A Tale of Two Services

Surprisingly, this takes a while to build

There’s a lot of talk out there about boosts to defense budgets here, cuts to others there, and Armed Services of increased sizes everywhere. But at this point, it must be made clear that it really is just talk. No president ever gets the budget they want – only Congress can spend money. No reason to get nervous or, alternatively, cocky.

But be that as it may, let’s take such intentions as a given and see how they play out in the real world.

The Army is ready to go! They have taken their marching orders and are ready to increase end strength by 28,000 troops this year. It doesn’t exactly turn on a dime but, when you consider the scale of it – it nudges the total Active, Reserve and Guard strength to just over one million people – that’s pretty fast. The history of the Army is one of rapid swings up and down.

Then there’s the Navy. Growth cannot move fast. Speed is not a thing. A ship is an enormous capital investment. The Navy might be able to get some new aircraft in short order, or maybe some other smaller equipment, but a new ship or submarine – the backbone of the force – will take years. The industrial base for rapid expansion does not exist. You can order new ships, but where will you build them? Who will do the labor? Pretty much everyone still capable of doing the work already is. So there’s a bit more legwork to do before making this a reality. And the will to do so must remain intact for years on end.

Simply maintaining a navy, let alone expanding one, requires enormous sustained political support across the executive and legislative branches, and the people they represent. Sea power maven Bryan McGrath articulates the need for a naval narrative here. We would do well to listen.

In short, maritime trade and freedom of the seas is the very basis for global prosperity. Threats to that flow must be deterred (preferably) or eliminated (occasionally). But the forces to do so cannot simply be called into existence – if you need them, you’d better already have them. And if you don’t, someone else will fill the vacuum… probably someone unattractive.

So what will happen now? Despite the big numbers being thrown around not a whole lot, even if they become law. Readiness will be improved; the current force could be brought into slightly better shape. But actual growth? Not during this presidential term.

Reversals

Deterrence is usually packaged in steel boxes

Remember the good old days when Europe was at peace and Russia was a bosom buddy? Neither do I, but back in 2013 we certainly were operating that way. Here’s a blast from the recent past:

The U.S. Army’s 69-year history of basing main battle tanks on German soil quietly ended last month when 22 Abrams tanks, a main feature of armored combat units throughout the Cold War, embarked for the U.S.

Turns out, maybe that was not well thought out. But don’t worry, they’re on it:

Determined to deter the rising Russian threat, the US Army is slashing the time it takes for a brigade to get ready for battle once it’s arrived in Europe, from over 40 days to under 10.

I won’t comment on that any further; it’s proposed here as something for you to think about.

But as long as we’re talking about tanks, enjoy some long-lost verse about mechanized warfare from the creator of Winnie the Pooh.

— End transmission —

Context and Counting

“Count THIS!” said Teddy Roosevelt

This blog has been illuminating pixels for more than a year now, but has never covered a simple topic that pops up in the news with some regularity – historic fleet counts. The reason, most likely, is that it is annoying. Such historic comparisons are both meaningless and fraught with symbolism; educational and mind-numbing. And in the hands of the uninformed or misinformed, they only make you dumber than when you started.

So let’s get started!

The most recent instance of journalists attempting to count ships was last week when POTUS (not SMOD, sadly) visited the shipyard in Newport News to announce his defense spending plan. Speaking to a naval crowd, he repeated a common statement that the Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916, as measured by the number of hulls displacing water.

This is true, if one sticks strictly to raw numbers. The New York Times, of course, was quick to point out that today’s ships are rather more capable than a century ago.

The Navy swelled from 245 ships in 1916 to a peak of over 6,000 during World War II, downsizing between conflicts and bulking up during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. From the 1970s, the Navy gradually began to shrink to a total battle force of 275 ships as of September 2016.

But that fleet includes 10 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, 11 amphibious assault ships and 68 submarines, 14 of which are armed with nuclear warheads.

I hate to call the NYT staff a bunch of simpletons (especially as a journalism major myself), but, well… context, people. Context. Of course capabilities have changed over the years.

But what was the mission of the fleets in those respective eras?

What ships were at the tip of the spear and which had other roles?

And do those ships have any technological advantage over their adversaries?

In order to get a cleaner comparison, let us first acknowledge that the nature of most of the fleet has changed. The monitors and steel gunboats of 1916 have no equivalents today, for example, and today’s aircraft carriers had no Edwardian ancestors. Fortunately, we still have major surface combatants – basically, your battleships and cruisers of 1916 and cruisers and destroyers of 2017. These are the backbone of the fleet, whose mission of sea control has remained more or less constant since the days of sail.

So what are the numbers?

In December of 1916, the U.S. Navy had on its books 36 battleships and 30 cruisers – a total of 66 major surface combatants. Worth noting: there were also 25 “auxiliaries,” which are basically the ships that carry fuel and supplies for the combatants (the guys celebrated here). Like sea control, this mission is also relatively constant over time.

So, how’s the score today? One hundred years later, in September of 2016, the U.S. Navy operated 22 cruisers and 63 destroyers, totaling 85 major surface combatants. Additionally, there were precisely 29 vessels providing fleet logistics.

What we see in this view is that over the century, the combatant force increased by just under a third (from 66 to 85) while the logistics force increased about 15 percent.

Now let’s break it down further – assume it takes four ships on the books to deploy one. Essentially, you have one ship training to deploy, one on deployment, one recently returned, and one going through overhaul.

Then take that number and divide it in two, since geography forces the U.S. to have a two-ocean navy.

Don’t worry, I did it for you here (decimals are rounded down to whole numbers).

Year Surface Combatants Deployed Deployed from Each Coast
1916 66 16 8
2016 85 21 10

 

What we see is that the American ability to send a floating piece of steel to a given crisis somewhere on Planet Earth is not that much different than a century ago. Granted, the 2016 number is slightly higher, but when one accounts for squadron operations (ships rarely sail independently) this really means we can only have a sea combat-capable presence in three or maybe four separate regions around the world. Given the intended 60/40 Pacific/Atlantic split, our abilities in the Pacific might be a little better, but in the Atlantic it’s actually worse.

Yes, we have carriers too, but only one is typically deployed per coast at a time (we recently had a grand total of zero), so they don’t change the end result that much.

If we thought that degree of presence was enough in 1916, when we still played second- or third-fiddle to the British – well, maybe with the increased responsibilities of the 21st Century, ratcheting it up might be a tad helpful.

Technology affects what a ship can do when it arrives somewhere, but as for being present there at all, a century of technical innovations can’t change basic facts of geography, fuel consumption curves, or the strategic value of the simple presence of a combat force. The toys are just details – but they are dazzling, and too often cause us (and naive reporters) to lose sight of why they exist.

And, about the toys – the enemy has those, too.

So, probably best not to rely on that.