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.

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