Letter from Congressman Randy Forbes and Congressman Todd Akin to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus dated May 1, 2012.

Dear Secretary Mabus:

In 1981, then-Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, issued a Memorandum on “Ship Counting Methodology” for counting Battle Force ships. Noting the political nature associated with how ships are counted, Lehman believed the Carter Administration “overstated the overall size of the Navy” and that a methodology for ship counting was therefore required to count “those ships which actually contribute to the Navy’s wartime mission of combat and support.”

We revisit this history because we are concerned the Department of the Navy may again choose to alter the rules by which it has abided for the last three decades when counting the total Battle Force size in an effort to exhibit to the public a larger fleet than actually exists. In your February 2012 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee you stated that:

The new FSA (Force Structure Analysis) will consider the types of ships included in the final ship-count based on changes in mission, requirements, deployment status, and capabilities. For example, classes of ships previously not part of the Battle Force such as AFSBs developed to support SOF/non-traditional missions, Patrol Combatant craft forward deployed to areas requiring that capability, and COMFORT Class Hospital Ships deployed to provide humanitarian assistance, an expanded core Navy mission, may be counted as primary mission platforms. Any changes in ship counting Rules will be reported and publicized.

To our knowledge, the Congress has not received notification of a change in the rules. And on April 18, 2012, Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert O. Work, reaffirmed this fact when he said “The 300 ships that we [will] have in 2019 are ships that we count right now.” However, in an interview with Defense News from April 30, 2012, Undersecretary Work also stated that the Navy is “looking at updating (its) counting rules.”

Considering your testimony from February and Undersecretary Work’s statements, we write today to inquire if your office has plans to revisit the methodology it has used for counting the Battle Force since the release of the Febtuary 2006 Navy plan for 313-ships? More specifically, is the Navy still considering counting Patrol Coastal Ships (PC) or Hospital Ships (T-AH) as part of the Battle Force? Given that the Congress is tasked by the Constitution to “provide and maintain a Navy,” we trust that any changes to how the Battle Force is counted will be executed in full consultation with the Legislative Branch so that a mutually agreeable outcome can be achieved.

As always, thank you for your service to the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and the Nation.

This letter is posted online in PDF format as part of this AOL Defense article. The May 29, 1981 memo by Secretary Lehman was previously classified, but has since been declassified and is available at this link. If you haven’t seen the memo I encourage you to take a look, because Lehman was specific that the wartime mission of the Navy drove decisions for counting. It is noteworthy that the memo didn’t need much explanation either – in other words the guiding methodology for what was and was not a battle force ship was short, simple, and to the point.

The potential classification of Patrol Coastal Ships (PC) or Hospital Ships (T-AH) as battle force ships is largely seen as a political issue at a time when the Navy is currently having trouble reaching a goal of 300 ships.

For example, what exactly is the point of counting the current Patrol Coastal Ships (PC) as battle force ships? The Navy has never given much thought about the PCs, indeed has never demonstrated until very recently they actually wanted the ships – which is why the US Coast Guard operated several of them for years, and now once the PCs approach end of life the Navy suddenly not only upgrades their weapon capabilities but wants to count PCs as battle force ships? All of the PCs are already between 12-19 years old and their life is only considered to be about 25 years at best – meaning all current PCs are likely to be retired between 2020-2025 anyway. The shipbuilding plan doesn’t include a PC replacement, so other than being able to count ships as part of the battle force for the short term, what exactly is to be gained? Is this only a political issue?

Here is another question… what if the Navy decides to put in a PC replacement? Does counting PCs as battle force ships benefit in any way should a potential PC replacement program pop up?

The Hospital Ships (T-AH) are a different issue entirely. At first my thought was, why not… after all the hospital ships today can serve in a support role for wartime operations, and are used for soft power operations today which are missions that have also been conducted by amphibious ships counted by the rules.

However, the reason I think the Hospital Ships (T-AH) are more problematic is that the hospital ships are specifically used as part of a diplomatic role for the United States, and their missions are executed under concepts rooted in Strategic Communications. Does it undermine the strategic communications aspect of medical diplomacy if the Navy starts counting the hospital ships as part of the “battle force?” All it takes is for one US hating foreign reporter to write a front page article how the Hospital Ships are “battle force ships” according to the US Navy and the STRATCOM of Medical Diplomacy with hospital ships becomes an uphill political climb. If the missions the hospital ships are deployed on have any function in strategic communications on behalf of the United States, it does appear claiming those ships as “battle force ships” would in fact be counter to the purpose of the ships missions in the 21st century, and be counterproductive without any obvious benefit.

I am not sure if the Navy gains by listing the hospital ships as part of the battle force. My sense is there is some loss in strategic communications, but how big or small that loss is depends a lot on how important the Navy considers the strategic communications of the hospital ship missions to be on these medical diplomacy deployments. It may not be a big deal though?

Last week an interview by Chris Cavas of Undersecretary Bob Work that discussed this topic was posted to Navy Times here. It covers the PCs and Hospital Ships, as well as JHSVs and other ships including special mission ships under consideration related to counting rules. Is this simply politics, or is there more to it than politics?

Time will tell.

Posted by galrahn in Navy, Policy

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  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Rhetorical question, I presume. Politics. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Pentagon and in DC.

  • Grandpa,

    Could be and I think you are correct, but I cannot be sure. There may be some advantage to being counted as a battle force ship that I am unaware of, or is not evident yet.

  • Any time someone wants to count a ship that starts with a “T” in it’s designation, they’re lying.

    USNS ships are, almost by definition, not of the Battle Force.

  • leesea

    Again GAL this is all a shell game the Navy is playing to bump their numbers, and the congressional critters are just asking what rules the Navy are they playing by?

    Getting hung up on the word “Battle” is the first problem which is indicative that there are many terminology issues to be clarifed BEFORE the Navy can count ANY ships.

    To my mind many MSC ships belong in the “main body” of the US Navy’s Force for Good~~ (sic) because in this day and age CLF and MPF ships travel with warships as NECESSARY vessels.

    The big blue USN has been clueless on coastal combatants for decades now. Maybe putting the Cyclone PCs into the “main body” will force the Navy to realize that class already needs replacement?

  • leesea

    pardon the thought I left out above is the status of a ship type or class should NOT depend on whether it is a non-combatant or is civilian crewed. The status of a ship or class should be whether the Navy uses them in normal service.

  • And if we are to take the “National Fleet” concept seriously, shouldn’t we count at least some of the Coast Guard ships?

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Define normal service.

    Likely the definition will not include major war, major battles, clandestine attacks in harbor.

    There are three major groups;

    combat(i.e., designed to attack, fight hurt, and win),

    combat support (i.e., designed to successfully defend themselves in a fight, within limits, escort often required) and

    combat service support (designed to be reliable and survive a degree of damage if attacked, but non combatant and undefended by own crew, requiring escort and possible armed guard.) This does not mean will not be in a combat zone, or attacked in time of war.

    Combatant, Auxiliary, and USNS, i.e., civilian manned. The unrep ships blur the distinction, you see not problem with the civilian crews performing a military function (logistic resupply involving being under fire), but nature of war at sea blurs the line as well.

    USNS are seen a manpower saver, i.e., cheaper to run. It all depends on how you count and assign costs, and the effectiveness of on board defenses/defenders if embarked.

    We are still emerging from the cold war, which didn’t have much combat for logistic, service and special mission ships. That, after 45 years of cold war, was a assumed to be normal. When it ended, the peace dividend foolishness set off a search for quick cost savings strategies and dropped manpower allowances. In order to preserve capability and man the most warships they could get away with, the fleet train got civilian manned. There are big penalties for combat readiness and combat survivability in that course of action, but it is now thought to be normal.

    May well not be what the future holds.

  • To ask the PC question a bit differently, are PCs — and MCMs — UNDER-appreciated as battle force ships? I don’t mean to engage in a semantic debate about ‘battle’ but rather ask this in the context of how the Navy thinks of itself. For instance, ensuring access to and from the Persian Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz is one of the U.S. Navy’s most clear and present challenges today. While the classic surface combatant ‘battle force’ ships certainly have a role, the PCs and MCMs necessary to clear and patrol the Strait in a crisis are every bit as much a naval combat mission as protecting a carrier strike group or putting Marines ashore. Yet institutionally, the Navy often seems as ready to jettison what remains of its MCM fleet as the Air Force is to get rid of the A-10 — and long before the MCM modules for the LCS are viable.

    The fuzzy math aspect of Galrahn’s question is of course central. But it raises in my mind the question of why there isn’t a PC(X) requirement — a requirement that, however the Navy decides to count it, is also about being able to go into harm’s way.

  • A 350 ton PC mounting a SeaRAM, one or two Mk38mod2s, and some of these might be very useful in the Straits:

  • Capt. HW “Woody” Sanford,MC,USNR(ret.)

    I believe the Hospital Ships were deployed in the First Gulf War to engage in their proper role- treatment of Battle Casualties. As it tuned out, though, the “war” only lasted 100 hours and most of the limited number of casualties/patients were treated on land or evacuated to permanent facilities in the US or Europe. Of Course, they could have done more, but as a result of Gen. Schwarzkopf’s planning and quick action, they weren’t really needed. Those of us in the Medical Corps(active and reserve) in the 1980s were delighted and proud to get “our own” ships, but, at least in my mind, there was always some question about the use of those vessels. They are converted San Clemente Class Oil Tankers, ships made obsolete by the advent of the Supertankers. I have never been aboard one, yet I did see original design plans when they were being built. The Imaging spaces included a Cat Scanner, but I saw no special design for the unique POWER requirements for such a machine. CT machines also require significant more cooling capacity than other spaces and almost continuous computer upgrading and calibration. X-ray tube design was much behind the times in those years. My first machine, the GE 8800(about 1981-82,)could produce about 6,000 images, not that many in CT work, before the tube blew. Bottom Line, the ships were wonderful in concept, but technically impractical.

    I have no magic ideas of what to do with Mercy and Comfort, but I cannot imagine them serving as part of a “Battle Force” as I understand that term.

    Anchors Away, Y’all!