Growing Pains: Does the U.S. Navy Really Need More Ships?

Growing Pains: Does the U.S. Navy Really Need More Ships?

Counting the number of ships misses important details about the fleet—it doesn't even tell us what kind of ships we have.


It’s a fallacy, then, to compare the tonnages of U.S. and foreign navies and conclude the battle result is a foregone conclusion. Doing so oversimplifies radically. In reality the bulkier U.S. Navy will square off not against a hostile navy but against a hostile joint force—a composite of sea, air, and ground forces operating close to home. In warfare as in sports, the advantage goes to the team making a home stand. Girth is no guarantee of victory for the visitors.

The second noxious factoid relates to budgets. All too often even knowledgeable pundits or officials cite the U.S. defense budget relative to likely competitors and conclude American supremacy is guaranteed. Because Washington spends more than the next Y powers combined—Y, like the X in tonnage comparisons, being some double-digit figure—then victory must be a sure thing. If you spend more you must have purchased superior strength. Right?


Not necessarily. He who spends the most may not win, just as he who weighs the most may not. Officialdom must not draw false comfort from budget comparisons suggesting that the United States holds a lopsided advantage over its rivals because it outspends them. Again, think about where likely sea fights will take place: in waters and skies close to hostile shorelines. The U.S. military must maintain pricey base infrastructure, not to mention those bigger, more expensive ships, planes, and armaments, merely to get into the battle zone. Fighting close to home is cheap by contrast. Advantage: red teams. Prevailing against distant opponents off their own coasts tends to cost you more than it costs them.

Factor in such disproportionate expenditures and the margin between U.S. and foreign spending doesn’t gape nearly so wide as budgeteering implies.

You would think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had put paid to the conceit that the bigger, higher-tech, more expensive force inevitably triumphs. Substate enemies brandishing makeshift weaponry gave the U.S. and coalition armed forces fits during those conflicts. Afghanistan is sputtering to an indecisive conclusion at best. It’s hard to imagine that China, or Russia, or Iran would fare more poorly than the Taliban or Iraqi militant groups considering all the resources these martial states can tap.

That’s the trouble with the undead: you can’t reason with them. You have to shoot down ghoulish ideas one by one when the herd swarms. Looks like we’d better stockpile ammunition for a long siege.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” in the current issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. The views voiced here are his alone.

(This article first appeared in February 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.)

Image: Flickr.