If More Money Buys a Smaller Fleet, What Will Less Money Buy?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Navy photo / Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire

The sun rises behind the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it prepares for another day supporting the war in Afghanistan.

First of three articles

During the third debate of the presidential campaign, President Obama hammered Mitt Romney with a clever retort when Romney pointed out—accurately—that the U.S. Navy had become “the smallest since 1917.”

“We also have fewer horses…the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers….”Romney appeared to have been caught flat-footed and had no rebuttal, nor even an explanation of what he meant by his numerical comparison of today’s Navy with the fleet of 1917.

All over the internet I read comments about how foolish Romney was to not understand that the 2012 Navy could easily sink the one we had in 1917; he clearly did not understand—they said—that today’s navy was infinitely more capable: It may have been shrinking in numbers of ships in recent history, but each one is more effective—not only compared to any 1917 museum pieces, but also to what is being replaced now.

Moreover, no foreign navy can even begin to compare, they say: we have more aircraft carriers and at-sea strike aircraft than the rest of the world combined; we can deliver infinitely more precision-guided weapons than the U.S. Navy of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and, as one widely-respected analyst put it, “the more than 8,000 missile launchers on our surface fleet give it missile firepower greater than the next 20 navies combined….in all cases exceeding or greatly exceeding the rest of the world’s fleet’s combined.”

Just like Romney’s “smallest since 1917,” the data portions of these statements may be technically accurate, but they also are irrelevant, if not misinforming: the threats we face at sea are neither from the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet nor from anyone seeking to mirror image the U.S. force.

The threats our Navy faces, just like the rest of our armed forces, come from known and unknown enemies who study us and are developing—more accurately, already have developed—potential ways to defeat us.

Against those real threats, we are in terrible shape—possibly worse than we were in 1917 relative to the naval threat from the Kaiser. And, if we proceed with business as usual, the threats loom only larger.

Shrinking Numbers

If numbers mean anything — and they do — we are headed in the wrong direction. Even if it is not President Obama’s conscious plan to shrink the Navy from its current number of 284 “battleforce” ships to 250, as Romney and his surrogates disingenuously charged, that shrinkage—perhaps more—is what is very likely to happen.

Keep in mind that since 2001, the Navy’s “base” budget (not including the additional amounts to fight the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) increased dramatically. However, since 2001 the size of the Navy’s battlefleet shrank.

According to the Congressional Research Service, during the George W. Bush years (2001-2008), the fleet shrank 11% (from 316 ships to 282) as the Navy’s “base” (non-war) budget grew 51% in inflation-adjusted (“constant”) dollars. With continuing budget increases, Obama has managed to increase the fleet since 2008 by a grand total of two ships, to 284. These trends are longstanding: for decades, the unit-cost of ships growing at a rate higher than the budget has meant more money buys fewer ships.

Recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office shows that the prospects for the Navy’s growing in the future are quite dim. CBO estimates that to implement the Navy’s current 30-year shipbuilding plan (to increase the fleet from 284 to the projected 310 to 316 warships) will require average annual spending of $22 billion, not the $17 billion the Navy estimates. However, even the Navy’s unrealistically-low projection is well above the $11 billion for shipbuilding in the Navy’s 2013 budget, or the $12 billion it plans to seek, on average, for the next five years.

Congressional Budget Office

It is completely unrealistic to anticipate even the Navy’s low-ball future spending levels: No one is anticipating the kind of Pentagon spending increases these higher shipbuilding figures will require, and for naval shipbuilding even to retain its current level of spending, let alone increase, will require it to “eat” spending elsewhere in the Navy’s budget, or in one of the other military services’ budgets.

Congressional Research Service

Neither is particularly likely.

The Navy also seeks increases in other parts of its own budget, especially in other forms of procurement, specifically for the F-35C fighter-bomber (which will cost multiples to buy and operate compared to existing F-18 aircraft). As the Pentagon’s and the Navy’s budgets shrink in the foreseeable future, the money for an expanded Navy is simply not there.

In October, Admiral Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations, testified to the inevitable naval force reductions; he estimated that the budget levels contemplated by the Budget Control Act’s sequestration—i.e. spending levels just nine percent below currently projected spending levels—could result in a fleet somewhere between 230-235 ships in about ten years. It is possible that Obama’s current budget negotiations with the Republicans on Capitol Hill may end up with a Pentagon budget not at low as that mandated by sequestration, at least for the short term. But spending levels even lower—over the longer term—are also highly possible. In any case, the major increases needed for achieving the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan are not going to materialize.

The Effect of Unaffordable Ships and Planning Gimmicks

CBO has testified that a realistic long-term inventory is somewhere between 170 and 270 ships, depending on the type of ships that the Navy seeks to buy. Considering the Navy’s strong preference for high-end ships, the potential for further cost growth and CBO’s substantially higher re-estimates, the number of actual ships is likely to be in the mid-to-lower parts of the 170-270 range.

For example, CBO estimates the new-generation aircraft carrier, CVN-78, to cost $14.2 billion, not the $13.1 billion the Navy projects; CBO projects the “Flight III” DDG-51 to cost $2.4 billion, not $2.2 billion, and another study found that CBO estimate may be $1.2 billion too low. Also, CBO estimates the existing Littoral Combat Ships to cost $770-800 million and the for total program average to be $500 million per ship; meanwhile the Navy projects a $440 million unit cost (all in constant dollars). The Navy’s habitual under-estimating its own costs simply means that still more money in the future can buy only fewer ships, and if costs are even higher than CBO’s estimate, which CBO says may happen, it all gets worse.

None of this is helped by the way the Navy bureaucracy games its own shipbuilding plans. For example, although the Navy reduced the number of ships in the 2013 30-year ship building plan, compared to the 2012 plan, the cost of the new—smaller—plan is actually higher (again in constant dollars): the Navy removed many lower cost ships and added higher cost ones, while reducing the total number only marginally.

In doing so it also dropped 24 logistics ships which it knows will have to be added back in later on, thereby insuring that the funds projected to complete the fleet are even more inadequate, and proving CBO was right to say that its own estimates may be too low.

In addition, the Navy arbitrarily assumed ships, such as destroyers, would have a lifespan of 40 years, rather than the 30 years that such combatants have typically served. Recently, the Navy has attempted to retire some ships even before 30 years.

Finally, to achieve its increased fleet, the Navy’s immediate plan is to decrease the number of ships built each year: with a plan that requires an average of nine ships to be built each year, the Navy plans to reduce the number of ships procured to seven in 2014 and eight in 2015. In as much as it is the near term budgets that are the ones that actually occur, the short term plan to reduce shipbuilding should be taken as prologue for the most likely budget future.

Put simply, the Navy’s under-estimates of its own costs, unrealistic projections of what money will be available, and shipbuilding plan gimmicks all add up to a fleet that will be declining in numbers, even with increased funding.

The precise size of the future fleet is unknown, but it is unreasonable to expect it to retain its current size. The shrinkage will be exacerbated if the Navy retains its multiple shipbuilding psychoses: the number of battleforce ships may tend toward the lesser numbers (approaching 170) that CBO has testified to.

In the likely event of less, not more, money, the negative trends will accelerate.

Part 2: More than the Navy’s numbers could be shrinking

Part 3: Is the fleet steaming forward or backward?

Winslow Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, a part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.


The purpose of our navy should be to secure commerce routes for american shipping, and insure the Army is able to project power in a time of war or such.

A 'hollow force' argument is hollow itself.  The US Navy in the 1970's did far more with far less.  Realistically 8 CVBG's, 4 surface warfare groups (anti piracy) and 4 Phib groups will be more than sufficient as long as the british and french remain allies.

Fla4Me 1 Like

Do we need/want a strong military....of course we do.  What I can't get my head around is why the US tax payers have to fund militray spending that is equal to the spending of the next 17 countries combined.    It seems as though as long as we keep paying those folks Eisenhower warned us about will keep building.

hanrod1 1 Like

@Fla4Me  The reason is that our forces are now a long way from their, now long obsolete, mission of defense, and have now become tools of our world-dominating foreign policy. After WWII, our, by then quite sophisticated and worldly, intelligence and top military operatives, using our delay in getting into the war against Hitler as justification (or public excuse), and realizing too the economic opportunity of it, decided that the U.S. would attempt to become the worlds policeman -- and "bag man". Then, we started to get many more sons of foreign dignataries and "cooperative" dictators attending our top universities, our "exchange student" and NGO spies, etc. in place; benefiting the few of us, at the cost of the many.

NorEastern 2 Like

"The threats our Navy faces, just like the rest of our armed forces, comefrom known and unknown enemies who study us and are developing—moreaccurately, already have developed—potential ways to defeat us."

 Mr. Wheeler, this unsupported opinion leaves the whole article twisting in the wind. What tactics could an enemy use against the US Navy, and why would they threaten a navy with 50% of the worlds capabilities? What would be the case against having a navy with only 25% of the worlds navel firepower? It is of course impossible even to find way of discussing your statement because its vagueness.


@NorEasternNo secret - large naval targets full of electronics are targets for guided missiles and EMP weapons. Small boats swarming with guided missiles, multi-warhead ballistic missles (DF-21). Cyber: --Cyberattacks pose growing risks to warships.


@smedleybutlersociety @NorEastern  

Not having a top secret clearance level I do not know the military's effective hardening of its computers , routers, cabling and etc. Certainly they are all hardened to some degree. I also do not know if non-nuclear devices can deliver sufficient EMP to disable military systems. I would doubt it. So, basically what I am trying to say is that if anyone inserts nuclear weapons into a battle field all bets are off. This applies also to EMP burst nuclear weapons. But if one did go off 15 miles above a US fleet it would be conceivable that the ships would be floating salvage.

Other than EMP I cannot imagine a cyber attack having much effect on military hardware. From my experience serious secure networks are difficult to crack because all traffic is 128 bit or more encrypted with communications privileges reserved for specific IP addresses and with DENY set to all.

And again, I do not understand the processing capabilities or the fire rates of Aegis combat systems. That data along with probable fire rates and survival times of enemy warships would reveal how well protected against incoming aerial threats US fleets are. From what I have been able to glean from the internet the Aegis combat situation should overload against about 50+ full stealth air crafts or 90+ non stealth modern fighters.

Basically, the battle situations are complex. Considering the variables I would expect a full engagement of a US fleet vs. the Chinese would mathematically in the NP-hard complexity range. Not simulatable with current algorithms on today's supercomputers. Every body is guessing.

PatrickMcCallen 1 Like


Did he even mention the submarine force? Nope.... so lets examine the fact that the U.S. Navy SSBN force has the capability to make approximately 2,688 cities glow in the dark with 475 kiloton weapon.  This is ludicrous as it means the end of life as we know it on this planet. 

What the navy needs to do is simple.... stop building big targets like aircraft carriers that cost $ 14 billion dollars in favor of smaller and faster littoral / destroyer / cruiser class vessels.  The reason?  Improved missile technology that most U.S. enemies may be able to acquire make carriers vulnerable to swarm attacks much like we found out when a bunch of new fangled things called planes sank most U.S. Pacific battleships in 1941.


@PatrickMcCallen @NorEastern The LCS is a billion dollar target.  What we needed was a tooled up coast guard cutter as an FFG replacement.  What we got was a pair of crap ships.


@PatrickMcCallen @NorEastern Missiles have changed everything. In 2006 Hezbollah used a C-802 “Silkworm” missile in the Israeli-Lebanon war to cripple the high-tech Israeli Sa'ar missile corvette Hanit in the Meditarranean Sea. The high-tech, anti-ship missile is tough to shoot down, partly because it flies only 20 feet above the water, making it hard to spot by radar.

NorEastern 1 Like

@PatrickMcCallen @NorEastern  

I have to believe that projecting air power is not something the military believes they can do without. Certainly using smaller platforms than air craft carriers would be more ideal. Also, I am not certain of the power and effectiveness of the Aegis air/missile defense platforms.

urgelt 1 Like

Hopefully, this question will be addressed in the next two articles of the series.  But yes, taken on its own, this article is left 'twisting in the wind' by not supporting an incendiary assertion.

The case he did make - that the Navy is on a trajectory for fewer combat-capable ships - is pretty strong.  But he didn't really tell us why that matters.  If it's simply a case of comparing our Navy's capabilities against the naval capabilities of the rest of the world, then there's hardly cause for concern.  But of course that reasoning is too simplistic.

The Navy's purpose isn't merely to defeat other navies, but to project force as directed by the Commander-in-Chief.  This can mean land-based targets, which places the US Navy in a position of having to deal with more threats than those offered by other navies.  But such uses are highly scenario-dependent.

And so exactly how much Navy we need is scenario-dependent.  It's not good enough to tally up naval capabilities of other actors and compare them.

It never was.

wandmdave 1 Like

How much of this is simple negotiating tactics by the Navy?  Have they always asked for the moon to ensure they get the necessities once Congress negotiates them down?  If that is the case then their gamesmanship is less of an issue than the fact that they want the most high end cutting edge equipment available and its simply too pricey, right?


Too pricey to get that quality at a high quantity I mean.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,123 other followers