These past few weeks SECDEF Gates has turned to the perennial question of “how much is enough?’ and in the process, has on a couple of occasions called out Navy for its overwhelming capacity in certain areas – subs and aircraft carriers immediately come to mind. That carriers get highlighted is not surprising – they are after all, a large, highly visible symbol, representative of the collective industrial and military power of the United States.

It is perhaps fittingly coincidental that this discussion falls between the anniversaries of the Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway – signatory engagements that both changed the direction of the war and sealed the role of the aircraft carrier and her embarked airwing as a preeminent weapons system (along with the submarine) in taking back the Asian Pacific areas invaded and occupied by the Japanese empire.

It also guaranteed that the carrier would have a huge “bullseye” on it post-war as the budgeters’ drew their long knives. Yet it was the aircraft carrier that less than half a decade later, provided the needed close air support to UN forces in the face of the North Korean onslaught, when the airfields in Korea were overrun and the “safe” fields in Japan and Okinawa were too far away to provide the kind of overhead persistence carrier aircraft could provide until land-based fields could be secured and more aircraft brought in.

I bring this up as a preamble to highlighting an “interesting” comparison made of the numbers we maintain vs. “other countries” – like these lines from the 3 May speech before the Navy League Sea-Air exposition:

In assessing risks and requirements even in light of an expanding array of global missions and responsibilities everything from shows of presence to humanitarian relief some context is useful:

  • The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells. In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet a proxy for overall fleet capabilities exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.

All interesting and makes for nice bits for the 30-second news report of preservation of column inches – but it lacks context. For example – at a recent press conference for MDA’s FY2011 budget, the Agency’s Executive Director indicated a total buy of 430 SM-3 across the FYDP extending into FY16. That’s a pinch over 5% of the 8,000 VLS launchers SECDEF referred to, and yet if you tally up open source numbers of SRBM/MRBMs, you can find in some theaters commanders are facing a ballistic missile threat on the order of 500-1000 missiles.

In one theater.

Additionally, not all Aegis ships are configured for BMD, which further limits flexibility in deploying forces and increases the demand signal for the ships that are configured.

Subs – I’ve yet to hear anyone looking at the growing threat posed by regional powers deploying AIP subs armed with the latest generation of supersonic cruise missiles (SS-N-27/Klub) that we have too many SSNs. And carriers? Again, show me a COCOM who hasn’t placed a significant demand signal on carrier generated sorties over the past 7 years that thinks we have too many carriers.

The rub here, and again to put this in context, is that a simple 1:1 map of capabilities with other nations isn’t realistic in that it ignores a fundamental geographical principle – as an island nation (globally speaking) we have greater distances to surmount, lack access to interior lines of communication and have to bring our logistics with us. Nothing new here – the principles are the same today as they were in 1933 when Navy finally realized the effect of the Washington Navy Treaty had on the fleet and our warplanes – that instead of a dash and smash against the Japanese to defend the Philippines, we were going to have to take a 3-5 year slug it out approach to work our way back across the Pacific.

While it is true that post-Cold War our Navy has decreased in size while others have followed suite – still others are reversing that trend. Not to repeat here as it has been and will be discussed at length at other times and venues, but it is no secret that China, for example, is growing its navy and Russia has recently announced its intent to plus up its navy in terms of numbers and blue-water capacity (though there are doubts based on several factors, industrial capacity and capability being but one, that it will be able to do so). Still, it would be erroneous for us to “build down” to their numbers since, as either regional powers and/or occupants of the greater Eurasian continent, the imperatives that drive their strategies, their force structure and their operational construct are different than ours.

So what would be a construct for force sizing? Navies in particular are hard to quantify in one neat measure. In the past we’ve used number of hulls, gross tonnage, etc. mostly in isolation and usually to our detriment. In another forum I participate in, there has been discussion of other measures, like dwell time. It seems to me that measure may be the better measure. If, for example, we cite all the bi- and multi-lateral engagements and agreements advocated by the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for Seapower in the 21st Century, we might well find ourselves in a situation where our deployed-to-in-port ratio stands at 1:1, which we historically know is unsupportable. Perhaps that measure (dwell time) could be further refined, taken another page from SECDEF’s speech, and apply a tonnage modifier, being as how it has been said that a warship’s displacement is the best measure of its capability[1]. In that case, the requirement would follow from the COCOM requirements and warplan constructs (or use the force planning constructs in the QDR). One possible hint may be in the (still) forthcoming NOC, which may be released, though in classified form, in the coming week.

The simple fact of the matter, however, is that SECDEF has set his sites on making a resource constrained budget and has in the process, identified initial areas to be explored – and that there apparently will not be any sacred cows left untouched (e.g., personnel costs, FO/GO billets). Unlike ships (or aircraft) billets can be re-added downrange in a quicker manner than say reconstituting a class of ships or mission capability and hence, as a service, Navy needs to ensure it is entering the forthcoming discussions knife fight well prepped with a force sizing construct that yields a force economical not only in dollar cost to build and support, but in mission capabilities.

Interesting times ahead indeed for all…

[1] Till, Geoffrey. 1975. Biggest or Best: The Navy and its Great Ships. The RUSI Journal. 120(3):54-58. < >. (accessed 11 May 2010).

(Crossposted at

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  • Sounds like a good time to lok at ships designed for reduced manning…

  • Byron

    You mean that wonderful piece of design called “LCS”? Please…

  • Marcase

    Counting ones marbles is not logical when you’re holding pearls. Don’t look at the USN as a collection of platforms, but as a collection of ‘effects’.

  • YNSN

    I can’t shake the notion that the SECDEF is firing for effect with his words, to shape the battle space for what’s to come. He as well as anyone else understands the direct contributions of the very forces he is looking to cut.

    I don’t think that outside of a known-known number of needless redundancies and over-priced and over-hyped weapon systems we ask congress to pay for, the SECDEF has a problem with the DoD itself.

    The problems have always been around the DoDs ability to acquire weapon systems, congress to allowing the greatest inefficiencies in building systems, and the self-interest of the defense industry. Am I correct in saying that?

    Many of the problems I’ve seen in the US are related to the notion that nothing will ever be as bad as it could be: There are always second chances, work arounds, and dumb luck that ‘gets America by’: someone else will do the heavy lifting and everything will be peachy. This same mindset pervades in the defense industry which spreads work amongst most, if not all, congressional districts to ensure that a member of congress can’t do what’s right in many instances.

    The only way the SECDEF can win in this is by gambit, and follow through on his words. I hope to h311 he does, I will ride the storm out on active duty, because I know that once the point has been made, the bloat removed from the defense industry, we will be the better for it. These patriotic defense firms need to ask themselves if their lobbying efforts are worth the possible (likely) erosion of the dominant role the US has in World affairs.

    What the SECDEF is pushing for is little different from what Chuck Spinney, John Boyd and even Ike had to say decades ago. Walking around KAF I find it repugnant that a ‘cost saving’ measure brings a contractor out here to watch TCNs do my laundry and earn himself nearly 100k a year by doing so.

    The system is being played and the guy who gets the shaft the most out of all of it is the E-nothing like myself. Enough of this charade. We as a Navy can either work with the SECDEF on this, or let him run right over us. In seeing what Admiral Harvey had to say over at his place, I think the Navy might just be following the SECDEF’s lead.

  • YNSN

    One last thing.

    There was a remarkable quote, attributed to Eisenhower, “I say the patriot today is the fellow who can do the job with less money.”

    It is the patriotic duty of every citizen–let alone a defense contractor–to get the job done even if it means they must sacrifice. We have been fighting this war for nearly ten years, and outside of the 1% of Americans in the Armed Forces and their families, I cannot point to another sector of American society that has been asked to do much for this war effort. It is time we asked the 1% (rough estimate, I really have no idea how many people are employed by the defense industry) of America that works in the defense industry to also sacrifice.

  • Derrick

    I think if the US Navy explained the number and type of forces required at sea to protect US interests and support 2 major theater conflicts, that would help the US public understand what is required and where to spend the money. My first impression of the statement regarding the numbers of carriers and submarines was that the presenter was expecting the US Navy to face 1 navy at a time, in one specific location at a time, as opposed to deterring multiple navies from attempting to control the oceans. Perhaps the US navy should iterate what its expectations of itself are?

  • Byron

    The Congress, the DoD, and the President are the ones that must say, “this is what we need”. They must not be short sighted and say, “thisi is the war we fight now, and have for 20 years”, and think that this will be the war they fight for the next 30. They must always remember that there is always someone else trying ver hard to come up with ways to do our nation harm. We must always remember that for many years we have fought with the idea that our technology (F-22, M1-A1, Virginia Class, etc) enables a few of us to kill many of them. If we sacrifice this capability, we will put ourself in a dangerous place.

    Last, look at the percentage of our budget that pays for the defense of our nation. Not at the whole number, but as a fraction of the rest of our budget. When you’re done, ask if this is a fair price to defend the nation.

    It’s just that simple.

  • Am I wrong in believing we have a Navy to accomplish certain function in furtherance of a national strategy? The current core national strategy for the navy is the control of the ocean commons. Is that strategy to change?

  • YNSN:
    Not sure how much exposure you’ve had to those who work in the defense industry (beyond laundry contractors), and it is entirely possible that those you have seen or come in direct contact with left you with a poor impression. If so, that is unfortunate because I can pass along that those I’ve been acquainted with for the better part of the past 9+ years have been giving all that they can — beginning with the contractors and Navy civilians I knew in the Navy Command Center on Sept 11.
    By and large they are mission focused, devote extra time to the tasks at hand, mentor and train new and seasoned active duty personnel alike, stand shoulder to shoulder with their active duty counterparts during crisis situations and to a man (and woman) would gladly change places for an opportunity to contribute kinetically.
    They regularly go well above and beyond what is called for in the contract, rarely receive compensation for doing so (and don’t do it expecting as such) and are happy for the occasional recognition letter or just a thanks. The satisfaction comes from knowing they’re part of the same team.

    ‘least ways that’s been my experience – on both sides of the fence. YMMV.
    w/r, SJS


    The problem with comparing Navy against Navy is that the US Navy is not expected to fight only other navies. The US Navy doesn’t have a lot of diesel subs either, so we obviously have a diesel sub gap, right? What is important is your expected use. Who cares how many more carriers you have when you don’t expect your carriers to fight other carriers (or navies for that matter)? Since the end of the Cold War, and largely since the end of WWII, the US Navy carrier force has largely been focused on influencing events on land, not on winning battles at sea.
    If you look at deployments of the force, be it Korea, Vietnam, Cold War Strategies, Grenada, Gulf War I & II, Kosovo, OEF, etc, virtually every use of the Carrier Force revolved around projecting power on land or fighting our way to where we could project power on land. And why is this, because we are a long way from where we may need to be to influence the fight. This is the same reason the USAF has 400+ Tankers. How many other nations have 20 or for that matter even 10? If you want a US Carrier forward presence in the IO and Pacific at the same time, you need 9-11 carriers. Its that simple. Now, do they all need to be FORD or NIMITZ class carriers? Do we really need a DDG-1000 that can operate in the Littorals? Do we need stealth, or is reduced RCS good enough? Does a LCS really need to go 55kts or is the requirement just a flashback to the PHMs and 100kt navy of the 70s? Does the new SSBN need to be anything more than an enlarged Virginia class? These are all questions that need to be asked and better (and more expensive)is always the worst enemy of good enough.

  • Byron

    YNSN: don’t forget, I’m one of those contractors 😉

  • USNVO:
    Most all CV studies have validated the size/sustainabilty equation that have given us the Kitty Hawk/Nimitz/Ford-class sized CV/CVNs, especially for persistent forward deployed presence in the IO and Pacific. Instead, I’d ask if the right mix of a/c are in the respective airwings to enable those carriers to do more than just power projection. With a few exceptional instances, the nations we’ve fought these past few decades have generally not sought to come out and directly engage or deny access to our fleet — and on those occasions they were vastly overwhelmed. I thnk it is safe to say that will not be the case in the future, especially as the toolset for anti-access/area denial expands.
    w/r, SJS

  • Mike M.

    Several minor points.

    First, reduced crew size does not equal LCS. ADM Metcalf argued that surface combatants were overmanned decades ago. Subs, too. It’s a design habit that grew out of an age of cheap labor and expensive hardware. These days, labor is expensive and hardware is cheap, so you revise the designs to use less manpower.

    Second, I think the smartest play the Navy could make is to counterattack. Protect ships and Fleet strength by proposing reductions in ashore staffs. Particularly the Pentagon. Then follow up by proposing reductions in useless overhead workload, such as data calls from the Pentagon (and OSD).

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “It’s a design habit that grew out of an age of cheap labor and expensive hardware. ”

    No, that design habit grew out of USS Franklin, USS Johnston, USS Hazelwood, USS Laffey, USS Montpelier, and hundreds of other warships that survived the furnace of combat by having sufficient damage control personnel, engine and boiler room manning, and weapons/CIC crews to survive despite severe damage and heavy loss of life and stay in the fight as long as possible.

  • YNSN

    I apologize, I should not have allowed my words to encompass such a large group of people.

    My words got carried away because I honestly feel that too many jobs in the military which we said to confer honor to a serviceman is now given to civilians. What is the meaning of my military life when civilians can do it better than I can?

    If that is to continue, another version of the “Soldier and the State” is going to be needed. The lines are far too blurred in AFG for me to make sense of it.

    The fact remains however. That what the SECDEF is doing is right. My biggest regret is that my point was lost due to my comments on contractors.

    Of course, Byron and his cohorts are always exempt from any rant I may have.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You are a gracious professional.

    Your point is not entirely unfounded, as I would point to Eisenhower’s famous warning of the “military-industrial complex” as perhaps a great deal of the cause of massive weapons system costs, particularly with shipbuilding and aviation.

    Even with a 10% budget cut in weapons procurement, my gut tells me we could do far more with the national treasure than we do.

  • Byron

    YNSN, there’s a lot of my “cohorts” that leave a LOT to be desired, included the ship you were sent IA from. A lot of guys like me have worked hard to fix the many discrepancies and deliver a combat ship back to the Fleet.

  • Looks like eleven big targets that would be very vulnerable if the proper attack were mustered by WWII era aircraft. I would gladly explain how to the proper interested party.

  • Melinda

    It seems a bit unfair to try to compare the size of our Navy to other Navies when we are “expected” to respond to every disaster and world event. Realizing that technology has advanced substantially, that alone does not decrease required manpower. LCS is manned at such a skeleton crew that the loss of even one sailor significantly impacts the entire crew. Optimum manning is a great concept until billets are gapped and IA’s are still supported from shipboard personnel. Downsizing also has a significant impact when the immediate need again arises to mass forces.

  • Fouled Anchor

    “Optimum manning” too often becomes “minimum manning.” Optimum is the number needed to operate all systems while maintaining a reasonable watch schedule, and any additional number of damage control personnel needed as URR mentioned.

    Optimum is what it takes to fight and survive, not the fewest (read: cheapest) to get underway.


    Just because “Most all CV studies have validated the size/sustainabilty equation that have given us the Kitty Hawk/Nimitz/Ford-class sized CV/CVNs, especially for persistent forward deployed presence in the IO and Pacific.” doesn”t mean they are right. For instance, all of them start with certain assumptions and then determine the best fit given the assumptions. If the assumptions were wrong, so were the conclusions. As an OA guy, I can tell you how to skew the questions to give you the answer you want for just about anything. Having looked at a lot of the studies, someone else obviously did just that for most of them. Additionally, virtually every study assumes that all the carriers would be the same size. Perhaps a mix of large and medium carriers would better meet the requirements. Not saying they would, just saying it is worth studying. Of note, I am a big fan of the FORD class, but a different mix of ships than 10 FORD Class may be better. In WWII, almost all the air defense ended up being assigned to the CVLs because they could spot and launch aircraft faster because they had fewer aircraft and all were fighters. Certainly the ESSEX class was better in all respects, but the CVLs were good enough for some missions and more CVLs were better for some missions than fewer ESSEX class. Maybe something the size of the French CdG that is conventionally powered and mechanically reliable. Lets not forget, the current carrier airwings have fewer planes than before but can generate as many sorties.
    You point on the CVW composition is well taken but its worth studying the mix of ships as well.
    Better is always the enemy of good enough. Do we really need AEGIS destroyers chasing Somali pirates or Haitian refugees? Is 80 DDGs really better than say 60DDGs and 50FFGs. If nothing else, the DDG/FFG mix can be more places at the same time. Is one 55kt $500million dollar LCS better than two 27kt $300million dollar conventional ships with 4-6 times the mission payload? Sometimes more is better and sometimes its just more.

  • USNVO:

    Roger all — our fundamental problem is that it takes 10-15 years to go from concept to OPEVAL, that we build those ships over another 10-15 years to last 25-50 years and during that period there is a parade of FO’s, CNOs, SECNAVs and SECDEFs each with their own agendas, outlooks and strategies, oft times clashing with one another. Were we to have an enduring strategy and supporting operational concept, perhaps we might see some stability and sanity in our shipbuilding program – but I digress.
    Ob. CVs — sure, the CVLs and CVEs had a place in a much larger Navy. What they lacked the CVBs made up for in capacity and capability. Frankly, I think anything smaller than a Forrestal class is too small for today’s requirements. I continue to watch with interest the development of the new joint carrier project between Britain and France, especially if EMALS becomes an option. There might be something there worth looking into to supplement the Ford’s to come.
    Apropos chasing (and preferably, terminating) pirates, maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Even at 55 knots there is still the tyranny of distance and time in the broad area off the HOA and other spots to continue to use surface craft. Maybe it’s time we brought back the P5M Marlin (with turboprops this time) for armed maritime patrol? I think there’d be application to supplement the P-8/BAMS and even HLS missions back home. I’m all for unchaining the DDG/CGs from this mission because, frankly, they’ve got some very important missions that only they have the capacity to undertake.
    w/r, SJS

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    The correct answer remains 15 carrier battle groups – five for overhaul and major maintenence, five for workup and training, 4 deployed and one in hot standby or relieving the Pensacola nugget
    training carrier to it can get some maintenence and liberty.

    Big deck big well amphib call ’em what you like (LB, any one?) BG’s: 12, same rationale except subtract 1 from each category above.

    12 LPD

    24 LST do the math (Yea, yea, never going to do it again, A-bomb, too hard etc, etc.) Baloney in 1950, Baloney now.

    30 CG’s AA, ABM, pinch hit for a DDG if things are slow or the attacking enemy is multitudinous.

    60 DDGs more close in AA, shore bombardment, ASW, ASuW, y’all come, who wants to die next. The escort of maximum versitility

    30 AK/E/O/F; mix and match the letters but 1 big logistics mother per BG. Current crop can’t do it all? Pair ’em as Task Element .1 &.2. Ammo and beans and fuel oil, we deliver, any time, any ocean.

    60 DD’s; all with hanger and two helo, or 1 harrier 1 helo. 400 ft of ship generating white water, black smoke and 360 degrees of sudden death.

    120 FF , because you need to escort civilians and every other kind of ship sometime.

    Amphib command ships: zero. Ride the big deck or stay home.

    SSN’s 48, SS 24, SSBN 18. Boomers big and med speed, magic quiet.

    SSN’s for blue water, SS’s for chokepoint and harbor entrance. All Seal capable.

    Auxiliaries, as needed.

    LR MPA, 3 wings.One squadron/wing amphib VP, why not?

    SSBN support as needed.

    CDR’s Intent: The Ocean belongs to USN, free use to friends, no use to enemies.

    Now put Port Security,

    Customs and Border Patrol under strict USMC supervision….then peace will rule our planet (after some vigorous cleaning,lubrication, alignment and calibration), and love will fill the skies….

    and just to encourage a little frothing at the keyboard….

    Merge the USAF and the Army.

    US Passport to vote, that plus an honorable discharge to run for national office. Must be shown at the door/ copies posted at every polling station.

    Or we could give up PAX AMERICA OCEANA and wait for the mushroom clouds, relive 1942/3.

    Who are we going to fight. If we do it right, nobody much.

    Ok, peanut gallery, take your best shot. Gramps is standing by.

  • Byron

    I’m with Granpa, 110%. I nominate him for SECDEF (no, I don’t hate you, how about CNO? 🙂 )

  • I believe that the US Navy made a huge mistake in ship building practice by adopting a standard hull form for its surface combatants in the Spruance hull and then trying to fit certain weapons packages into this hull. The first generation or WWII ships of the carrier era being small (destroyers), intermediate (cruisers), and large(battleships) gave the carrier task force a huge amount of options and staying power. As these ships were retired in the 70s the navy became unbalanced choosing basically a light cruiser sized ship for all surface combatant.

    You first design the weapons you wish the platform to carry and then build the hull around that. There will be no more battles of Midway. Nuclear weapons eliminated that form of conventional warefare. The submarine has been largely mission killed as a US sub has not sunk a single ship since WWII. They have had little to no impact on Korea, Vietnam, or Desert Storms 1 and 2. Yet gun cruisers and battleships all played a role. This reflects more on how nuclear weapons have ended Total War scenarios. While subs remain important their major function is now a deterent to war and would play a role in a major war with a power that has some form of navy.

    What the Navy has forgotten is that the US Navy’s true power in WWII was the staying power of the fleet. The combatants could stay at the front lines due to the logistical support behind them moving from one operation to the next. This is the true measure of control of the seas. Modern weapons come at a huge cost in limited numbers and the fact they can not be re-armed at sea. So today this can only be achieved by huge concentration to bring enough weapons that the fleet does not run out in a few days of combat. Thus you need a huge fleet.

    Forward bases are increasingly vulnerable to ballistic missiles or political intimidation when they are not in US control. The Carrier task force on a whole needs to be re-designed primarily at the surface ship level so that it has a mix of large, intermediate, and small sized ships. Small ships need to be bigger than LCS. A Burke is a light cruiser and too few can be built an operated to maintain fleet responsibilities.

    Large combatants are needed with enough offensive firepower to compliment the carrier airwing and provide staying power both in offense and defensive capability as well as a logistical capability. What made the carrier task force so complete in WWII is that they had all of these capabilities.

    In addition the support fleet must be balanced to the combatants so that the Navy can operate without the reliance of forward bases not under US control. Overall the Navy today is paying a price for a mistaken ideology of the 1970s in ship design.