Sinking the Next-13-Navies Fallacy

July 10, 2014

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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 at Jane’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.

 

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

20 thoughts on “Sinking the Next-13-Navies Fallacy

  1. In the rush to combat one supposed fallacy, another is committed. As in WWII, in a war time scenario the usual tempo and rotation for maintenance – outside of refueling the reactors – could and would be suspended. In that case, we could surge up to 20 air craft carrier battle groups (assuming the cruiser force is also kept up to standards). This would also be the case for our submarine fleet – there wouldn’t be any left in the docks in the case of a war with China (again, except those in refueling mode). This is not to negate what was said about land based aircraft, etc., just that the numbers used are in a peace time environment. On the operational side, the key component in warfare IS based on evolution of technology. Just as in aerial warfare, he who sees the opponent first wins. So our ability on land, sea and in the air to “see” our opponents better and more quickly allows us the advantage of the “find ’em, fix ’em, and F*** ’em” dictum. Once we have their coordinates, we have the weaponry to take them out, no doubt. Can they find us? Not as easily given the assets of other countries…

  2. You can’t write an article mocking the fallacies in someone else’s argument about comparing the USN and PLAN and then go and purposefully leave out any talk of submarines.

    Oh the irony.

  3. One thing oft forgotten is that while you are quite correct that the USN only fights “away games,” the very fact that it – and only it, among world navies – does so means that it has won the first battle before a shot is fired: It has protected America by making the battles occur in the enemy’s strategic territory. Much like George Washington’s famous strategy of never really winning as long as he could still fight – and defend – another day, the USN need not win every battle, as long as no enemy can strategically prevail.

  4. This article makes good points, but fails to see where the true advantage of the USN lies.

    Take a look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were far more enemy combatants than US troops. Many accounts from US soldiers and Marines said (paraphrasing) “if they actually aimed their weapons at us, our casualties would have been far worse”.

    The one thing the USN has far and wide over potential adversary navies is experience and training. So what if China has submarines and carriers? They have NO experience using them effectively. Russia has never been able to effectively employ a navy in the last 250 years.

    The single current Chinese carrier only embarks for short show-boat cruises. Our navy rotates 12 carrier battle groups on 3-6 month voyages.

    Just because some new ASM has a 350 km range, doesn’t mean that it will always be effective or even see its target at that distance. No other navy employs AEW aircraft of the quality or numbers as the E-2 (all are being upgraded currently) and has the experienced crews utilizing them.

    Submarines? We still have the best and most highly trained fleet. It is easy to critique the vulnerability of our surface fleet to enemy subs without considering our own overwhelming force of ultra-silent killers.

  5. a very accurate article and the comments reflect the complexity of how we decide capacity to project power and protect vital national interests. the important aspect of this type of discussion is maintaining a military that has overwhelming overmatch in defense of our interests. You can always put your military in a position where we don’t have advantage, regardless of capacity.

    Always comparing our military might against China, in their back yard, where we seed so much advantage tends to confuse the argument.

  6. Typical American nonsense.

    In fact, the US Navy is much stronger than all of the world’s navies combined (and most of them happen to be close allies or client states).

    It has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, and they carry about 5 times more aircraft than the world’s other flattops. That translates into an immense amount of firepower.

    It also has more nuclear boomers than the rest of the world. I don’t need to remind anyone that their power is literally immeasurable.

    That doesn’t mean the US Navy cannot be defeated in battle — in fact, I suspect that would be pretty easy to achieve. But it just goes to show that officially it is hugely superior to any combination of potential opponents.

  7. Mr. Axe, I’d like to see exactly what Mr. Work published in his 2008 piece. I’m sure his assessment was not grounded solely on the tonnage aspect. Regardless, tonnage does not equate to combat power. There is a list of capabilities one must consider to assess combat power(weapons, sensors, reliability, resiliency, survivability, etc.) Mr. Holmes’ view is spot on.

  8. Talk about logical fallacies. Holmes describes the potential assistance provided to China’s navy by the PLAAF and PLA and then forgets to mention the advantages provided by American aerospace forces (USAF F-22s, B2s, RQ-170/180s, other UAVs, satellites, USMC VTOL aviation, raids using MV-22s, etc.) assisting the USN. He also fails to mention the enormous American advantage and experience in undersea warfare. He only mentions our allies in one sentence, i.e., “It can count on powerful friends like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Navy.’ These additional forces, if they are authorized to engage, would tip the balance even more so in our favor and provide bases. The JMSDF has state-of-the-art ships and weapons. I’d be more worried about losses in the beginning of a potential conflict due to our historical and continuing failures in strategic intelligence, and I’d be just as confident in our ultimate victory once we got our act together.

  9. Gentlemen,

    The point here is that is not planning on meeting us in a ship to ship conflict. The PLA’s leadership is clearly aware that they will lose such a confrontation(ignore what Luo Yan says, the man is a demagogue). All you have to do is read the research papers from CMC and War colleges and that becomes clear.

    What Dr. Holmes is saying is that China instead has developed asymmetrically to combat our strengths by targeting our weakness. The Aegis system is overly dependent on Satellites and X-ban radar, so they have develop relatively inexpensive rockets and hyper-sonic cruise missiles to take them out. Our surface combatants, sailors, and pilots are decades ahead of China’s. So China develops comparatively inexpensive ASCM and ASBM that take minimal training to use China to compromises these systems from afar.

    The two areas where China has few answers for the USN is in cyber and subsurface.

    The issue with the subsurface force is that once all China’s surface combatants are sitting on the bottom of the ocean, then what? they can’t invade China, and without over head Intel(since the satellites and radar stations will be the first to go) they can only have a minor effect on Chinese force on the mainland. In the scenario of an invasion of Taiwan, China does not need to ship troops to the island. It has more than enough military capability to airlift troop there (after MRBM-ing all the anti-aircraft sites of course).

    So that leaves us with cyber, which I believe the Navy and the Government overall has China outstripped on. But since that has little to do with tonnage or ship capabilities, It ultimately proves Dr. Holmes’ point.

    1. Torpedo-tube launchable anti-surface Tomahawks, for subsurface contributions.

      I also think it’s hilarious we recently caught the Chinese trying to get names of NSA hackers so they could “counter-indict” us, but failed.

  10. Good article that breaks down to the one question which none of the people who commented on it asked – “Are we measuring the right thing, or are we measuring the thing that protects the career progression of entrenched vested interests (both military and civilian)?”.

    If you know anything about bureaucracies (civilian or military) you already know the answer to the question.

  11. Sort of tempting to chase down Holmes and leave negative comments on all his articles, but this is yet another fallacious Holmes article.

    He is correct that tonnage is not a perfectly accurate measurement of fighting capability, but it’s a reasonably accurate one, all other factors being equal, such as training, organization, equipment, and doctrine. Both defensive capabilities (CIWS, armored bulkheads, armored carrier decks, etc) and weapons (missiles, aircraft runways, bombs, guns, torpedoes), etc are ultimately a type of weight. That’s why we use tonnage to compare numbers of ships. For instance, Dr. Holmes mentions that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy actually has more combatants afloat than the USN, but if you add up the tonnage of the Chinese fleet, the USN still has 3 times the total tonnage of the PLAN and on a naive estimate would have more than 3 times the total firepower and the damage endurance of the PLAN.

  12. China has only developed defensive measures so far to defend itself and not the reach to invade USA, Why is USA continuing to behave as if war is something far away from its shores and desirable?

    If defensive military forces will not deter American aggression, then obviously offensive measures will be viewed as a better deterrent.

    USA should go for peace instead of all this harping on war.