The Public Policy

The Navy Department’s New Math

Inflating numbers won't replace a shrinking fleet.

By 3.19.14

UPI
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Faced with the dire prospect of a rapidly shrinking fleet of 280 ships, the Navy’s top brass are simply reclassifying a couple hospital ships and its small patrol craft deployed overseas to inflate the numbers. It’s an accounting sleight-of-hand that will fool no one and should be an embarrassment to the entire defense establishment.

There was a time when counting ships in the fleet was really simple. Just count up those big, gray ships one-by-one and you were done. Now, in a thinly veiled effort to disguise the troubling lack of newly constructed warships joining the fleet, the Navy is reclassifying a few non-combatants to make up for glaring holes in the fleet.

The changes, quietly noted in the recently released Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal, add the dozen vessels to the battle force to help make up for the planned retirement of 10 frigates, a submarine and other ships.

The Navy’s proposed 2015 budget, part of an austere $496 billion defense spending plan, also calls for adding eight new ships to the fleet. Under what it calls “revised counting rules,” the Navy calculates, it will have 283 ships next year. However, if the dozen existing ships aren’t transferred to the battle force, the fleet sharply drops to 271 ships. The expanded new “battle force” definition is all part of the Navy’s smoke-and-mirrors program to mask what’s really going on… stark reductions in the Navy’s mission readiness.

Of course, the number of ships in the Navy’s fleet can shift slightly from year to year as new vessels come on line and others are taken out of service. But, the number has long been used to gauge the Navy’s effectiveness.

The size of the fleet is a particularly sensitive issue on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, where elected leaders and military brass are wrestling with tighter budgets while defense hawks warn that a smaller Navy endangers national security.

In an amazing bit of Pentagon, bureaucrat-speak, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made a lame attempt to explain away the new numbers game, “We periodically assess the rules of how we count ships, and these changes better reflect the demands of our combatant commanders and the current mission requirements of our Navy’s battle force. These changes provide us with the flexibility we need to ensure we have the right ships, with the right capabilities, in the right location.” Excuse me, but what did he say?

“Demands of combatant commanders”? “Current mission requirements”? I don’t think so. What commanders need is more new combatant ships, not more misleading shell-and-pea games, reclassifying ships to inflate fleet numbers. Who’s kidding whom? 

Pretending to bolster a fleet that is losing larger ships, such as frigates, by adding tiny patrol craft makes a mockery of using ship counts to measure the Navy’s strength. It gives a patrol craft, with a crew of 28, the same weight as an aircraft carrier, which has a crew of 3,000 sailors. That’s an “Alice in Wonderland” measure of mission capability that would make the Mad Hatter marvel at the ingenuity of the Navy’s new numbers game.

The Pentagon has chronically underinvested in the Navy’s combatant fleet for at least two decades. Counting hospital ships, patrol craft, and retired frigates that have been mothballed as part of the newly defined “battle group fleet” artificially inflates fleet numbers in an attempt to mislead Congress and the American people.

While the Navy’s fleet continues to dwindle, the bloated ranks of Navy brass have shown no signs of shrinkage. At the close of World War II, the Navy had about 130 ships for every admiral in the flag ranks. Today, that ratio is closer to one ship for every admiral. 

Of course, the size of the Navy fleet was at its peak at the end of the war. The U.S. Navy was operating 6,768 ships on V-J Day in August 1945, including 28 aircraft carriers, 23 battleships, 71 escort carriers, 72 cruisers, over 232 submarines, 377 destroyers, and thousands of amphibious, supply and auxiliary ships. Today’s Navy fleet of 280 is 4% the size of the force in 1945. Put another way, we have cut our naval power by 96%.

Thankfully, we don’t need a 6,768 ship Navy today. But, we certainly need more than 271 real combatant ships in the “battle group.” Given increasing security threats around the globe, and particularly in the Pacific, the Navy’s fleet should be augmented once again to more than 300 ships, not continue to shrink. Instead of feebly trying to mask the rapidly eroding size and capability of its fleet with arithmetical gymnastics, the Navy should come clean with the American people and admit the number of Navy combatants is sharply decreasing. 

With our country’s national security budget under increasingly severe pressure, all Americans need to know just how radically sequestration is impacting the strength of the U.S. Navy.

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.