Is the U.S. Navy Too Small? The Question That Keeps Being Asked

November 16, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyNavyRussiaChinaNavy

Is the U.S. Navy Too Small? The Question That Keeps Being Asked

The United States Navy is simply too small, a point made by Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers. With just 272 ships that made up its "deployable battle force" – the smallest since 1917, when the United States entered the First World War – the U.S. Navy isn't unready for a major conflict warned multiple GOP hopefuls.

The United States Navy is simply too small, a point made by Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers. With just 272 ships that made up its "deployable battle force" – the smallest since 1917, when the United States entered the First World War – the U.S. Navy isn't unready for a major conflict warned multiple GOP hopefuls.

However, that warning wasn't made in any recent debate, but rather by neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Florida Senator Marco Rubio during the first Republican debate in the 2016 campaign! Then Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had also warned that the current number of ships is half what was in service when President Ronald Reagan was in office.

Of course, it should be noted that when the Gipper was in office, the Cold War was still going strong – and it was Reagan's spending on defense that helped bring down the Soviet Union. It is now China that has been spending like a drunken sailor on leave and is surpassed the United States in the sheer number of vessels.

Moreover, as CNN reported in 2016, the U.S. Navy was only slightly smaller than it was in 2006 when it had 281 active ships.

It Could Be Worse – And It Has Been for the U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy doesn't have the more than 6,700 vessels it had during the Second World War – but it most certainly doesn't need it. 

Massive troop transports don't send the men and women overseas as they once did. Today soldiers deploy to global hotspots in hours on aircraft, not days or weeks at sea on crowded floating sardine cans.

The situation is also not like it was in the 1880s.

During the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy had almost 700 ships and around 60 monitor-type coastal ironclads. It was the second-largest naval force in the world after the UK's Royal Navy. Yet, by 1880, the U.S. Navy had just 48 ships in commission and only around 6,000 sailors.

Lawmakers were told the U.S. Navy would be unprepared to fight a major war. The Navy had fewer combat vessels in service than some of the nations of South America, which for the record were engaged in arms races and fought several notable wars that are largely unknown to most in the USA!

The U.S. saw the writing on the wall, and Congress authored the construction of the first battleships – the USS Texas and the USS Maine. There is some irony that the latter ship blew up in port in Havana, Cuba, for which Spain was blamed, resulting in the Spanish-American War!

The U.S. Navy quickly defeated the Spanish Navy in both the Philippines and Cuba, but it also served as a cautionary tale. Its enemy, which had once been a serious naval power, had one of the weakest of the world's modern fleets. Moreover, the attack on Manila Bay in the Philippines was seen as extremely risky as the U.S. could have incurred severe damage or run out of supplies including ammunition.  The nearest American harbor was 7,000 miles away.

Today, the U.S. Navy is far from the decrepit force that the Spanish Navy was in 1898, while the U.S. maintains military bases around the globe.

We Should Address The Problem – Not Panic

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from October 2023 noted that "China's military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, is the top focus of U.S. defense planning and budgeting. China’s naval modernization effort has been underway for about 30 years, since the early to mid-1990s, and has transformed China's navy into a much more modern and capable force."

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) indeed has more warships, bolstered by the number of vessels operated by the Chinese Coast Guard. Yet, Beijing still has a long way to go to catch up to the U.S. Navy’s advantage in capital ship numbers as well. The United States Navy currently operates 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers, and while China recently launched its third carrier last year, it won't be operational until the end of the decade.

In terms of sheer tonnage, the U.S. fleet weighs in at around 4.5 million tons, while the Chinese fleet might slightly exceed 2 million tons. Though it is true that navies don't operate large battleships anymore, China can't achieve victory at sea simply with a vast number of Type 056 corvettes that displace a mere 1,500 tons.

China's vessels largely lack the endurance of the U.S. Navy's warships, and Beijing simply doesn't have the overseas bases at present to support deployments far from home in wartime.

Who Has Allies?

Another consideration in terms of comparing fleets should also come down to which side will go it alone. China's saber-rattling in the South China Sea has left it with few countries partners let alone allies. In fact, Beijing has pushed many nations closer to the United States, notably the Philippines.

In addition, many of the nations of Southeast Asia see China as a threat – not the United States. Japan is transforming its helicopter destroyers into aircraft carriers that can operate with the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II; while South Korea has plans to build its own carrier. Likewise, India now operates two carriers. If NATO were to be drawn into the fight, the nations of France, Italy, and the UK operate carriers and plenty of other warships.

This doesn't even address the fact that the U.S. has forward operating bases in Guam and Japan, where long-range bombers could quickly strike China’s ports.

Those scales would be significantly tipped in Washington's favor!

China is Facing a Decline

The U.S. indeed needs to modernize its fleet, and more importantly, it also needs to address the issue of shipyards and repair facilities. However, China's naval expansion comes as Beijing has already invested unwisely in building its empty "Ghost Cities," the under-occupied developments where there are as many as 65 million empty homes, which cost the nation billions of dollars to construct.

China's population is already declining rapidly.

Nearly one-fifth of China's population is elderly, and that has already resulted in economic stagnation. As its workforce shrinks, it will impact productivity – while its economy expanded by just 3 percent in 2022, one of the worst performances in nearly half a century.

China is now building up a massive fleet at a high cost, and it may prove in the coming decade to be too expensive to maintain. It should also be noted that the Soviet Union also once had the largest naval fleet in the world with nearly half a million service members and more than 1,000 ships – yet the United States was on the winning side of the Cold War.

The U.S. beat the Soviets by outspending the Soviets. This time it could defeat the Chinese by letting them spend on a fleet that is still smaller than an allied coalition. It could sink China for good.

At the same time, we need to stop asking if the U.S. Navy is too small and actually address the issue.

Author Experience and Expertise:

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

All Images are Creative Commons.