Under new rules, forward-deployed ships like the coastal patrol ship Tempest, seen here off Manama, Bahrain, will be counted as part of the Navy's battle force. (MC3 Billy Ho/Navy)
WASHINGTON — You might have missed it, but virtually overnight the US Navy just grew, from 283 battle force ships to 291. A windfall purchase? A fast-track transfer? No, just a new way of counting the ships that carry out the Navy’s missions.
“We periodically assess the rules of how we count ships, and these changes better reflect the demands of our combatant commanders and the current mission requirements of our Navy’s battle force,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. “These changes provide us with the flexibility we need to ensure we have the right ships, with the right capabilities, in the right location, to execute what is required of our maritime forces under the Defense Strategic Guidance.”
The changes have been in the works for years. A big difference is in the way ships qualify as members of the battle force. Ships that do not regularly deploy overseas, for example, won’t be counted, but ships of the same type that do will be included. Some non-combatant ships, including hospital ships and high-speed ferries, will be counted, since they fulfill certain missions even while lacking in firepower.
“I intend to alter the battle force ship counting methodology to be more inclusive of certain conditional situations,” Mabus said in a March 7 letter to key congressional lawmakers.
The new rules “could include forward-deployed naval forces, whether self-deployable or non-self-deployable, to be added to the battle force count dependent on the mission, location and required capabilities,” Mabus wrote.
The Navy, for example, has 13 PC patrol craft, but only 10 will be deployed — in their case, forward-deployed to the Fifth Fleet at Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf. The other three are based in Florida and will not regularly deploy. The new rules count the 10 forward-deployed ships, but don’t include the three based in Florida.
At least one key congressman quibbled with the Navy’s logic.
“I am disappointed to see the Navy is now counting ships like patrol craft and hospital ships in its battle force fleet that only a year ago it chose not to count,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House seapower subcommittee.
“As well, I do not believe that a ship put in a reduced status should be counted,” Forbes added. “With America’s national security budget under severe pressure, it is imperative that the Congress and the American people be able to visualize just how radically sequestration is impacting American naval strength.”
Mabus told Congress the “change will provide flexibility to the combatant commanders to assess the near-term environment and changing situations faced in meeting the demands of the Defense Strategic Guidance, and ensure that the ship types needed to execute the DSG are captured.”
The specific impact, he added, “will result in adding 10 patrol craft forward-deployed naval forces currently operating in the Fifth Fleet, reducing the mine counter-measure ship count from 11 ships to the eight ships [forward-deployed in Bahrain and Japan], adding one high-speed transport assigned to Pacific Command … and adding the two hospital ships in fiscal 2015.”
A shift to the new rules has been contemplated for some time. In an April 2012 interview with Defense News, then-Navy Under secretary Robert Work spoke about the changes in detail. Here’s that interview:
Q. How is the concept of the battle force changing?
This battle force is the fifth generation of a force specifically designed to fight and win in the guided munitions regime. The start of all this was the visceral experience [of] the U.S. Navy in 1945, when it was the target of the first massed salvos of guided weapons in history.
The first generation was an experimental generation — the first data link, automation in the combat information center, development of surface-to-air missiles, and the first notions of trying to network the fleet to operate faster. But we didn’t design many ships for it.
The second generation included missile ships like the Charles F. Adams-class destroyers, the Leahy- and Belknap-class missile cruisers, better missiles, development of the ASROC anti-submarine rocket.
The third generation was the maritime strategy fleet designed for war at sea against the Soviet Union. It introduced the Spruance-class destroyers, the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, the Arleigh Burke destroyers, Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles, ships that were built from the keel up for guided munitions warfare at sea.
Generation four was a transitional period that started to shift from open-ocean warfare to warfare in the littorals. That’s where we started to decrease the numbers. We got to a high point of 594 ships on Sept. 30, 1987. All those ships with the exception of a couple were designed for guided-munitions warfare against a foe that was all in on guided weapons also. It connected the fleet to the joint battle network. We got more bandwidth, better networking with cooperative engagement capability. And in that generation, the Navy made a decision to get out of small combatants entirely.
The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review was the ultimate expression of that. Of 116 surface combatants, 84 were going to be Aegis Cru-Des [cruisers and destroyers], and 32 DD 21 destroyers. The smallest ship in the fleet was going to have a full load displacement of around 9,000 tons. Get rid of every frigate, sell all the PCs — the only thing left would have been the mine warfare ships.
The fifth generation — the generation we’re now in — is a transition from a platform-centric battle force, where we used to count the number of ships, the total ship battle force, and we’re moving to a total force battle network. Where now, the capabilities of the network are more important than the capabilities of any individual platform.
The original wording for this was Force Net. That term has fallen out of favor, but it’s the same thing now.
Essentially, the Navy is trying to figure out what this all means. So the total force battle network, all of the decisions we’re taking now reflect this whole idea.
In the fifth generation we said we want to bring back small combatants, and we want every ship in the battle force to be self-deployable, and all will be able to link to the broader battle network. We’re not going to have any small combatants that can’t self-deploy.
So I refer to Cru-Des now as large battle network combatants, and the littoral combat ship as the small battle network combatant.
Q. This is toward the end of this decade, after the PCs and MCMs are gone?
That’s right. That’s our vision.
So what we’re trying to decide is, how do you count in this new environment?
The last time we looked at ship counting rules was in the early 1980s, when Secretary John Lehman was building up to the 600-ship Navy. Essentially, what he counted was ships immediately available for combat operations against the Soviet fleet.
PCs, for example, would be counted under local defense forces and not counted as part of the battle force, because you wouldn’t use the PCs against the Soviet navy. You’d use them for supporting special operations forces.
So now we’re looking at updating our counting rules. That’s totally separate from the discussion on the size of the fleet. And that discussion and debate is ongoing now.
For example, one thing we’re discussing is [in order to be counted, should a ship be] self-deployable, or in the theater in which it will be fighting? This would cause us to change numbers. So you would count only the mine warfare vessels that are in theater, either in the Persian Gulf or in Sasebo, Japan, and you wouldn’t count the mine warfare vessels back in the United States — which we’ve always counted before. It might cause us to count PCs that are forward-deployed.
This is the fifth generation. Our counting rules should be different. ... The 30-year fleet plan we submitted this year is based on the old counting rules. That is what we are building to — approximately 300 ships. And that number will be refined by the Navy’s force structure assessment. When we have it approved, there’ll be a specific number.
All we’re saying right now is we’re comfortable based on the decisions we made out of the strategic review that the battle force will be approximately 300 ships under the old counting rules. We’ll refine that number in the FSA, we’ll let everyone know what they are, exactly what the makeup of the fleet is, and then we will say this is how we will count ships in the future.
Q. You want to start counting hospital ships?
They’re essential to our Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which started the talk about whether to count them. Whether to do so is not decided yet. We’re leaning toward it, but that’s part of the debate.
Here’s the thinking: The battle force is part of the national fleet, which everyone forgets. The battle force is the portion of the U.S. Navy designed to support battle. It is operated forward to preserve the peace.
The other parts of the national fleet are the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps, Marine and Navy special operating forces, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, naval aviation, maritime patrol and reconnaissance force, and our industrial base partners.
Also, it’s been calculated that the United States operates 95 percent of the world’s militarily useful sealift. We need that sealift to go anywhere we go. Some people say those ships should be part of the battle force. But we think those ships probably should continue to be counted in sealift.
All of our special mission ships make enormous contributions to our anti-submarine capabilities. But should they be counted as special mission ships or battle force ships? Those are some of the questions we’re going through.
Now, hospital ships. There is a category of battle force ships called support ships that has always included tenders, command ships, salvage ships. They contribute to the battle capability of the battle force; that’s why they’re counted that way.
Well, if you get into battle you’re going to need a hospital ship. You could argue it should have always been counted, but right now it’s counted as a special mission ship.
Whereas before you kept the hospital ships laid up and only brought them out during a crisis, we are now routinely deploying those ships. They go out on a battle force mission to operate forward to preserve the peace.
I’d be able to look anybody in the eye and say of course we should count the hospital ships.
Q. What is the rationale for counting Joint High-Speed Vessels (JHSVs)?
JHSVs would be a support ship. An important connector. In peacetime, they’re going to be operating forward supporting Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and riverine forces; theater cooperation forces such as the Seabees, point-to-point transportation of Marine Corps and Army forces. And in wartime they will be doing inter-theater transport.
I think of them as the LST [landing ship tank] of the total force battle network. Very shallow draft, can go into these austere ports and offload capability in support of the battle force. They will be very, very useful.
The [two recently-acquired] Hawaii Superferries [known as high-speed vessels, or HSVs] will not count. They do not have the capabilities of the JHSV, all they have are airline seats and you can put stuff on them. The JHSVs are specifically designed to support a company combat team. There are 104 racks, 312 airline bunks. They’re designed to transport an intact company combat team.
We will debate whether the HSVs should count as part of the high-speed vessel force that will be operating. But the JHSV and the HSV are not interchangeable.
So the universe of things we’re debating right now is how you count the PCs, the mine warfare vessels, the hospital ships and the Hawaii Superferries. The rest of the force will probably stay.
[NOTE: One of those Hawaii Superferries is being put into service in the Western Pacific to support Japan-based Marines, replacing a ship named WestPac Express. The Navy now has decided that the replacement ferry will count toward the battle force.] ■