The national fixation on U.S. Navy ship numbers is not contributing to national security. Last week’s release of the Navy’s “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2024″ — better known as the shipbuilding plan — will set off a predictable debate centered on two numbers: how many ships the Navy should buy in the coming year, and the proper total size of the fleet.
Congress, the White House, the media and the Pentagon itself are repeatedly preoccupied with the question of whether the United States needs a 355-ship, 372-ship or even a 500-ship Navy.
The shipbuilding plan is the most comprehensive official, unclassified statement on the Navy’s plans and goals for both the near and far term. As such, it tends to drive the public debate around the size and shape of the Navy. While procurement numbers and fleet size are important, they are not a proxy for assessing warfighting prowess. The focus needs to shift to metrics that are more relevant to actual capabilities.
As an example, take three naval incidents from the past decade:
- Oct. 1, 2016: The United Arab Emirates’ HSV-2 Swift, a ship formerly operated by the U.S. Navy, was reportedly seriously damaged by a decades-old missile launched by untrained Houthi rebels. The ship, which had no self-defense system, had to be towed back to port.
- April 21, 2021: The Indonesian submarine Nanggala was lost at sea. While the exact cause remains unknown, maintenance issues appear to be the primary suspect.
- April 13, 2022: The Russian guided-missile cruiser Moskva, reportedly struck by two Ukrainian cruise missiles, sank in the Black Sea despite having significant air defense capabilities. Public reports suggest maintenance or training deficits contributed to the sinking.
All three of these ships would be counted as a single ship in public discourse around fleet size, but none of them could have been “counted” upon to generate naval power. Unfortunately, in public shipbuilding debates here in the U.S., we often fall prey to the same misconception.
For example, a $250 million, 1,500-ton expeditionary fast transport with limited warfighting capability “counts” just as much as a $3 billion, 10,000-ton attack submarine — the Navy’s most survivable and lethal platform. They are each one ship. A strategy of ramping up expeditionary fast transport buys would do wonders for the Navy’s ship count, but it is highly unlikely to turn the tide of power in a conflict with a near-peer competitor.
Even a more nuanced approach that explores the inventory of each ship class leaves much to be desired, as the ships themselves are a single part of the equation. Ships need to be outfitted with the right equipment, have trained crews and be properly maintained. If not, they add little to the Navy’s ability to project power, and they risk suffering a fate similar to that of the Swift, Nanggala or Moskva — a serious casualty in the face of a limited threat, or no threat at all.
The U.S. Navy is the most capable and well-trained maritime force on Earth, and a far more useful debate would focus on a wider variety of metrics that account for these capabilities, based on mission effectiveness. Such metrics could include the number of vertical launching system cells (surface and undersea); torpedo capacity; munitions inventories; sortie generation; lift; fleet distribution; communications capacities; intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting; and force flows into theaters of interest.
Why does this matter? The shipbuilding plan is the only unclassified, public statement on the Navy’s stated needs and plan for fleet size and mix. It features prominently in public discussions — and congressional funding decisions — on Navy size, shape and capability. A myopic focus on fleet size at the expense of effectiveness will chart an incorrect course, suggesting victory could be at hand by buying more vessels.
Ships themselves, without the key enabling capabilities, training, maintenance and munitions, unfortunately come to dominate public debate. They become empty numbers in an op-ed, speech or talking point.
A comprehensive shipbuilding plan is not an easy thing to produce. It requires robustly funded enabling capabilities, and must wrestle with the unpredictability of the challenges the Navy may face 10, 20 or 30 years from now. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” The future is uncertain, with wide potential variance in the scale and scope of potential conflicts; the geopolitical operating environment; and both U.S. and potential adversary capabilities, capacities and concepts of operations.
It is precisely this opacity that drives the need to explore a vast trade space of platforms, capabilities and the concept of operations when debating the future Navy. Doing so requires insight, discussion and analysis around far more than ship count.
These broader discussions on fleet effectiveness informed by a more robust set of metrics are critical for improving budgetary trade-off discussions. As Congress and others debate how many and which ships to buy, it can’t simply be a calculus of “more is better.” The debate should explore where the next marginal shipbuilding dollar should go: To surface ships that have more vertical launch cells but also more survivability challenges? To submarines with less vertical launch but added survivability? To amphibious ships that provide entirely different capabilities?
The debate must also balance shipbuilding versus other investments, like steaming days, flight hours, manpower and weapons. While these discussions occur in the bowels of the Pentagon, in fleet-concentration areas, and in the text of the shipbuilding plan itself, they are largely absent from the public discourse. That discussion needs to begin.
Do we need a larger Navy? The answer is almost certainly yes, but that can’t come at the expense of making the fleet we have today and in the future as lethal and effective as possible. Only with the correct capabilities, training and maintenance will the ships that the Navy is counting be ships the Navy can count upon. It is time to move beyond ship counts.
Andrew Mara is the executive vice president of the Center for Naval Analyses and a former deputy director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office at the U.S. Defense Department. Gordon Jaquith is vice president of the Systems, Tactics and Force Development Division at CNA and a former director of the naval forces division at CAPE. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Department nor the U.S. government.