative to the Chinese navy is not illustrative of combat capability. Yes, the Chinese navy is commissioning new destroyers and frigates and corvettes, but it'll take a while until they replace all of their older ships with modern ones, and it will take even longer until their ship number actually expands relative to present and even longer until they can hope to match USN pacific forces.
      The fact of the matter is that yes, Chinese naval combat capability relative to the USN is reducing the USN's margin of superiority slightly, but that's not reflective of any ineptitude on the USN's part but rather an effect of China finally getting its act together.
      It's unrealistic to expect the USN to maintain the same overwhelming margin of superiority over the Chinese navy from previous decades, given in previous decades, there was a lack of high technology, lack of funding (in absolute terms and in relation to GDP size), lack of political will, and overall poor management of the country to field the kind of navy which China needed.

      If it's any consolation, the USN's pacific fleet will likely still retain a significant margin of superiority in terms of combat assets, over the Chinese navy until 2030.

    3. Yes, I think in the case of china though they are not aiming at sea-superiority though, only to secure everything between the mainland and the the first island chain. So they can rely more heavily on air-support from the mainland and therefore have different objectives, they don't need as many of the 'big ships' the USN has to achieve their goals.

      Whilst china itself is at risk of having the supply lines through the Malaca straight cut off, if they can control the 'chinese sea' then they themselves can cut of their neighbours in turn. And then there is the potential for china to invade some of the closer and/or less well armed neighbours like taiwan/phillipines/indonesia. This would be extremely bad.
      I think being able to achieve this and perhaps challange the indian/australian/singaporean navy would satisfy their strategic goals.
      And I believe it is very hard to operate in such an environment (between china and the first island chain), when they can blanket that area with fighter planes. Then push them up onto any islands they capture, WW2 style!

    4. Also about composition, I mean its arguable over what is the best combination, but I think the USN has the resources and the scale to go beyond the Hi-Lo mix, and have something more akin to Hi-MiD-LO potentially with ultra in their.

      A mid-tier FFG with say 12+ proper VLS stations carrying a combination of SAM (local area i.e. CAM/ESSM), perhaps some CRAM rockets, and land attack missiles (similar to proposed HOPLITE), ASMs, a 76mm cannon, a helicopter, some UAVs and at least a rear cwis station, would be very nice. Particularly on patrols, and operating in littorals.

      A larger, upper-end FFG with more VLS stations (say ~48), with better sensors to accompany it, perhaps room/weight and power envelope for the rail guns, with longer range, would make a great backbone for the navy.

      Then you can have the Big ships, CG (because they really arent DDGs) with say 96+ VLS stations, much bigger sensor arrays, longer range, 10,000+tonnes. Key assets in air defense systems, built in limited numbers, escorts for capital ships, not for general patrols or flag waving.
      Then I think the biggest thing you should ever build would be a BCGN? (akin to the kirov class batle cruiser). Don't 'develop anything', Take a big hull, (like the san antonios), take off-the-shelf components and missiles, and modular sensor suites like AMDR which is to be fitted on DDGs and scale it up!

      Only problem is getting an appropriate reactor design, may be forced to use a hybrid system with an existing reactor like the kirovs...

    5. "However, the point I was getting at, is that CNO's assertion that USN combat ship numbers are declining relative to the Chinese navy is not illustrative of combat capability. "

      Rick, just to be clear, US fleet numbers are declining and Chinese fleet numbers are increasing. That's simple fact. I have never claimed that Chinese naval capabilities or combat power rival the US - yet. What I've repeatedly stated is that the trends are worrisome. China is developing and building modern, highly capable ships at a much faster rate than we are.

    6. "Yes, I think in the case of china though they are not aiming at sea-superiority though, only to secure everything between the mainland and the the first island chain. So they can rely more heavily on air-support from the mainland and therefore have different objectives, they don't need as many of the 'big ships' the USN has to achieve their goals."

      Anon, that's an excellent comment. You've tied Chinese fleet structure into their strategy (as you see it) which is the only way a fleet should be evaluated. Whether I agree or not is irrelevant. You've made a logical and astute observation.

      Take it a step further. What purpose do you see the Chinese aircraft carrier program serving in light of your view of their overall strategy?

    7. @CNO:

      The problem with calling the trend worrisome is that it presumes that it is feasible for the US military to be able to maintain the same margin of superiority over the Chinese military, as the Chinese economy grows and as the Chinese industrial and technological base further expands.

      It is worth recalling that during the cold war the Chinese economy and its military was an utter mess, which resulted in an obsolete, poorly equipped and utterly destitute military in the 1990s which could barely patrol its own coastal waters and had virtually no ability to contest airspace. Those deficiencies only began to turn around by the early 2000s. The reason for the massive margin of military superiority enjoyed by the US was partly because of greater US procurement and capability but mostly because of immense Chinese ineptitude.

      Even with all that, the fleet situation in the USN is still far from dire and their average yearly construction of new naval ships still out-displaces its major competitors two or threefold and are also greater in capability.
      I'm all for valid criticism of deficiencies, and there are certain USN decisions or projects like LCS or Zumwalt which are worthy of being torn a new one, but comparing the not-very-useful metric of fleet numbers between USN and the Chinese Navy to illustrate the idea that the Chinese are building modern and capable ships at a faster rate than the USN, isn't really logical, given the kinds of ships both navies are launching, and even less important considering the kinds of ships they're starting off with.

      Also, I'll chip in regarding the use of PLAN aircraft carriers. My continuous belief over the last five years or so is that PLAN carriers will serve two major roles.
      One is to provide air cover, AEW&C, long range surface strike, for naval task groups operating in the western pacific against high tech opponents (USN and JMSDF). The PLA obviously have a large variety of land based aircraft and missiles and ISR assets to call upon in support of naval operations in the first island chain, but carriers provide much needed organic ISR and CAP capabilities. Carriers will assist the Chinese strategy of contesting the first and second island chains against the USN and Japanese, along with a variety of other assets ranging from SSKs, SSNs, FACs, MPAs, AEW&C, SIGINT planes, ECM planes, UAVs, land based fighters and strikers, regional bombers, land based cruise missiles and anti ship ballistic missiles, as well as a variety of supporting satellite, SOSUS and OTH radar as supporting sensors.
      The other major role is to project power in the Indian Ocean and especially around Africa, against low tech opponents that may threaten Chinese interests or SLOCs. These will mostly be non state actors, pirates, rebel groups, or tinpot dictators which may threaten Chinese economic interests in Africa and/or the increasing number of Chinese citizens working in Africa. (The recent Yemen evacuation and the evacuation from Libya a few years back demonstrated the need for a greater naval presence in the region). Such a CSG will likely be small (one carrier, two DDGs, two FFGs, one large AOR) and will not be designed to contest naval superiority against high tech opponents like the USN. If anything China and the US have somewhat similar goals for openness of SLOCs and stability in shipping and energy routes.

    8. "The problem with calling the trend worrisome is that it presumes that it is feasible for the US military to be able to maintain the same margin of superiority over the Chinese military..."

      Rick, no, the trend is worrisome because, if taken to its logical conclusion, we will have a fleet of zero size and the Chinese will have a large fleet. Now, that's the ultimate, nonsensical conclusion but the actual fact is that our fleet is steadily declining while the Chinese fleet is increasing. At some point, the two fleet size and capability trend lines will cross and we will lose both our current size and capability advantage. That's what's worrisome - not that the trends are narrowing as China builds a modern navy but that the trends are headed towards a crossing.

    9. Another reason that the trend is worrisome is that 40% of our forces are in the Atlantic, so the China and USA capability curves will cross sooner than we think by looking at the total numbers. tonnages, etc. China is worried about one theater, while we are the policemen for the whole world.

  3. Consider:
    1.) US military budget is stagnant.
    2.) Costs across the board have skyrocketed, the US Military has largely become an industrial subsidy with nearly all programs being grossly over budget, behind schedule and underperforming. Furthermore some industries (i.e. ship building) entirely subsist on US military funding, this is not productive, if denmark can produce comercial ships competitively then the USA should be capable too..
    3.) There is a big focus on very expensive, very complicated, large and 'advanced systems'. The problem is the increase in cost for that extra performance may not be worth it, the equipment is hard to maintain and operate because it is complex, and often by the time it reaches the field it is not that 'advanced' because it has taken so long to develop. Not to mention it is deployed in so small numbers that the loss of a single piece of equipment becomes an enormous problem!

    Perhaps the USN would be better off operating under a high-low mix of surface combatants instead of operating a fleet consisting of what is essentially 'light cruisers'. Also the same could be said for Carriers, where smaller 'medium' and or 'light' carriers (akin to Sea control ship, or carrier medium proposal) could be built, armed with light aircraft, and escorts, in larger numbers than could for the cost of a current CSG. In most cases this would be suitable, and it is debatable how survivable the modern super carriers are anyway...

    The same could be said about submarines, modern technology like AIP has made non-nuclear submarines much more capable, and good concepts exist for fast, long-transit submarines i.e. the BMT SSGT, capable of transiting 11,000KM at 20kn, with a 30kn combat speed, and a 10kn cruise speed. A few such submarines could likely be built for the cost of a single nuclear submarine, and offer in performance what is probably fairly close.

    Another proposal however would be to operate a handfull (or two) of nuclear powered Battle Cruisers, forming an (ultra-high component), based on stretched san-antonio hulls. The would have all the weight, room, and power envelope to field the full AMDR requirement for ABM duty, any new weapon system (lasers/rail guns), an enormous quantity of missiles, surveillance equipment, as well as fuel, material, water storage (and desalination) to enable the support role. They could conduct the typical cruiser mission, in areas outside of the engagement envelope of opfor carriers.

    Such a ship would be quiet flexible, and in theory should not cost that much, the original antonios were only supposed to cost ~800mn. Obviously the reactor and all the equipment and missiles would significantly increase this cost (several times!), but still. And such a ship (with it's sensors) would be a force multiplier, and would be capable of carrying a significant amount of TACMs in the strike role!

    1. "... a handfull (or two) of nuclear powered Battle Cruisers, forming an (ultra-high component), based on stretched san-antonio hulls. "

      An interesting idea. How would these battlecruisers protect themselves against subs and aircraft? Do you believe that the old adage that no ship can survive under enemy skies no longer applies? How would the ship protect itself against subs?

    2. They would use missiles, decoys and helicopters like traditional surface combat ships, along with having the space, weight, and surplus energy required to fit all the current 'high-tech' gadgets (railguns/lasers) that the navy is working on, and which most likely can not be fitted (properly, as intended) on any other existing USN service vessal. But it would have all of these in much larger numbers.

      So ultimately they would be vulnerable without friendly air-cover, but the benefit would be in the share quantity of missiles it could carry, the size of (and quantity) the sensor arrays it could field (which could enhance the ability of any task-force it is assigned too), the amount (of different types) of decoys it could carry. And it's endurance and fleet support charachteristics.

      As long as you keep a good look on where the major threats (opfor Carriers) are, and avoid them (should be easy given no carrier task force is entirely nuclear and this ship would be), and don't operate under hostile air-cover without air-support, it should be fine.

      Then it can act as a floating radar station, it can be part of a mobile ABM network, gather signal intelligence (with a wide array of sensors), provide early warning capabilities, enhance task force operations.

      It could tow massive sonar arrays (many kilometers longs), it would be able to fit much larger arrays inside it, and it would have all the power envelope and processing capacity to run it. It could even potentially service unmanned sea-vessals, like the ones designed to detect submarines. It would be very good at doing that, as it would have a very high endurance.

    3. Although a light carrier might make a better ship for conducting patrols (and the traditional cruiser role), say for instance, patrolling the trading lanes between the middle east, and singapore, and between Far-east-asia and USA-ANZ. Because it can project air-power and see over the horizon. This is a difficult question to answer.

      On the other hand a ship such that I mentioned above, a BattleCruiser would have very impressive and unrivalled sensors, and missile stores, and could be heavily armed with CIWS systems as the russian version is. Whilst it could not see over the horizon, it would be far supperior in some regards (ABM) and would probably be far cheaper than building a light carrier, procuring an air-wing, and operating that!

      In WW2 such ships were called escort carriers. They were smaller than the standard sized carrier, they were mainly meant to escort convoys. Whatever the solution is, I believe the typical cruiser role is not being fulfilled very well. The soloution may very well be a combination of things, i.e. larger burks, nuclear 'cruisers', escort carriers, increased usage of drones, etc..etc..

  4. What you need is some Royal Navy T26's (global combat ships) ! But what you will get is more LCS's called frigates. Hard hat on waiting for the incoming.