Forces: Is The U.S. Navy Too Small?


September 22, 2005: For some years now we have been hearing claims from some people that the U.S. Navy (USN) is "too small" to meet the nation's maritime defense needs. Quite frequently,  comparisons are made with some date in the past; "The Navy today has fewer ships than it did in 1930." Well, that's true. In 1930 the Navy had 357 ships in commission, while today it has about 290. Of course, the 1930 figure comprises just 140 or so major warships (battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers) about 80 submarines, for a total of about 220 combatants. The balance included 36 mine warfare vessels, about 30 gunboats, and nearly 70 auxiliaries of various sorts.

  And today? Well, there are eleven carriers plus 102 surface combatants, as well as 72 submarines, for a total of "only" 185 combatants. In addition, are 36 amphibious warfare vessels, a category that did not exist in 1930, a dozen of which are 40,000 ton V/STOL carriers, plus 17 mine warfare vessels, 34 logistics support ships, and c. 18 miscellaneous vessels. 
So the fleet certainly is smaller than it was in 1930. 

But precisely what does that mean? And does it have any relevance to what the size of the fleet should be today, or at any other period? After all, in 1930 the USN had some competition on the high seas. The British Royal Navy was actually larger than the USN, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was around 70 percent of its size. 

Today, the USN enjoys  a "17 Navy standard"; that is, the total tonnage of Uncle Sam's fleet is equal to the combined total tonnage of the next 17 smaller navies. Even combining the two biggest potential naval competitors (the Chinese and the Russians), the USN still outclasses them by over 3:1 in tonnage, and it has substantially more combat power. Of the world's 34 aviation power projection platforms (i.e., vessels capable of operating combat aircraft), the US owns 24 (71-percent), eight times more than the second leading navy, the decidedly friendly Royal Navy, which has with three V/STOL carriers. In addition, the US surface fleet carries four times as many VLS (vertical missile launchers) cells as the rest of the world navies combined.  The  US submarine fleet enjoys better force ratios against the next two most numerous underwater fleets than it did against the Soviets during the Cold War. 

Moreover, USN numbers are slated to rise, with a dozen "littoral combat ships" to be commissioned within the next six years and a dozen more within three years after that, even as the first "SeaBasing" ships begin to join the fleet. And then there are the ships of the Military Sealift Command, which operates the "Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force," scores of tugs, supply, ammunition, and other vessels, include the Navy's two hospital ships, none of which are technically "in commission" as part of the fleet, as well as the nation's pre-positioning, sealift, and "special purpose" (i.e., oceanographic, spy ships, etc.) vessels.

Today, the USN has greater command of the world's oceans than any fleet has ever possessed.




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