How Strong Is the U.S. Navy Really?

This is a guest post by political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva.


In the last debate, Governor Romney made the claim that the US Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916 implying that the US Navy is regressing in terms of overall strength. How accurate is this claim? We recently compiled a new data set on naval capabilities and created a measure of state naval strength for all countries from 1865 to 2011. As such, we are in a position to address the claims of the Romney campaign.

Broadly stated, our measure of state naval power is based on a state’s total number of warships (non-fighting ships are excluded) and each ship’s available firepower. To make comparisons over time, our annual measure is based on available firepower within the international system in that year.  (For more information, see our paper here.)

In 1916, the US controlled roughly 11% of the world’s naval power. This is an impressive number that ranks the US third in naval strength behind the UK (34%) and Germany (19%), and just ahead of France (10%). What about the US navy in 2011? In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world’s naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%).

The US Navy has decreased in absolute size as Governor Romney argues (although this decline has been ongoing since the end of Cold War). U.S. warships are more powerful now than in the past, as President Obama implied. However, neither the number of warships nor the power of our ships is what is most important for understanding military and political influence. It is relative military power that matters most. In this respect, the U.S. navy is far stronger now than in 1916.

92 Responses to How Strong Is the U.S. Navy Really?

  1. Andreas Moser October 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    When was the last time a US naval vessel was successfully attacked?
    I think it was the USS Cole in Yemen. If this only happens every two decades or so, that’s quite good for a navy.

    • sigint October 23, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

      I believe the 50% number actually understates things. The ships that really mater today are aircraft carriers (both CTOL and STOVL) and nuclear submarines. The US currently has about 18 aircraft carriers. Even the biggest navies (Russia, France, India, Italy, Spain and China) have one each in operation. So we have 3x as many carriers. The nuclear submarine situation is a bit less lopsided. We have 50 nuclear subs in the fleet today and the rest of the world have about the same number. With the exception of France and the UK, however, the rest of the world’s nuclear subs rarely put to sea. China has nine SSNs right now but they rarely put to sea. So we can afford to shrink to 200 ships, and still retain a big edge over any one country.

      • jee October 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm #


        How do you get 18 carriers? We have 11, we’re making one inactive in December to bring us to 10.

        • Total October 24, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

          A number of what we call “amphibious assault” ships are actually small aircraft carriers.

          • Steve October 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

            Amphibs are not aircraft carriers. Thier capabilities and missions are quite different. An aircraftcarrier is solely focused on projecting airpower into a combat operation. That airpower can operate independantly or in support of a a larger force joint force. An amphib is designed to deliver combat forces (boots on the ground) via air or sea lift and provide the organic air and logistics support to that ground force (Marines). It carries a much smaller compliment of fighter aircraft (about 1/5 of a carrier) Harriers and eventaull F35Bs. It is inaccurate to describe the amphib as a “min–carrier.” An amphib could not come close to providing the air combat power of a carrier and a carrier could not carry and deliver marine forces to an objective.

      • Peter4011 October 24, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

        Just as an end to amphibious assaults is rendering the Marines a relic of days gone by, cruise missiles will eventually degrade the effectiveness of surface ships.

        Our attack submarines, on the other hand, probably cumulativey have as much explosive power as was expended on both sides in WW II.

        • Austin August 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

          Not true, modern ships, especially aircraft carriers, have numerous advanced defenses against cruise missiles to the point that some ships are practically invulnerable. Surface ships are going to be around for a long time yet.

          This is a very good (if long) article explaining the defenses of our nuclear powered aircraft carriers. specifically in reference to cruise missiles: The ability of defenders to share a common picture of the battlespace, and to view any particular threat from multiple aspects,
          greatly enhances the survivability of the carrier battle group. Even stealthy, sea-skimming cruise missiles are unlikely to escape
          detection, and defensive weapons can be employed with maximum efficiency. At the outermost perimeter, those weapons would
          consist of the carrier’s interceptor aircraft, armed with air-to-air missiles. Closer in, the interceptors would be supplemented with
          surface-to-air missiles carried on Aegis destroyers and cruisers. The final layer of defensive weapons consists of the carrier’s own
          missiles, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (a 20 mm Gatling gun that shoots over 4,000 rounds per minute), decoys and
          electronic countermeasures.

      • john October 24, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

        And 18 of those 50 are ohio class. I belive that the Russian fleet is preety much a relic and in 10 or 20 years theys sub fleet will be around 10 subs in total. Due to difficulties in building and financing the Borei class and financing. Rest of the navy´s around the globe that has any strike capabilitys are Allies to the US so your Navy is Big enough. And trying to compare early 20th century navy to 21 century navy is stupid.

      • Mark Spence October 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

        Interesting. How did you arrive at the number of 200 and not 250 or 150?

    • Wharton MBA October 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Andreas, Moser, any submariner will tell you (accurately, I believe) that U.S. and other aircraft carriers are sitting ducks. There hasn’t been a major naval warfare for nearly 70 years. The time will come, and when it does I think we’ll find that surface ships are far easier targets than they once were.

      • USNA Grad October 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

        Umm… a carrier may be a sitting duck if it’s all by itself. But carriers never deploy that way. They only deploy as part of a carrier battle group, employing a military doctrine called defense in depth. Rest assured that a modern US carrier battle group with its air, surface and subsurface assets is about as far from a sitting duck as you can get.

        • Dupe1970 October 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

          Unless it is attacked by Decepticons. Then total sitting duck.

        • Brisbane Private Girl February 16, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

          The implications of this are uncertain. Could it be that it displays a weakness in the defense force of the worlds most powerful nation? Might some other country feel the desire to take advantage of that. I sure hope not.

  2. thegalen October 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    We’re also paying less than Britain did at peak power for a greater global share at present:
    British Defense Spending, % of GDP, 1700 to Present –
    US Defense Spending, % of GDP, 1910 to Present –

    • Phil C. October 24, 2012 at 3:23 am #

      Defense spending as a % of GDP is largely meaningless. You buy equipment and pay soldiers with dollars, not percentage points. In real dollar terms, the defense budget is at a post-WWII high. There is plenty of money; if only it were spent more wisely.

      • thegalen October 24, 2012 at 9:46 am #

        “[____] spending as a % of GDP is largely meaningless. You buy [____] and pay [____] with dollars, not percentage points.”

        Fill in the blank with healthcare, education, etc etc etc

        It’s certainly just one way of looking at things, but you’re badly overstating the case. Is there not linkage between GDP gains and what America has wrought with its 50% share of global naval power? Of course there is. From open sea lanes promoting stability and unprecedented levels of global trade, to outright imperialist grabs of natural resources, there is a relationship between America’s rising GDP and its rising military spending in real dollars. I’m not arguing that this is optimal policy, or that the relationship is $1-to-$1, but it would be foolish to consider the political economy returns (i.e. England’s 34% vs. the USA’s 50%) without considering the *relative* cost of inputs.

      • Alexander September 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        Uhmm No ,Defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been the defining metric ,certainly since WW2.Any serious analyst of sustainable military projection has used this metric.Get a clue.

  3. ben October 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    With Obama’s implication that the Navy doesn’t need new ships because the new ones are so efficient then I guess we don’t need all those extra firemen, policemen, and teachers Obama wants either.

    In fact, we can start cutting back to below 1916 levels for each because technology has advanced so much since then that each is far more freaking powerful than their 1916 counterparts.

    What’s a hand-powered water pump compared to a big shiny new fire truck and high-pressure hydrant?

    What’s a Model-T compared to a modern police cruiser? Or a revolver to a 9×19mm Parabellum? Or the old stakeout to electronic surveillance?

    And with all the new bells and whistles teachers have with computers and tablets and electronics and interactive software, surely the consequent increases in teaching efficiency have enabled a teacher from today to do the job of some multiple of teachers from the chalk-and-blackboard days.

    I’m glad we’re in agreement about the wonders of modern technology… too bad the Stimulus bill didn’t approach public sector employee hiring the same way.

    • GiT October 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      I hope you’re not under the impression that you’ve said anything compelling in that post…

      • andrew October 24, 2012 at 1:18 am #

        Hey said a lot of important things there. His comparison is very valid. You just don’t want to accept it because you don’t want to see things how they are.

        • Chris October 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

          No, he was wrong. We don’t need a better military: our military is stronger than the entire world combined. If the entire world united against America in a World War, is is feasible (and even likely) that America would win.

          However, unlike our military where we outspend every other major military COMBINED and have more military might/power (by whatever metric you prefer) than those countries combined, our education/police/etc is NOT THE BEST IN THE WORLD.

          We have shitty education pumping out students who are BARELY TOP 20.

          So no, unlike the military which is 5X – 10X better than any other nation, our education is not “sufficient” with what we have.

          The proof is in the pudding — we have a MASSIVE military that is most powerful in the world by a factor of 10X better than any other nation, while our education is far worse than other countries.

          So sure, pretend like they’re an equal comparison.

          • ben October 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm #


            do you know anything about education policy? a cursory examination of the trends in U.S. student performance compared to other advanced industrial democracies (through PISA and TIMMS tests) reveal that many of the leading countries in K-12 performance have some of the highest class sizes in the world (see Singapore, for example). Instead of spending more money to reduce class size and employ more teachers (a fave of the teachers unions of course), these countries pay a smaller number of teachers more money and as a result are able to draw more academically capable college graduates into their classrooms.

            The comparison is a perfectly valid one. Just as Romney may be playing politics by sucking up to the Navy (and possibly VA votes), Obama’s entire stimulus that presumes we have some historic glut in the number of public sector employees (fire, police, teachers) is an effort to pander to his base (public sector unions). The U.S. doesn’t need more teachers (the number of public school K-12 educator and esp. administrators has grown at a ridiculous rate relative to the number of students enrolled in K-12 classrooms in the past 50 years). You’re showing your ignorance about education policy.

      • Barry October 24, 2012 at 10:42 am #

        He probably is. It’s just as logical as what Mitt ‘Harvard MBA’ Romney said.

    • Richard Cownie October 24, 2012 at 6:51 am #

      Very probably true that we need fewer firefighters per unit of population these
      days, because a) better technology and safer building codes mean we get fewer
      fires; and b) better technology gets firefighters to the scene quicker, and makes
      them much more effective.

      Not necessarily true that we need fewer police, because some activities (writing
      reports, looking up files) are more productive in the computer age, but others
      (walking the beat, doing interviews) aren’t. Though if you want to make the
      comparison, you should look up the figures and see whether police per unit of
      population has changed in the way you’re claiming.

      For teachers, hardly true at all: it’s still essentially the same job as in 1900, the
      teacher is in a classroom face-to-face with a bunch of kids. Videos and computers
      are helpful, but only for a small part of the schoolday: putting kids in front of
      screens all day long would not be effective. Also consider that we expect the kids
      to learn a different – arguably larger – set of stuff than we did in 1900.

      For the military, it’s pretty simple: we used to shoot and miss a lot, since about
      1990 with smart weapons and GPS, we’re massively more effective than before –
      *and* massively more effective than low-tech adversaries.

      • ben October 25, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        “putting kids in front of screens all day long would not be effective”

        do you have any research literature, preferably randomized field studies, that buttress that claim? i’m just curious. so much of the “conventional wisdom” in education policy has been proven false time and again. despite mountains of peer reviewed and rft’s showing:

        -teacher certification does not matter for student achievement
        -licensing teachers no effect on student outcomes
        -more experience only matters in first few yrs of teaching
        -master’s degrees hardly matter for teacher effectiveness

        people still believe all those things above are true… so i wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that we know so much about teaching effectiveness so as to conclude that the job hasn’t changed all that much. in fact, online learning is just taking off. the evidence is not yet in.

    • Kringsat October 24, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      Logic fail.

    • Wharton MBA October 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      There are some real issues regarding the application of capital stock to labor embedded in ben’s posting. However, “ben” is clearly a partisan whose comment was made for sparring points rather than as any sort of exploration of ideas.

      Therefore, pending any evidence of something other than a trading of bumper sticker slogans, I don’t see any reason to waste time by commenting in detail on the issues.

  4. PM October 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    Is the link to the paper working for anyone else?

    • John Sides October 23, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

      Link should work now. Apologies.

  5. PM October 24, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    No worries, just wanted to make sure their work was recognized!

  6. Lawrence Zigerell October 24, 2012 at 1:28 am #

    Here is the immediate context of Romney’s claim from the third presidential debate: “Our Navy is old — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.”

    Here is the immediate context of Romney’s claim from his VMI speech: “The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916. I will restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.”

    Romney does not appear to be citing 1916/1917 naval levels to simply imply or claim that “the US Navy is regressing in terms of overall strength”. Rather, the purpose of Romney’s claim about 1916/1917 naval levels appears to be to underscore his claim that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission. The size of the US Navy relative to itself in 1916 or relative to the rest of the world’s navies in 2011 does not directly address Romney’s claim that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission.

    • Barry October 24, 2012 at 10:44 am #

      ” The size of the US Navy relative to itself in 1916 or relative to the rest of the world’s navies in 2011 does not directly address Romney’s claim that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission.”

      And he doesn’t give proof that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission.

      • Lawrence Zigerell October 24, 2012 at 11:49 am #

        Romney noted that the number of ships that the Navy currently has (under 285) is lower than the number of ships that the Navy has called for (313). These numbers appear accurate, although “under 285” should have been “285”. I am not sure what else Romney could have done in the context of a timed debate to prove that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission.

        See here for 285: See here for 313:

        • Duncan October 24, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

          However, Romney did *not* mention that the absolute low of the Navy was in the Bush II admin. when the number of ships was 277 ….and despite de-commissioning some older vessels, new ones are currently under construction, or planned and recommended for production. So Romney is incorrect in falsely implying that Obama is A-ok with the reduced Navy, and is also incorrect that sequestration is all Obama’s fault.

    • Mark Smitherman October 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

      Wow. This far down before the real issue is raised- mission. The comparison to 1916 is irrelevant, as is (to a lesser degree) sensor/weapon ranges , or relative size to foreign navies.
      What is the mission of the Navy? Simply put, the Navy must maintain open sea lanes, and project US power, in peace and in war. Both are important missions- but consider them separately.
      In wartime, the metrics of naval strength, both in platform capability, and to particular adversaries, are important, and we would appear ready there. Our Navy’s size and capabilities are unmatched. Shooting wars, though are generally confined to specific regions of the globe. No other nation has the global presence that our Navy has- so we should pretty well know where an adversary’s ships are, and have sufficient resources (both numbers and capabilities) to address them. (If we did not, I’d say our military and political leaders have incredibly failed our nation.)
      But now consider the other part of the mission- open sea lanes in peacetime. That is a global mission, and it requires global presence. The most powerful ship in the world can only be in one place at a time. While our Navy’s warships have greater range in weapons and sensors, I would propose they are not as effective in peacetime SLOC defense as in wartime. In a way, the effective range in this mission is how far the other guy’s sensors will reach- and in many cases, that depends on the Mk1 Mod 0 eyeball on the other ship (or beach). And while technology has improved sensors and weapon systems, ships (USN and others) can still move through the water for long distances at 15-25 knots only, as they did in 1916.
      Do we have a Navy sized for both missions? For wartime, I would say yes- but for the peacetime mission, I’m not sure. I would present as evidence the Horn of Africa and the Straits of Malacca, where piracy is notoriously rampant. Merchant shipping generally avoids these areas, or sails through them at peril. Secondary evidence would be the deployment rates of USN ships since 1992, which I know to be rising, but I can’t back that up with a link.
      My 0.02, feel free to comment.

      • sigint October 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

        Mark: I don’t know of any great statistics for total “days on patrol” for the USN. It sounds like the USN has maintained its cold war rate of patrols per ship. So, as the fleet shrinks, the USN’s presence is shrinking. Here is a good link that discusses the rate of SSBN patrols. Total days on patrol has shrunk, but the average number of days on patrol per ship has stayed constant.

        Having said that, I think that the USN is not interested in providing coast guard duties for failed states or policing international waters. Other nations have stepped up to provide lower-end ships for anti-piracy patrols. My guess is that a division of labor will emerge that mirrors the old NATO arrangement in which the US supplied high-end warships and its NATO allies operated ASW forces, patrol boats and mine sweepers.

    • CJColucci October 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      The size of the US Navy relative to itself in 1916 or relative to the rest of the world’s navies in 2011 does not directly address Romney’s claim that the US Navy is currently too small to fulfill its mission.

      True. So why did he bring it up?

  7. Troy Smith October 24, 2012 at 3:16 am #

    I agree with Lawrence. Romney’s claim is not necessarily what the authors say is implied in the first paragraph. It just happens that implication fits their database and they want it to be true. Moreover, the conclusion that relative strength should be the measure is also not necessarily true. For a few large ships with lots of firepower may outpower anything else in the world but still fail in its mission where smaller ships might succeed. I’m not saying Romney is correct, only that the above post’s implications, assumptions and conclusions do not address Romney’s argument.

    • Wharton MBA October 24, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

      Romney never stated his conclusion; therefore it can only be inferred from the context. I think it’s hard to believe that he implied anything other than that the Navy is weaker than it should be, owing to the smaller number of ships. Also, I agree with those who think that Romney was making a play for the votes of people whose incomes are tied to the number of ships.

      Obama’s comeback was artfully and amusingly condescending, in the time-honored navy style. Had Romney been the incumbent and Obama the challenger, and the same points reversed, I think we’d be hearing plenty of guffaws from military sources, active and retired, about Obama’s ignorance of all things military.

  8. Phil C. October 24, 2012 at 3:18 am #

    “…make sure we have the ships required by our navy”. Ha! The 313 number he quotes is highly suspect. The Navy went through two major strategy reviews and never deviated from that number, making one question just how strategic the reviews were. The Navy’s own shipbuilding plans do not approach that number and are unexecutable given the projected resources (see the CBO and CRS analyses of the shipbuilding plans). The Navy has wasted billions on silly pursuits like the Zumwalt class destroyer and are spending more than 2x per copy for the LCS than planned; all along they could have been building greater quantities of perfectly adequate ships that are a fraction of the cost. It’s even been rumored the 313 number was chosen because it is is prime number that somehow makes it immune from arbitrary budget cuts (you cannot cut a prime number by 5% or 10%). In the last decade, the Navy budget rose 40% in real terms, but the size of the force continues to fall: ships, aircraft and sailors are down about 20% (but curiously the number of admirals keeps rising.) If the Navy really wanted a larger fleet, they have had the means to build it and chose not to. THAT is the issue that should be investigated and discussed.

    • Wharton MBA October 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      That’s a great point. It’s the same in health care. Corruption and profiteering are out of control.

    • SLP October 25, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

      ” ships, aircraft and sailors are down about 20% (but curiously the number of admirals keeps rising.)”

      Sounds like the Navy is employing the current U.S. “business model.”

  9. Phillip October 24, 2012 at 3:57 am #

    Since nobody has mentioned: there’s a strong case to be made that Romney’s line about ships has nothing to do with US naval capabilities and everything to do with winning over Virginia, which is home to major shipyards. That’s presumably why Romney’s talking points emphasize number of ships (= more ship building) rather than their capabilities. The Obama campaign engaged in a bit of rhetorical jujutsu, calculating that they could make Romney look ridiculous on national security by turning his own talking points against him (the horses & bayonets line).

    To put it differently, I think this post & discussion are interesting, but I doubt that either campaign seriously believes US naval capabilities are directly related to number of ships.

    • Bill Carson October 24, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

      This. Romney’s promise to build more ships is a cynical ploy to win the State of Virginia.

      • VM October 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

        As Obama’s standard line/lie of Romney wanting to force auto makers into bankruptcy is pandering to win the State of Ohio

        • Bill Carson October 24, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

          Assuming for the sake of argument that Obama’s “standard line” is a lie, as you claim, at least it won’t cost the taxpayers $2 trillion over the next ten years.

  10. FS October 24, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    Just out of pure curiosity: Are the 1916 stats for UK and Germany before or after the Battle of Jutland. And would it make a difference?

    • Richard Cownie October 24, 2012 at 6:41 am #

      At Jutland, the UK had 37 battleships+battlecruisers, and lost 3. The battle was
      arguably a tactical defeat for the UK – they had more casualties and more ships
      sunk; but a strategic victory – after the battle the UK’s fleet was still large and
      dominant, while the German fleet had many ships damaged, could not mount an
      effective threat for many months, and never challenged UK dominance
      for the rest of the war.

      It was a technical triumph of German gunnery and ship design – plus a big screwup
      by the UK’s cruiser captains, who didn’t give Jellicoe the information he needed.

  11. ChevalierdeJohnstone October 24, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    From the standpoint of military preparedness, aggregate force does not equal capability. The strategic flexibility of a navy composed of a few carrier battle groups, several of which are necessarily out of commission undergoing refit at any one time, is very different from the strategic flexibility of a larger quantity of smaller ships.

    In a threat environment composed mostly of small-scale piracy and other small regional threats, total firepower is not a useful measure of naval preparedness. Having an asset adequate to do the job and available in theater is of far greater tactical use than having far superior assets which are unable to respond to threats in a timely manner.

    In addition, payload force is far from an adequate measure of either individual ship or combined naval strength, since, increasingly given the modernization of naval artillery and computer-assisted fire plans, naval fire patterns have become three-dimensional, resulting in fire plans which allow individual ships to target a greater variety of threats, and time-on-target fire coordinated between a larger number of individual ships – producing a potentially greater force multiplier effect for ships operating in coordinated fashion.

    The authors display a woeful lack of knowledge regarding basic naval and military tactics and strategy. The paper is specious and the methodology unsound.

    • Scott Monje October 24, 2012 at 9:03 am #

      Yet, doesn’t your last objection strengthen the authors’ conclusion?

    • Richard Cownie October 24, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      “In a threat environment composed mostly of small-scale piracy and other small regional threats” … you wouldn’t need 10+ carrier battle groups. You’d probably
      want a navy with a larger number of small cheap ships, destroyers, corvettes,
      patrol boats. That might be an argument for a different force structure: it isn’t an
      argument for higher spending. And that’s really the problem with Romney’s
      attack: it doesn’t seem that he has any coherent theory about what kind of ships we
      need or what the mission will be, he’s just posturing.

      • SLP October 25, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

        And I do not think he has outlined a means by which to find the money to build these expensive ships. Surely cutting taxes will not do it.

    • mmm October 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

      “From the standpoint of military preparedness, aggregate force does not equal capability. The strategic flexibility of a navy composed of a few carrier battle groups, several of which are necessarily out of commission undergoing refit at any one time, is very different from the strategic flexibility of a larger quantity of smaller ships.”

      A fine point, but not Romney’s point. He could have made that point, he didn’t. He hasn’t.

      “In a threat environment composed mostly of small-scale piracy and other small regional threats, total firepower is not a useful measure of naval preparedness. Having an asset adequate to do the job and available in theater is of far greater tactical use than having far superior assets which are unable to respond to threats in a timely manner.”

      I don’t think Romney has ever mentioned piracy or small scale threats like this in the context of his naval plans. Feel free to point to your source.

      His primary targets have been major powers: Russia and China.

      “In addition, payload force is far from an adequate measure of either individual ship or combined naval strength, since, increasingly given the modernization of naval artillery and computer-assisted fire plans, naval fire patterns have become three-dimensional, resulting in fire plans which allow individual ships to target a greater variety of threats, and time-on-target fire coordinated between a larger number of individual ships – producing a potentially greater force multiplier effect for ships operating in coordinated fashion.”

      So basically what the authors have written and what any number of commenters/commentators have pointed out.

  12. Scott Monje October 24, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I agree with the authors’ conclusion, but I do want to point out that the nature of a navy’s mission is a factor as well. If your purpose is to keep open all the shipping lanes in the world and to meet challenges from all possible directions, you will need more ships than a country that merely wants to dominate the South China Sea, especially if that country has air bases and missile sites in the immediate vicinity of the South China Sea already.

  13. Cassandra October 24, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    The Occupy mentality is on display again. It’s not what we have, but what we have relative to what others have that matters.


    It’s not the size of the Navy, relative to the size of other navies that matters. If all the Navy did was fight other nation’s navies, that might be an important metric but the Navy provides all sorts of other services (humanitarian aid, troop and equipment transport, force projection/deterrence, etc.)

    It’s the size of the Navy, relative to the size required to carry out whatever we decide their mission is. It does us no good to have troops if we can’t get them to the fight.

    And arguably, a world in which our allies have *fewer* ships requires us to have more to cover the same area.

    • clone12 October 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      If your argument is that your allies aren’t building enough ships, wouldn’t the solution involve asking your allies to build their share instead of bankrupting yourself building what they should be building?

      • SLP October 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

        No no – this is AMERICA! Bankrupting future generations in order to be able to boast about how great our Navy is is what we do! It makes us feel manly, knowing that we have these powerful ships… that neither we nor our children will ever have to be in – we can always send poor kids to fight on them.

  14. Seth Owen October 24, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Quite a bit of sniping at the authors that seems to miss the point.

    It’s very true that there are many subtleties to effective naval power that neither gross numbers nor relative firepower fully address, but that’s also besides the point.

    Gov. Romney was not making a subtle or nuanced argument about the Navy, its missions or its proper size. He was merely trying to score a cheap political point by citing an easily grasped, if meaningless number. Obama’s rebuttal vividly made the same point that the study authors did, but in a way that fit the highly restricted format of a televised debate. The entire debating point is, essentially, stupid, not strategic.

    There are a vast number of ways to slice this pie and angles you can examine it from, but no matter which way you do it, the USN is in a position of dominance unmatched in naval history. The firepower/strength edge the authors mention of 50% almost certainly understates the actual operational superiority of the USN, which also rests on training, proficiency, tradition and advantages in geography. For just one example, that 11% of world’s strength that the Russian Navy posses is necessarily divided between four fleets that cannot support each other wheres the USN has no real restrictions on its ability to mass. For the Kuwait war the USN massed no fewer than six carrier battle groups in support.

    China, likewise, faces severe geographical challenges to any attempt to exert naval power at a distance. And unlike the Royal Navy in 1916, which counted its major rival as the No. 2 power and was not yet allied to No. 3, most of the other major naval powers of OUR time are actually formal American allies and the ones that are not are separated by distance, geography and rival interests from acting in concert.

    The study merely provides one more data point to very other data point that leads to the same conclusion — there’s no need to panic about the Navy and there’s absolutely no reason to engage in the massive naval buildup Romney advocates. It’s both purposeless and profligate.

  15. Bill Carson October 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    “In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world’s naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%).”

    Plus, given our technology, I have no doubt that if the President gave the word, our fleet and other military branches could destroy the rest of the world’s navies in a matter of hours, giving the United States complete and unfettered dominance of the seas.

  16. Nancy October 24, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Lest anyone forget about the size of the current military forces, the reduction in forces was in progress under George H. W.Bush. It got interrupted by Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The RIF was put on hold under after that conflict. It then caught up to the planned reductions. The base where my husband worked (as a civilian) is no longer there. Third Armored Division is no longer a military unit. It was merged w/another and many troops were not replaced at the end of their tours. Comparing the current level to previous levels is a rather ridiculous proposition unless the whole history is included. Also, at the same time the lower levels are criticized, there is intense criticism about spending. How do you get a larger military without spending more money? One other point, those ships we have now, carry much more effective weapons….such as rockets. The rockets have much longer range and are more precise, eliminating much of the need to do “carpet” bombing just to make sure the target is destroyed.

  17. R. Freedom October 24, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Perhaps that’s the view from inside the monkey cage. But not many outside of it hold that view.

  18. Aaron October 24, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Why are you using ship numbers rather than, say, tonnage?

  19. Regularguy1798 October 24, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    This is the problem with the simpletons that think the current Navy size is ok – it’s not; the fact that there was no Army / Air Force base that could have rescued our embassy is noted; but a well placed fleet in the Med could have had help within in Moments by Jets and other assets as the situation unfolded. A tragic loss for the families and for America.

    • Jules Siegel October 25, 2012 at 8:07 am #

      The Sixth Fleet maintains a prominent — one might say overwhelming — position in the Mediterranean and provided air support for the Lybian rebels. So your observation about a “well-placed” fleet is irrelevant. But tell us how could jet planes have stopped a brief guerrilla attack with rpg weapons? Start with how long would it have taken for the planes to reach Benghazi.

      • SLP October 25, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

        He can’t. It is the Rambo/Chuck Norris mentality that conservatives can’t seem to understand is FAKE.

  20. The Elite-Intelectual October 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    @ regularguy 1798

    So lets assume there was a fleet in the mediteranean like you say. And lets assume that our embassy is/was attacked the way it was. What then? carpet bomb the area? send in soldiers after we find out the embassy was attacked? What do you think would have happened differently if we had an army nearby yet still did not know that we were going to be attacked?

    It’s like saying, 9/11 could have been prevented if we had a bigger air force… You can’t build up your defenses to defend against threats you do not know are coming.

  21. William Hazen October 25, 2012 at 2:26 am #

    As a serious Military Gamer for decades…It’s hard to argue that in an age of Tactical Nuclear Weapons where all it takes is one small nuke on a cruise missile to seriously harm or eliminate a Carrier Battle Group…I been studying this since the 1980’s… especially a China vs US scenario (over Taiwan for example). Launch 250 cruise missiles (make some of them carry 1 kiloton nuclear warheads) at a Battle Group 200 or even 50 nautical miles out to sea (where there would be little collateral damage if any, thus mitigating any kind of nuclear response) and then tell me how long those Carriers would last. The Navy has not been in a serious fight since WWII and sadly their strategy may reflect that. Carrier Battle Groups are a paper tiger in the age of smart missiles.

    • sigint October 25, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

      I agree that our carriers are more vulnerable than ever. However, I think it’s important to put the threat in perspective. First of all, a carrier does not need to operate within 200 mn of shore to be effective. An F-18 has a combat range of 390 nm, so a carrier can stay far out at sea and still be in range to drop lots of bombs. I also like to play war games, and I can tell you that it’s tough to find a carrier far out at sea. Today, a potential enemy has four pretty unreliable options for finding a ship at that range:
      1) Space based synthetic aperture radar – probably the best option, but the US would probably shoot down the enemy satellite if it were a real threat.
      2) Reconnaissance aircraft with long-range surface search radar – The next best option. A US E2 AEW aircraft would probably detect the UAV and dispatch fighters to shoot it down before the UAV got close enough to provide any useful targeting data. Ground search radar range is limited by the earth’s horizon, so US AEW will detect a search aircraft flying at 30,000 feet long before the search aircraft finds a carrier.
      3) Land based high frequency backscatter radar – This technology keeps getting better and better, but it’s easy to jam. Also, if an enemy is going to start shooting at us with nuclear weapons, we probably wouldn’t hesitate to bomb the enemy high frequency back scatter radar installations. They are easy to locate and destroy.
      4) Submarine – A nuclear submarine could locate the carrier using passive sonar. Having found the carrier, the sub would have to radio shore with the carrier’s coordinates. There are several problems with this scenario. Rising to periscope depth risks giving away the sub’s position, and the sub would quickly be sunk. Nuclear subs move about as fast as carrier battle groups, so the enemy would need to deploy lots of subs to detect a carrier. Right now, only the US really has the sub fleet to carry out this kind of search. Also, if a nuclear sub did get close enough to a US carrier, it should probably try and torpedo the ship itself. A torpedo hit would certainly be a problem for a carrier, but probably would not sink it (recent sinkex exercises suggest that big warships can absorb a lot of damage without sinking).
      A sneak attack with land based cruise missiles could probably take out 1 or 2 US carriers using targeting data from one of the above methods. Once the USN was on high alert, however, an enemy would probably be unable to sink another carrier unless they established air superiority far out to sea. I find that a strike package of 24 MIG 29s armed with high speed anti-ship missiles, 24 SU 30s with air to air missiles (to fight off the carrier’s combat air patrol) and a patrol aircraft with a synthetic aperture radar could find a carrier and get within range to launch its missiles. However, this assumes that an enemy has the functioning runways and communications networks needed to carry out this kind of strike. The US would probably use cruise missile strikes to disable an enemy’s air force before putting a carrier in harm’s way. I think this is why carriers will remain a vital part of the fleet in the age of smart weapons: they are very hard to target and give the USN a survivable source of tactical air power. In your Taiwan scenario, a PRC commander could easily knock out US air bases in Okinawa, Korea and Guam with 250 cruise missiles. A carrier air group is likely to be the only source of US air power in the region to survive a first strike.

      • William Hazen October 26, 2012 at 3:36 am #

        Good Scenarios however let me clarify a point about CBG dispersion aka “Defense in Depth…you failed to address and what I was alluding to…In an age of tactical Nuclear Weapons…It would not matter if the ships were a thousand nautical miles out to sea much less 50 or 200…In fact the further out to sea the better the reason to employ tactical nukes…Modern Surface Ships are built on a host of assumptions…One of the primary ones being that nations will only fight with conventional weapons and that our Navy will engage 99% of their targets “over the horizon”… One EMP burst 2,000 Meters above a CBG and they’re dead in the water… One Cruise Missile with a low yield 1KT nuke gets anywhere near a carrier and it’s the same…You’re the Head of the PLA and you’re sitting with the head of the Navy and the Premier…and it looks like a risk worth taking…No collateral damage and you’ve just called the US’s Bluff on Nuclear Escalation since you’ve e only targeted and destroyed a Military Asset far out to sea knowing that any US Nuclear response involves massive civilian casualties….CheckMate. In every gaming scenario (even the ones you’ve mentioned) if you find the CBG it’s dead… period. And thats with conventional warheads or with tactical nukes…Surface Warships do not survive long in the age of cruise missiles. I mentioned one 250 missile strike…Just imagine if the bad guys could throw that at you for days on end…It’s a numbers game… I’d cut the CBG’s in half and invest in Subs.. Anti-Sub…and Smaller Faster Stealthier Ships…Heck…One DORY armed with TNT took out a destroyer not too long ago remember.

        • Harley June 21, 2013 at 11:32 am #

          You’re wrong though. Every U.S. CBG is legally U.S. Sovereign Land. Meaning a nuclear attack on one of them is just the same as a nuclear attack on U.S. soil. Same for any conventional attack. You would get nuked back. Not to mention the most advanced radars in the world are on U.S. CBGs. They would be notified and have as much aircraft as possible off before it got there.

  22. Frank Gray October 25, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Just a couple of “points-to-ponder”:
    1) If the current projected cuts to the defense budget actually take place, what effect do you suppose it will have not only on the current fleet but the current/future defense industry? Shipbuilding? Aero-space? Mechanized?
    2) Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Isn’t that really what Romney was refering to?
    3) Did not the military in the not so distance past state that we can no longer prosecute two full-fledged wars at the same time, especially on opposite sides of the globe?

    • SLP October 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      The “Defense Industry”….

      Think about that for a moment. I seem to recall a former general/president commenting about all this. He went by ‘Ike’, I think.

    • sigint October 25, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      Your first point brings up an interesting problem. Today, we do not build enough war ships to maintain a large number of ship yards. Many people have suggested building more war ships in order to maintain the capacity to expand production in an emergency. I think there are two problems with this argument. Today, it takes the better part of a decade to build and commission a new aircraft carrier. This is an issue of complexity, rather than capacity. So having lots of idle capacity won’t allow us to quickly increase our fleet size. The second problem is that we cannot expect any of our key military facilities to survive past day one in a war with a peer competitor. They will likely have lots of cruise missiles, and will use them to take out our weapons plants. The best thing to do may be to adopt a strategy of buying versions of commercial vessels like oil tankers that can be manufactured quickly (The South Koreans can turn out a 100,000 ton tanker in three months) by our allies in an emergency. We can then quickly outfit these vessels with weapons and electronics to make them into war ships. This worked really well for the Navy in WWII – we built lots of escort carriers using liberty ship yards and workers. The current costs and delays associated with US warships are probably not sustainable.

  23. sigint October 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    An interesting way to think about our navy’s strength is to look at the missions we wish to perform, and the cost associated with those missions. Right now, the US Navy spends about $150 bn per year to maintain and operate its current force of about 290 ships. The Coast Guard (which is bigger and more capable than most of the world’s navies in its own right) spends another $10 bn a year. So, the US spends about 1% of GDP on naval forces, or about $500 per person per year. In exchange, we get 1) safe coast lines – thanks to the Coast Guard, 2) a secure second strike nuclear capability that protects us from nuclear blackmail – thanks to our fleet of ballistic missile nuclear subs, 3) the ability to deny access to the sea to pretty much every other nation on earth with attack submarines – which gives us tremendous leverage over other advanced industrialized countries, 4) the ability to deliver large numbers of troops and material anywhere in the world quickly through the Military Sealift Command – which is critical to helping us defend allies from land based threats, 5) the ability to execute economically crippling air strikes on any industrialized nation from international waters with carrier aircraft and submarine launched cruise missiles – which allows us to act without the consent of allies, 6) the ability to protect civilian shipping from enemy attempts to close sea lanes with our large fleet of destroyers – which allows us to protect vulnerable allies like Japan or South Korea from naval blockades and 7) the ability to invade the territory of hostile nations from the sea with amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers – which also allows us to act without the consent of allies. So, for $500 a person per year, the US gets to punch way above its weight internationally.

    In an age of austerity, however, we probably cannot afford to spend $150 bn a year. The good news is that abilities 1-5 are relatively cheap, and we could probably maintain these capabilities for $50 bn a year (we likely need the current Coast Guard, 12 SSBNs, 60 SSGNs, 100 or so P8 patrol planes, a lot more cruise missiles and the current Military Sea Lift Command). Capabilities 6 and 7, however, are getting VERY EXPENSIVE. Maintaining a large fleet of carriers and amphibious assault ships keeps getting more expensive. The threat of high speed anti-ship missiles and silent diesel-electric submarines means we have to spend more to protect these carriers and amphibs. My guess is that we will have to pick either 6 (commerce protection) or 7 (force projection). Given the investments China is making in anti-access/area denial military capabilities, my guess is that we will have to pick 6 over 7.

  24. swester October 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    One major component of our naval strength ignored by Ronmey, Obama, and this paper is our sealift and logistics capability. The navy currently owns, operates, or leases 115 ships under the Military Sealift Command. These ships, as well as other merchant ships the Navy can contract with, give the US Navy the capability to refuel and resupply underway, stage and base ships and troops any where in the world for extended periods, and deliver the rest of our military to any point on earth. Approximately 80% of everything the US needs to fight on the ground must arrive my sea, and it arrives not on front line combat ships but on the MSC ships and contracted vessels. Also, because these ships are crewed by either civilian Navy personnel or contractors, they are cheaper to operate than the front line ships.

    A nuclear powered aircraft carrier can operate essentially indefinitely, but only if it has enough food for the sailors, fuel and fluids for the aircraft and other ship’s systems, and weapons to drop on the enemy. Other non-nuclear ships can only sail as long as they have fuel in their tanks. Having the ability to replenish itself while underway anywhere in the word is what makes the current global reach of our navy possible.

    No other country in the world has the logistics capacity of the US Navy. A lesson the British learned the hard way 30 years ago in the Falklands.

    Remember the wise words of Omar Bradley: Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.

    • sigint October 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      Amen. MSC does great work.

  25. Paul M October 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    “In this respect, the U.S. navy is far stronger now than in 1916.”

    Yes, everyone on the planet knows that including Mitt Romney. We’re not idiots and neither is he. But the flip side of that is that our enemies’ navies are far stronger than they were in 1916 as well.

    Even if I bought this dubious idea that the US controls 50% of “the world’s naval power,” the fact is that we’re highly engaged around the world while most of our enemies are not. So even though we have the ships we are still spread thin. Also, carriers don’t float out there on the ocean alone. A lot of our destroyers and subs are designated to carrier groups as protection, limiting their use as offensive weapons.

    The bottom line here is that, if the Navy did indeed say it needed 313 ships, then that’s what they need. Governor Romney is saying he will work to get the Navy to that level and Obama will work to further weaken it.

    • sigint October 25, 2012 at 4:23 pm #


      You bring up an interesting point about escorts for aircraft carriers. These escorts don’t have a great track record of protecting themselves (let alone carriers) from anti-ship missiles (USS Stark, HMS Sheffield, INS Hanit). They keep getting more expensive (a new Burke Class destroyer costs $2 bn + $1 bn in air defense missiles that may or may not work). Finally, they are not much use in the low intensity conflicts that the US seems to be fighting today. Would you be in favor of scrapping destroyers and frigates to maintain the US carrier and submarine force? We could probably save a lot of money.

    • SLP October 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      Why can’t the navy do what everyone but the 1%-ers have had to do, and make do with less?

  26. Paul M October 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    And then there’s this. But hey, who needs a stronger navy right?

    • sigint October 25, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Paul:

      Not really sure where to start with this one. If its true that the USN cannot detect modern nuclear submarines, then that is actually an argument for a much smaller US navy. Why invest billions in new destroyers and frigates if they cannot detect submarines? We could maintain all of our other capabilities with our current 60 odd attack subs, 14 ballistic missile subs, 10 aircraft carriers and 24 amphibious assault ships. This 108 ship navy could easily carry out all that has been asked of it over the last 25 years. A force of 60 attack subs is more than enough to keep any potential adversary’s navy in check. We could still use our carriers to bomb countries without nuclear weapons.

      It is going to be decades before another country has a navy that can rival the strength of the old Soviet Navy, let alone challenge the US navy on the high seas. I love warships, but its hard to argue that we should maintain a surface fleet that we don’t really need today and will be obsolete in the near future.

      • swester October 25, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

        Just be careful. Remember after the Boer War the conventional wisdom in England was the days of the big ground war were over and that future wars would all be counter-insurgencies.

        Then WWI happened.

      • Matt November 2, 2012 at 11:22 am #

        I think, again, the focus is has been purely on the benefits of “combative” features of our fleet as opposed to the anciliary benefits of force projection and “showing the flag”. Would you want a carrier conducting FONA actions of the coast of China or a FFG? Would you expect the Vietnam or South Korean flag to replace the weight of the US one? With the flag comes the full force and weight of the American military (in most instances) and maintaining the visibility of the flag, whether in the South China Sea, along the drug routes up the Eastern Pacific, off the horn of Africa, in the straits of Hormuz or in various diplomatic settings, is critical in keeping everybody honest. It’s not the firepower or capability of the individual ship in those scenarios that’s important.

  27. Matt November 2, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    I think what’s missing in this conversation is the fact that a high percentage of US Navy missions are non-combative, in the traditional sense. You say the UK had the plurality of naval power in 1916? That’s because they were the world’s go-to when it came to the ensurance of free trade waterways and humanitarian aid (which was non-existent).

    Now the US is being looked to, to fill those functions. As the US Navy goes, so goes world trade. So goes disaster relief. So goes the standard of living that most nations have come to expect. America benefits from a strong Navy in the sense that it benefits from a strong and free world. Until another (free country) want’s to step up and carry the mantle, there will always be a need for the US Navy, again, not in comparison to combative means with other countries, but as a, levity intended, “global force for good”. The comparison between now and 1916 IS “apples and oranges”, but to the detriment of the argument for a weaker Navy, not a stronger one.

  28. Brisbane January 14, 2013 at 2:00 am #

    Quite an interesting article. It still amazes me though how in this day and age, the world is still under the control of a bunch of ‘big kids’ with the attitude that “my gun is bigger than yours”.

  29. Sydney January 14, 2013 at 2:06 am #

    I guess were all safer for everyone having a massive arsenal because really, who is going to fire the first shot when everyone knows that if it happens, we’re all screwed. Oh that’s right, perhaps some lunatic with nothing to lose might just give it a go. Either way, I feel safe here in Sydney.

  30. IHLGA May 4, 2013 at 1:25 am #

    I dont care how much we have. I just care were bad ass mother fuckers so dont fuck with America or Israel.

  31. Luke September 3, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    ..’I just care were bad ass….’ Really? You can’t even spell correctly, let alone put together a decent point of view. It’s ‘we’re’, not ‘were’. I’m also sure that most level-headed U.S. folk don’t believe they are ‘bad-ass’. The United States has a lot of fire-power, but is just as vulnerable to attack as any other country on Earth.
    Other people’s comments, including Matt’s have been most intelligent.