Saturday, September 29, 2012

Combat Fleet Count

Below is a historical listing of the combat ships of the Navy.  The count includes carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships.  It does not include logistics support ships, mine warfare vessels, patrol craft, hospital ships, JHSV, and the like.  I have also not included the LCS in the count since it currently has no combat capability.  If/when it does, I'll include it.

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

Data is taken from

The trend is undeniable.  The combat fleet is getting steadily smaller.  Already, 13 ships have been announced for retirement next year although there are attempts underway in Congress to provide funding to retain 2-4 of those ships so the final number may vary.  Even with a couple of scheduled commissionings, the net result will be a decrease of several ships for 2013.

While some may argue that today's ships are more capable than ever before, it's disturbing that combat power is being concentrated in ever fewer numbers which means the loss of any single ship is becoming ever more devastating.  This phenomenon results in a situation where commanders are more and more reluctant to put ships in harm's way.  We're already seeing this in the Navy's refusal to stand near a coastline due to the presence of shore launched anti-ship missiles which means that amphibious assaults must be conducted from well out to sea.  I'll set aside the issue of whether that's ultimately a good thing or not and simply note that it's driven by fear of loss rather than tactical advantage.

The combat fleet is headed towards a level of 150 or so in the moderately near future (not withstanding the current administration's 30 year shipbuilding plan which is pure fantasy) given the budget limitations and the Navy's single-minded focus on building ever bigger and more expensive ships.

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

I'll update this from time to time.


  1. I think its important to ask what we needed the ships for in the first place.

    If memory serves, much of the fleets hot war purpose, was to protect operation reforger from soviet subs.
    As far as I am aware, there is no reforjap or reforkor or reforpac.
    And even if there was, the Chinese submarine threat to it today is less than the soviet threat of thirty years ago.

    The British Grand fleet was only 160 ships during the first world war, and 70 of those were 1000t torpedo boat destroyers with three 100mm guns.

    150 good ships are far better than 300 bad ones.

    I wish I could play fantasy fleets with 150 ships :)

    1 Carrier, 2 Cruisers, 3 Submarines and 4 Destroyers is only ten ships.

    Ten of them, and just one is frankly a match for any other navy on the high seas.

    And that still leaves 50 ships for moving marines, and protecting marine movers, well, a few need to be be sliced off for SSBNs and such, might lose a couple of carrier groups and so on.

    Obviously 200 ships would be better, but lets face it, would you rather have ten new build Burkes or 200 LCSs?

    1. If I understand your point correctly, you're suggesting that we have enough (maybe too many) ships for the current needs. I don't know all the taskings for the Navy so I can't pass judgement on that premise with absolute certainty. However, if we have enough (or too many) ships currently, then why are Navy deployment cruises getting longer and longer despite the acknowledged negative impact on maintenance? It seems clear to me that we don't have nearly enough ships for the required tasking. Also, bear in mind that most Navy tasking involves peacetime operations and there's just no getting around the need for more ships than we currently have.

      I read an article a while back that stated that something like half of the tasking requests for the Navy go unfilled due to lack of available ships. Unfortunately, I can't remember the exact number or the source so I can't cite it but the gist of the message was clear - the Navy is overtasked and "under-shipped". Of course, it's legitimate to ask whether all the requests are necessary but that's another topic.

      I think you're being a bit simplistic with your comment about one carrier group being a match for any other Navy. Consider, the Viet Nam war. We faced no opposing navy and yet our war efforts required three or more carrier groups at any one time in theatre. China, as the worst case, vastly overmatches a single carrier group when one throws in their naval, air force, and land based missile capabilities. Remember, the job of a Navy is not just to fight other navies but to influence events on land. Ship to ship combat is just one possible part of that. Inland strikes, amphibious attacks, commerce protection/attack, and so forth are all naval responsibilites and that requires numbers of ships.

      You're correct, I'd rather have one Burke than 200 LCSs but LCS isn't counted in the combat fleet size so that's irrelevant.

    2. I would certainly argue that the fleet is overtasked.

      Admittedly, the fleet tasking of the USN is not a field I know much of, but the royal navy has most of its strength penny packeted around the world, or transiting between them.

      At the end of the day, fleets exist to win wars, not carry flags.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. You're quite right that the breakdown of the tasking requests would be quite informative. Unfortunately, I've never seen such a listing.

      Yes, the LCS (or any patrol vessel, for that matter) might well be able to fill many of the low end requests.

      Remember, though, that the post is about the combat fleet trend. To that end, there are two aspects to the numbers question. One, is whether we have enough ships to fill the "armed force" tasks (I have no idea since I can't see the task list) and the other is whether we have enough to cover possible conflicts up to and including all-out war with China, as the worst case. The post did not attempt to answer the question but to point out the trend and at least one of the implications of the trend, risk aversion.

  2. Why would it be in US interests to get involved in another land war in Asia?

    And if we are not going to fight in Asia then how are the Chinese going to fight us?

    If other Asian countries think that China is a threat then they should be the ones building up their militaries, but instead we see that Japan spends 1% GDP on defense, South Korea spends 2%, Taiwan spends 3%, Philippines 2%.

    The US spends 4% officially and if you add in things that are military but not in the defense budget it probably hits 5 or more %. At the same time the US has record budget and trade deficits. So while our “allies” get their defense subsidized by the US, these same countries take that savings and use it to out compete US business and labor.

    It is no longer 1945 and the world is no longer in ruins after WW2, its time for the US to stop the military welfare for our “allies”.

    1. Who said anything about a land war with China? That would be stupid beyond belief. War with China would play out without any significant land combat, however, that's a topic for another time.

      China is bent on total control of the East and South China Sea areas. If we don't want that then conflict with China is somewhere between likely and inevitable ... Which takes us back to the issue of fleet size.

      Besides, remember that the Navy (and entire US military) exists to counter possible threats, not just actual threats, and China is, by any assessment, a possible threat.

      Your point about our Pacific allies taking responsibility for a greater share of defense is quite correct.

    2. But as you point out, China is not a threat to the US. The US is not the East and South China Sea. So there is no need for the US to get involved. Instead we should save US lives and money by staying out and working on nation building in the USA.

      If you are really worried about China then instead of using US force to counter them, the US should use tariffs to reduce the amount of money China gets from the US which means less money for Chinese armaments as well as less US technology. Having “free trade” with China while at the same time saying its a big threat makes no sense at all.

    3. China is absolutely a threat. Whoever controls the entire East and South China Seas controls and regulates the flow of huge portion of global maritime commerce. Ceding that control to a country that views us as a threat would be foolish in the extreme. Combine that with the Chinese domination of our financial system, which they are quite successfully doing, and that leaves us very vulnerable.

      You do make a very good point about tariff inequities and trade imbalance. We do not have free trade with China. Instead, we have a one-sided arrangement in which China is reaping all the benefits (ask anyone whose job has been lost to China) and buying up our debt. The degree of Chinese ownership and controlling interests in US companies and industry is staggering. This "free trade" arrangement alone is a major threat to the US and one we need to wake up to.

      I'll let the Chinese discussion end here since that's not the point of the post but rest assured I do have some Chinese oriented posts on the to-do list.

    4. China can easily be countered if the US would apply an economic war as they did against the USSR.True, China as a lot at stake in the US and just there lies there weakness, too much to lose!The US should apply a two pronged approach on this one: economics and military. Use both in a subtle way and in the long run you will gain superiority again.One weak point of US is their tendency in not having time to wait for results...patience is the name of the game here, in the meantime US would be wise to extract US companies out of China, back to the US.Also, and this is going on right now, having close allies to work with and gain goodwill for the US again is also crucial in this game...

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


    I'd rather have the US Navy any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And barring that, I'll take the Japanese navy (err maritime self-defense force!).

    China's navy is perfectly suitable for China's very specific strategic needs. It's not so hot if you are just about anyone else.

    1. The suggestion was to consider the trend, not the current fleets. I'd much rather have China's trend which is rapidly increasing in numbers of ships and subs, developing new types, increasing their technology, developing new capabilities, and has a decreasing average fleet age. That's a great trend. Again, I'm not talking about the current fleet, but the trend. Whether that trend is fiscally sustainable remains to be seen.

    2. I get what you are saying - but a simple fleet count is simply not an adequate measure of aggregate capability.

      I also don't agree that limited numbers are what's making COs more reluctant to put ships in harm's way or fear loss to an ASCM. That's a capability gap - numbers alone won't address that problem.

      I'd argue trying to build an ostensibly uber-cheap and under-capable LCS to address that very problem is exactly what got us into this death spiral.

    3. I believe you are correct about a capability gap and that it influences the reluctance to stand in harm's way - but only to an extent. The fear of losing a bizillion dollar ship can't help but create risk aversion. Couple that with an actual capability gap, of whatever magnitude, as you suggest and you get a Navy that won't approach an enemy shore or enter an A2/AD zone.

      As far as what's created the death spiral (and it is one!) it's the fact that ship costs are rising far faster than inflation (I've run the numbers and verified it but I don't have room to post the numbers in a simple comment). When that's happening and the budget is staying constant (after adjustment for inflation) or slightly decreasing, the only possible result is fewer ships. The only way out is to reduce shipbuilding costs (ain't gonna happen) or build less capable and cheaper ships. Of course, that approach failed miserably in the LCS! No good solution - I guess that's why it's called a death spiral!

      Thanks for the comment!

    4. Perhaps Navy should admit that US simply cannot build lower-end ships domestically. At least not at a cost where we can afford them in any useful numbers.

      Navy should also admit that 9,000 ton DDGs aren't really "destroyers". Relative to WW2 standards (firepower, cost, displacement), they heavy cruisers - one step down from a capital ship.

      If we did this, it becomes pretty obvious how unbalanced our force is on the high-end, and how few actual "destroyers" we have.

  4. It seems that we've gotten away with basically getting rid of 6th Fleet for a long time, but events of the last several weeks have proven that's over.

    We have two destroyers off the coast of Libya, neither of which (I think) embark a destroyer.

    If we have naval forces surging to the Med, there has been no media on it.

    If things got much worse in an area incompassing all of North Africa, how would we evacuate or defend our embassies? Emphasis probably on evacuate...

    An ARG sure would provide a lot of flexibility to
    EURCOM in this situation. Helos, hospital, logistics, communications, no need to say "mother may I" to any host country, long term presence.... Heck, even one ship that had a big well deck and a flight deck would help.

    For years 6th fleet has been a backwater, and we've gotten away with it.

    I don't think we can anymore. We need a bigger Navy

    2 destroyers in response to an embassy attack doesn't cut it.

  5. Make that embark a helo"

    Stupid phone...

  6. This decline in numbers is related to the types of threats we have faced since the end of the Cold War. We have had no naval peer in the superpower or even major power category since 1991.

    The natural tendency during this time has been to just soldier on with most classes of ships designed in whole or mostly since the 1980's. One example: every one of our cruisers and frigates are Cold War designs bought during the eighties and early nineties.

    As a nation we let the numbers slowly dwindle as more urgent needs, such as MRAPs, UAVs, and SpecOps necessary for fighting in two land-locked countries for the last eleven years took up all of the Pentagon's focus. While I think the Navy did a bad job of selling itself to the American public and Congress, the 9/11 era focus has been on things far from the sea.

    I also think the trend, seen during the Cold War and getting worse, is to stretch defense programs. Whether it is the R&D, or the development phase, it is very difficult to see the first of a new class come into service. Even then, like the Seawolf and Zumwalt, there is no guarantee the production of the class will last more than a handful of ships. In the meantime, a new, cheaper design takes time to develop. That is one reason why hull numbers are dropping, because the Virginia class took time to produce when Congress cut the Seawolf. The same for the Zumwalt and the Burke Flight III restart. To be fair, other services have the same problem: the F-22 and F-35, the RAH-66, ARH, and OH-58 scout helo saga.


    1. You appear to be suggesting that other needs have have pushed ship procurement aside. The examples you cited cost next to nothing compared to the cost of even a single ship. Their impact on shipbuilding would be negligible.

      I'd like to think that the drop in fleet size is the result of a carefully reasoned study of strategic and operational needs. Sadly, that's not the case. What's happened is that the Navy has allowed ship construction costs to grow so fast and reach such levels that fewer and fewer ships can be procured. I've analyzed the numbers and the cost of most ship classes is growing far faster than the rate of inflation. Ships are actually getting more expensive on an inflation adjusted basis. If the budget isn't growing faster than inflation but the cost of ships is, it's obvious fewer ships can be bought.

      You make a very good point about acquistion programs getting stretched out. Among other negative impacts, this means that by the time the lead ship is built it may well border on obsolete. The Seawolf is a perfect example - the threat it was designed for was gone by the time it was built. The Zumwalt, if it ever had a purpose, was rendered irrelevant and unsuited for its purpose according to the Navy before it was even built.

      You're also quite correct that the Navy has been unable to sell itself. On a related note, I believe that the LCS was a frantic attempt to get any hull it could into the water during a time when people were questioning the Navy's purpose.

      You also touch on another problem. There's no such thing as a new, cheaper design of anything. The new, cheaper design always turns out to be more expensive, usually by a wide margin - the cheap LCS, the cheap Virginia, the cheap JSF, and so on.

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    3. I'm with you on election burnout!

      You make an outstanding point about the culture of intentional (which makes it fraudulent) cost estimate manipulations. Everyone in the Navy (the entire DoD, for that matter) knows they can't build the stuff they're quoting for what they claim but no one has the courage to say so.

      An excellent observation. My hat's off to you!

    4. While I agree that some items in the post-9/11 budgets are small relative to a DDG, such as body armor, there were so many. One example is the MRAP. In 2003-4 the Pentagon bought all the ballistic steel on world markets, from Israel, Germany, and elsewhere to create "hillbilly armor" on trucks and Humvees. By 2005 armored vehicles from South Africa and any international armored car manufacturer were selling their vehicles as is to the Pentagon, for top dollar. I saw some of these myself at that time in Iraq. By 2007 new American made MRAPs were the latest and greatest. And by 2009-10 all-terrain MRAPs were being air-lifted at tremendous cost to Afghanistan. And now the Marines and army want to mothball most of these MRAPs.

      My point in all this is to show the multiple generations/iterations of the MRAP. Each generation was pretty pricey, and quickly superseded by the new one. I'm not sure what the total cost was for all these vehicles since 9/11, but it is in the billions. And I'm not begrudging that - I want my ass protected as best as possible.

      But the MRAP is just one small part of the spending deluge post-9/11. Anti-IED measures: jammers, sensors, munitions. UAVs: small hand-thrown ones, RQ-4s that cost tens on millions each, to the hundreds of Predators, Reapers, Ravens. The multiple generations of body armors, helmets, personal radios. Even if something like body armor is small change next to the price of a destroyer, we bought a massive number of these vests.

      And the Navy for the most part was left out of even the mere consideration of any of this, outside of the USMC. The last 11 years has been a ground war.


  7. I am all for a powerful and dominant US Navy. But realistically I also believe that a 313 ship Navy like the brass wants is a pipe dream. We simply do not have the money for it. The Navy will get smaller over the next several decades not bigger. Today the Navy has 283 ships. I believe that a 240 ship Navy is more realistic 20 years from now. Insisting on ~300 ships is possible, but it will also gut new weapon and vessel development to the point where we may end up with a large but obsolete fleet.

    Here is what I'll do... I envision a reduction of the CVN fleet from 10 to 9 by 2022 and further to 8 by 2032. The LHD/LHA fleet should also go down from 9 to 8 over that time. I will retire the entire Ticonderoga class by 2022 without a direct replacement and build no more than 70 Burkes. The AMDR-S will be pursued as a SPY-1D(V) replacement radar while the AMDR-X will be terminate and the existing SPY-3 X-band AESA used in its place. These will be retrofitted to Burkes with their super structures rebuilt to take the new radars. GE38 turbine generators will replace the Allison 501Ks to double the electric output to support the new radars. Over the same period, ~40 5000~6000 ton multi-role Frigates will be built to flesh out the fleet. These will use existing technologies only in a new hull with 24 Mk57 VLS cells and carry the ESSM, VLA and LRASM as their missile armament (8+8+32). They will carry a 57mm gun and a RAM launcher for close in defense. Propulsion will essentially be half that used in the DDG-1000 with 50,000 shp to pumpjet -- enough to reach 29~30 knots.

    When thinking of the fleet size it is important to focus on ship building rates. I envision this stabilizing at 6 ships per year. Three Frigates, two SSNs will be built every year circa 2022, with one CVN every 5 years and one LHA every five years (staggered). Add 3 LPDs every 5 years or so for a total of 6.

    Today we have four Man-o-war shipyards -- Electric Boat, Newport News, Ingalls and Bath. Most of the escalation of ship building costs has to do with supporting an infrastructure and work force we grossly underutilized. So while many don't want to hear this one of the four Man-o-war yards will have to go, perhaps even two. New Port News is our only CVN yard so that is not going anywhere. So the three yard options come down to (1) closing Electric Boat and moving all SSN/SSBN work to Newport News which also builds submarines, (2) keep electric boat closing Bath and do all the FFG/DDG/CG work at Ingalls, or (3) keep electric boat closing Ingalls and doing FFG/DDG/CGs at Bath. Two yard strategy is simple close electric boat and either Ingalls or Bath -- Newport News get flattops and subs, the other yard gets everything else. Ultimately, the defense industry should exist to support procurement. Procurement cannot be allowed to exist to support industry.

    As much as politicians from the respective states don't want to hear it and Unions don't want to hear it. We have had that kind of contraction before. During the height of the cold war we had seven yards. But Todd (Washington), Defoe (Michigan) and New York (NJ) are gone now. Can you imagine what the cost of each Burke or Virginia will be if we insist on keeping all our industrial base and split the work amongst seven yards (and their payrolls)?

    1. Here's how I'll envision the USN in 2022

      CVN = 9 (Nimitz 6, George Bush 1, Gerald Ford 2)
      LHD/LHA = 9 (Wasp 7, America 2)
      LPD/LSD = 12 (San Antonio 12, Harpers Ferry 4, Widbey Island 4)
      DDG = 72 (Burke 70, Zumwalt 2)
      FFG = 18 (FFG-X 18)
      SSN = 40 (LA 11, Virginia 26, Seawolf 2, Jimmy Carter 1)
      SSBN = 14 (Ohio 14)
      SSGN = 4 (Ohio 4)
      LCS = 12 (Freedom 6, Independence 6)
      Auxiliaries = 46

      Total = 245

      USN 2032

      CVN = 8 (Nimitz 3, George Bush 1, Gerald Ford 4)
      LHD/LHA = 9 (Wasp 4, America 4)
      LPD/LSD = 18 (San Antonio 18)
      CG = 10 (CG-X 10)
      DDG = 52 (Burke 50, Zumwalt 2)
      FFG = 38 (FFG-X 38)
      SSN = 40 (Virginia 37, Seawolf 2, Jimmy Carter 1)
      SSBN = 12 (Ohio 8, SSBN-X 4)
      LCS = 12 (Freedom 6, Independence 6)
      Auxiliaries = 40

    2. A shipbuilding rate of 6/year equates to a 180 ship fleet, assuming an average 30 year life, or 210 for a 35 year life. The current Navy average is around 30 years and that's unlikely to change. That's a pretty small fleet!

      Your observation about shipyards is, unfortunately, probably correct. That creates a vulnerability. With only a couple yards, loss of one or both to problems leaves the Navy with no means to build ships. Quite an attractive target for Chinese sabotage (physical, cyber, or both).

    3. Well, I really don't see that as a major concern for two reasons. Firstly, any conflict with China or another major power will be fought with whatever is on the Naval rolls at the get go. It is highly unlikely that it spiral into a situation where we need to replace attrition over 7 years like WWII -- the war will be won, lost or have gone Nuclear before it degenerated into a prolonged conventional "total" war. Assuming that they succeed in taking a shipyard offline for a few months or a year it really won't affect the outcome. Secondly, I'll much rather have an infrastructure that runs a risk of becoming dysfunctional if attacked or sabotaged successfully in wartime, than one that is permanently dysfunctional for all the decades leading up to a conflict. This is because 99% of the fleet strength is going to come from the build-up over all these decades not wartime production.

      BTW, a build rate of 6 ships a year is about right for a 240 ship Navy. Remember that of these 240, only about 200 are Man-o-wars. The auxiliaries fleet (tankers, provision ships, etc) are generally not built at any of the aforementioned "warship" yards. The US Navy gets the overwhelming majority of her auxiliaries from National Steel & Shipbuilding (NASSCO). This is actually two yards -- one in San Diego, the other in Norfolk. They don't build warships in general. They build Oil Tankers, container ships, etc. in addition to US Navy auxiliaries.

    4. dwight, your point about fighting a war with China with only the assets on hand is quite valid. As regards shipyard sabotage, I was actually thinking more of peacetime disruption, mainly cyber.

      A build rate of 6 ships per year with a 30 year life is exactly 180 ships. If you want to include non-combat ships in the count to reach 240, that's fine. Comparing your build rate and resulting combat fleet count of 180 to the current 210 (per the post data) shows a 14% drop, continuing the trend identified in the post.

      Whether an adequate number is 180, 210, or something else is another issue.


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