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Following the recent discussion in the third US Presidental Debate about the size of the Navy, there actually seemed to be a good discussion buried in there.

How does the US Navy compare to its counterpart in the early 20th Century? Are the numbers of ships and personnel really that much smaller now? If so, is this cheifly a reflection of a change in the technology and role of Naval warfare in the last 100 years, cheifly a lessening of the USA's ability to project military power in the world, or a combination?

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Current form is good, and its not that far off from many of the usual comparison questions we have had for the military and other areas of historical comparison –  MichaelF Oct 25 '12 at 14:55
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3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Before we get to the numbers it is important to state that the US Navy is really far and away the most capable blue-water navy in the world. The US Navy can project power over the entire planet. I'm not sure why you assert to the contrary in your question.

Let's start with the US Navy force size from 1917-1923:

TOTAL ACTIVE SHIPS: 342, 774, 752, 567, 384 (228rc), 379 (7rc), 365 (5rc)

Compare that with the US Navy force size from 2007-2011:

TOTAL ACTIVE SHIPS: 278**, 282, 285, 288, 285

So, yes the US Navy of today is smaller than it was in 1919. However, the differences between these two fleets are the key. For example, there were no carriers until 1924, whereas in the 2007-2011 range there were 11 carriers. Eleven is a small number except when you consider this picture:

Total Number of Aircraft Carriers in the World

For a further discussion of the world's aircraft carriers see: World Wide Aircraft Carriers.

To quote these two professors from the US Naval War College:

"The true measure of naval strength is how much combat power a navy can mass at the decisive place and time to attain operational and strategic goals, factoring in geography, the proximity and quality of bases and logistics, the availability of shore-based air and fire support to each fleet, familiarity with the physical and cultural terrain in-theater, and — most amorphously — each side’s resolve and consequent willingness to send precious warships, aircraft and seamen into harm’s way."

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in May of 2010:

“In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship,” he said, adding that it “has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines — again, more than the rest of the world combined.” And “the displacement of the US battle fleet — a proxy for overall fleet capabilities — exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined.”

The US Navy is smaller, but light years more powerful than it was in 1919.

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I almost wish I could give you two votes. Very impressive answer! –  Steven Drennon Oct 25 '12 at 2:35
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One note to the provided picture: Although China now has an aircraft carrier, it actually has no aircraft capable of landing on it. (! - see nytimes.com/2012/09/26/world/asia/… ) To my mind, that makes its carrier not even count, for the purposes of this discussion. –  T.E.D. Oct 25 '12 at 5:22
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I'm not sure if the US has the only blue water navy in the world. Both France and the UK can project naval power across the globe, although at much smaller scale. The UK did it during the Falkland War, for example. See also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  quant_dev Oct 25 '12 at 12:56
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According to the Defense Security Service: "Blue-Water Navy: A maritime force capable of sustained operation across the deep waters of open oceans. A blue-water navy allows a country to project power far from the home country and usually includes one or more aircraft carriers. Smaller blue-water navies are able to dispatch fewer vessels abroad for shorter periods of time." So, technically yes the UK and France have a blue-water navy of sorts, but its capabilities are not at the level of the US by any stretch of the imagination. Does that make sense? –  ihtkwot Oct 25 '12 at 15:24
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@Liam - I think those are amphibious assault ships en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphibious_assault_ship . They are sort of like helicopter/VTOL carriers. Mostly meant to support troop landings, rather than mobile air superiority, I believe. –  T.E.D. Nov 6 '12 at 22:29
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I think that Ihtkwot has answered the first part of your question very well. I'd like to address some of the assumptions in:

If so, is this chiefly a reflection of a change in the technology and role of Naval warfare in the last 100 years, chiefly a lessening of the USA's ability to project military power in the world, or a combination?

There isn't a simple answer to this question, and if there were a simple answer it wouldn't be any of the assumptions within the question. Since WWI, technology has changed, strategy has changed, and US national and foreign policy objectives have changed. The changes haven't been continuous; they've been disruptive. The Fleet we needed for WWII is different from the fleet we needed for Korea, which is different than the fleet we need today. There isn't a smooth line on a graph which describes the change.

Fewer ships does not mean a reduced capacity to project power. If you glance at the tables that Ihtkwot provided, you'll note that in 1917 we had 0 carriers, but we had 66 destroyers and 37 battleships.

Between that time and now

  1. Naval Air Power changed the technology by which we project power. 1917 battleships were able to dominate the sea and a strip of land adjoining the sea. Modern Carrier Battle Groups can project power over essentially the whole globe. We've restructured the fleet into Carrier Battle Groups - that is a completely different set of requirements than the WWI Navy.
  2. Strategic Objectives - Again, as ihtkwot mentions, the US Navy is the only blue water navy today. Prior to WWI, there were a few nations that were competing for naval dominance. There is a vast difference between sea control, sea power, and force projection and the forces that need to be constructed to address each of those.

In 1917, the United States had far more farms than we do today, but today we eat far better than we did then (both in terms of the number of calories consumed and the diversity of foods, and probably in terms of nutritional content). Simple comparisons are precisely that - simple.

What size fleet is sufficient? What do you want to do with that fleet? Is the objective to preserve our freedom to navigate the sea against the dominance of other Naval powers? Is your objective to fight pirates? Is your objective to defend western democracy against Communism? What is the risk that the US will be pulled into a Naval conflict off the coast of China (Daioyu/suyan/etc.)? Do we need to prepare a Navy to support our allies in that region? What is the cost to the country if we fail at any of these missions?

Right now Naval Staff is actively and vigorously arguing what the best force structure is to fight asymmetrical warfare/terrorism. Should we build more Hospital ships? More Littoral Combat Ships? More destroyers loaded with cruise missiles? More Landing Ships to move Marines in and out of regions? Or do we revitalize the doctrine by which which deploy carriers?

These aren't simple questions and it annoys me (I suspect I'm not hiding my annoyance well) when political debates pretend that you can evaluate the Navy by stacking up ships like lego blocks; my stack is bigger, I win!!.

Please note that my annoyance is directed at the political debate, not at the original poster, or anyone else on this board - I'm trying to respond to the second half of his question.

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Fantastic answer and I think it adds a lot. –  ihtkwot Oct 25 '12 at 14:36
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I'd like to elaborate a bit on the destroyers. WWI destroyers were built to kill submarines, and were otherwise not all that useful. A modern USN Guided Missle Destroyer OTOH can take out targets on land, air, surface, and subsurface. One is quite capable of taking out a Battleship. The US Navy has 62 of them. So while it may have 4 less than in 1917, it would be tough to argue that the Navy is less strong just because of the number. –  T.E.D. Oct 25 '12 at 14:58
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Also, in addition to the excellent answer above by ihtkwot, be aware that the Coast Guard now performs many duties the Navy formerly did... during the height of the First World War, they only had 44 cutters.

Today, the USCG has 325 or so combat-capable Cutters of 85' or larger (I didn't count the tugs, icebreakers or buoy tenders.)

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