The war against naval factoids is a quagmire! A primary theater in this whack-a-mole struggle is the notion that America’s navy is “stronger” than the next X navies, and thus, we should rest easy about our republic’s strategic position in Eurasia. The usual figure given for X is 13, although a reputable commentator recently inflated it to 16. The latest purveyor of this claim is David Axe, the normally reliable proprietor of War Is Boring. On Tuesday, Axe contended, “By some measures, the U.S. Navy maintains a 13-navy standard. In other words, it can deploy as much combat power as the next 13 largest fleets combined.”
Nope, sorry. There is no benchmark whereby the U.S. Navy boasts more fighting strength than the next 13 fleets combined. Much heard during the 2012 presidential campaign, the next-13-navies factoid refers to aggregate tonnage. In other
words, it refers to how much the combined U.S. Navy displaces, aka weighs, relative to other navies. It assumes bigger and bulkier equals stronger. And indeed, by and large, U.S. Navy ships are bigger and bulkier than most foreign counterparts. They’re built to operate across the intercontinental distances they must traverse to reach the Western European, East Asian, and Indian Ocean rimlands. Far-flung voyages demand greater fuel, stores, and ammunition capacity. This constitutes an advantage over rival forces.
And an important one. But by no means should tonnage become shorthand for combat power. Weight isn’t everything — unless you think that obese 400-pound guy you saw lumbering down the Jersey Shore last weekend in a Speedo could whup Mike Tyson. Now assigning fighting ships to weight classes made some sense in the thrilling days of yesteryear. For instance, ramming was the standard tactic during the age of galley warfare. Lighter ships came off worse after being rammed by heavier ones. Nor could they inflict much damage on larger opponents by ramming. Smartly handled, bigger galleys were better.
Classing ships by tonnage also made some sense during the age of sail, when the size of a ship determined how many guns it could sport, and thus the weight of shot it could fling in close action. Even then, though, the composition of a ship’s battery of guns — not the simple number of cannon — determined its hitting power. In 1588, for instance, a fleet of smaller English ships festooned with long-range guns pummeled the behemoths of the Spanish Armada, whose
guns were fewer in number, had shorter range, and disgorged smaller projectiles with less destructive potential. Precision English gunnery mauled the Armada from a distance, and commanders let weather take care of the rest. Again, size mattered. It wasn’t everything.
Even less so since the age of sail gave way to the age of steam. Before World War I, naval sage Julian S. Corbett was already bewailing the technological “revolution beyond all previous experience” that overtook navies during the era of armored steamers. Corbett’s lifetime saw the debut of new weaponry such as torpedoes and sea mines, along with small craft like torpedo boats and submarines to carry them. New weaponry helped nullify the battleship’s overpowering offensive and defensive strength. Increasingly, ships that displaced a fraction a battlewagon’s tonnage could inflict grave damage on these great ships — if not disable them altogether.
For Corbett, this turned the world upside down. Armament, sensors, and fire control came to determine a ship’s combat punch, not the sheer size of its hull. Time and technology — in particular combat aircraft and the guided missile — have only swept Corbett’s revolution onward. As a result, battleships were scrapped long ago or (sob) relegated to museum duty. Nor are contemporary vessels immune to small-craft tactics. Think about an Iraqi Mirage fighter jet setting the frigate USS Stark ablaze in the Persian Gulf in 1987, or a rudimentary mine crippling the Aegis cruiser Princeton in 1991, or an explosives-laden skiff punching through the Aegis destroyer Cole in 2000. Small munitions, major firepower.
Tonnage remains a suspect standard of strength at best. Well, doesn’t the U.S. Navy simply have more men-of-war than the next 13 navies? Nope. Just one of those navies, China’s, is more numerous than the U.S. Navy, measured in raw numbers of “major combatant” hulls. In 2010, for example, The Economist reported (channeling the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies) that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fields “more warships than America.” And so it does. Tally up the figures for yourself over atJane’s Fighting Ships,Combat Fleets of the World, or GlobalSecurity.org. But these numbers mislead. Such estimates count a creaky old PLAN destroyer the same as a
state-of-the-art Type 052D PLAN guided-missile destroyer, and both Chinese combatants the same as an American destroyer, cruiser, or aircraft carrier.
If size isn’t the sole determinant of strength, then neither are brute numbers. Statistics can lie, masking vast differences in capability. Lastly, Axe’s factoid is little more than a gotcha line for debates about fleet size and configuration. Who cares whether the U.S. Navy could thrash the world’s next 13 most potent navies in some hypothetical doomsday clash? Most of those navies belong to allies or friends. Even if they didn’t, it’s tough to envision that many hostile fleets massing for battle at the right time and place, or fighting well together if they did. What does matter is whether U.S. mariners will prevail in the clash they’re most likely to face. And it’s far from clear that the U.S. Navy outmatches the most important one of those 13 fleets, the PLAN, in the real-world setting where an encounter would take place.
That’s because the U.S. Navy doesn’t just fight navies. It has to fight land-based air forces, and even armies. Think about it. To project power into distant theaters, U.S. expeditionary forces must operate near or on foreign coasts. Commentators often invoke a sports analogy: the U.S. military only plays away games. It ventures onto opponents’ turf, ceding a multitude of homefield advantages. Nor do any rules keep the teams symmetrical in numbers, size, or capability. The home team can throw as many well-rested players as it wants into the fray. Staging naval power far from home, then, is hard and expensive, even in peacetime. It’s daunting when the combined armed forces of a peer competitor try to balk U.S. strategy.
How would the U.S. Navy match up in such a contest? Not as well as you might think. Axe makes much of American supremacy in numbers of aircraft carriers, using them as a proxy for naval power. He calculates that the U.S. Navy will retain an inventory of 19–23 flattops in 2024 under the worst of budgetary circumstances. Let’s accept his numbers for the sake of discussion. And let’s accept his conflating amphibious helicopter carriers — 45,000-ton flattops that are designed to carry helicopters but can operate modest numbers of jump jets as well — with 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
The rhythm of deployment, upkeep, and training being what it is — it takes at least three U.S.-based hulls to keep one on foreign station — the U.S. Navy could expect to throw six-to-eight of these carriers into a fight with China. That’s on the farfetched assumption that Washington concentrates the entire flattop fleet (complete with escort and logistics vessels) for action in the Pacific theater, stripping the rest of the globe of carrier strike groups. It also assumes that the navy manages to surge reinforcements into the Western Pacific from Hawaii and West Coast seaports in fighting trim, crossing thousands of miles of sea without suffering debilitating losses from Chinese anti-access weaponry along its way.
Once massed off Asian shores, this contingent will square off not just against the PLA Navy but against the PLA Air Force, whose burgeoning array of missile-armed tactical aircraft can strike out to sea, and the PLA Army, which wields the anti-ship ballistic-missile force that so vexes Western analysts. These are shore-based forces boasting hundreds of miles of seaward reach. So long as the fight takes place within reach of land-based weaponry, consequently, PLAN commanders have a great equalizer at their disposal. China makes a large, unsinkable aircraft carrier. And it’s a carrier whose commanders can shift the air wing and missile batteries around to conceal them from enemy counterstrikes or position them closer to scenes of action.
Advantage: home team.
So where does this leave us? The same place we started. The next-13-navies factoid is a fallacy, and a dangerous one at that. It encourages complacency. Combat power is not the same as tonnage. Nor is it strictly equivalent to numbers of hardware in the inventory. If it were, today’s U.S. Navy would be no match for its 1945 self, with its thousands of ships and aircraft. I yield to no one as an admirer of America’s World War II admirals, but the pre-missile, pre-jet-aircraft fleets commanded by Nimitz, Spruance, and Halsey would have stood little chance against today’s compact but high-tech force. So let’s give the next-13-navies fallacy a long-overdue burial (at sea, of course).
None of this is to counsel defeatism. The U.S. Navy retains certain competitive advantages. New armaments are in the works. It can count on powerful friends like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Navy. Our navy can still compete successfully. Yet the service let other advantages slip away in the happy time following the Cold War and must recover them to outclass its first peer competitor since the Soviet Navy. In short, this is no time for chest-thumping about the U.S. Navy’s standing among sea services. Hubris goes before a fall.
The capacity to mount superior might at the critical place on the map at the critical time, in the face of adversarial sea, air, and land forces, represents the true measure of naval adequacy. Clarity about the military balance, sobriety about the limits of U.S. naval power, and resolve to restore and preserve American advantages constitute the proper attitude toward maritime strategy. Enough with the one-liners.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific , just out in Mandarin through the China Academy of Social Sciences. The views voiced here are his alone.