Measuring Fleet Strength: Size Matters, But So Does Readiness To Use It

August 10, 2015

An article published last week by Politifact, “Anatomy of a talking point: the smallest Navy since 1917,” illustrates the problem with too simplified an understanding of naval force by “fact checkers.” The article purports to assess the veracity of claims made by political figures that the U.S. Navy is set to shrink to its smallest size since 1917. But it misses one very key point in the “smallest navy” debate: Such a measurement is not just one of technology, but of the whole naval force. Force is a function of capability (what we can do), capacity (how much we can do), and readiness (our level of preparedness). Furthermore, any assessment of force must then be evaluated within the context of our contemporary adversaries and the lessons of our historical forebears.

Capacity: The Tyranny of Numbers

Capacity is an integral factor in determining a navy’s strength, but the Politifact article fails to consider it. Despite the actual ship count, it rates the “1917” claim as “Pants on Fire for … [the] fact that the ships of today are much more powerful than their predecessors, and the suggestion that the smaller number of ships would lead to a loss in American ‘military superiority.’” This is a failure to differentiate between capability and capacity — and to understand the importance of the latter. We have the greatest capabilities, but we still need enough capacity to give those capabilities weight.

Before he died in the Battle of Isandlwana, this lesson was probably on the mind of British Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine as his technologically advanced force of 1,800 was obliterated by 20,000 Zulus. The incredible capabilities of the British force were drowned by the Zulu force’s overwhelming capacity.

Even if a particular capability can theoretically deal with overwhelming capacity, this might turn out to be fantasy in practice. Even though a fifth-generation fighter’s capability might be advertised as a kill/loss ratio of 30:1, the loadout of three would only have enough missiles together to kill 24. That’s to say nothing of the operator’s ability to focus on such a large problem. Higher level capabilities can be voided by low-level capabilities fielded with far greater capacity. As the old phrase goes, quantity has a quality all its own; if not given due respect, it can void even great technological advantage.

Capability: One for the Price of Three

Now, even if we theoretically had a fleet with ships numbering exactly the total of every combatant commander’s requirement, our capacity would still be insufficient to meet those demands, because a significant portion of that fleet would not be ready to operate. Just as we need time to sleep, study, perhaps recover from an injury or sickness, brush our teeth, or work out, so too must ships and their crew take time to execute that cycle of care, maintaining their fitness and the quality of their skills.

Dealing with these living realities creates the need for a schedule of supporting actions — what’s called a “readiness cycle.” A ship must go through a period of required maintenance, ship-level training, and task group training before it can stand ready to deploy. So the national command authority might want a guided missile destroyer patrolling the South China Sea all year, or a ship ready and on standby all year to respond to a crisis at home; in either case, one ship will not fill that one requirement. To generate the “force” of one ship, the Navy might need three rotating in a staggered pattern through the readiness cycle.

This ratio of prep time to ready time produced by this readiness cycle is manifest in the Operational Availability numbers, or Ao (A sub O). Even then, this Ao is only a loose description of what one has available, because the results of the readiness cycle are fluid. Longer maintenance and training cycles mean forces of higher quality, but also a lower Ao and thus less force available to deploy. Shorter maintenance and training means more Ao from the same number of ships, but with decreased quality.

While “fact checkers” of the 1917 comparison point to a line of grey hulls with crews operating increasingly advanced technology, they come up with a false metric that completely discounts the cycle required to make these crews and their technology ready for operations.

Context: Doing Less (Relatively) with More

Now, it’s not like the Navy of 1917 didn’t also have its own readiness cycle; I don’t envy the back-breaking work of shoveling coal and manually operating 14-inch guns. However, problems faced by the Navy of a century ago were simpler to overcome than those confronted by the Navy of today.

In maintenance, ships had both more capability and greater capacity to fix broken equipment. Not only were the ships’ systems simpler, but sailors were more familiar with their operation, their construction, and the methods needed to repair them. These Sailors were part of an economy that was far more industrialized than today’s, and were more likely to be familiar with those kinds of jobs compatible with their repair work — a likelihood increased by the Navy’s greater tendency to do its own work 100 years ago. Industry in general was better equipped to respond to fleet demands, since the industrial base — shipbuilding in particular — had a greater relative capacity than it does today.

Fighting was also simpler. The war was on the surface, and sailors manned guns against ships or shore. Aviation was a nuisance, but not yet something that posed a threat or offered enough capability to demand an entire warfare area. German unrestricted warfare only began in 1917, so the need to train against submarines — and even the tools to conduct anti-submarine warfare — barely existed. Naval tasking was simpler, communication more abrupt, and systems operated by hand — allowing for more muscle memory than menu-searching and blue screens of death. Again, the readiness cycle was back-breaking work, but the enemy was clearer and the task of readying to fight him simpler, and thus force was easier to generate.
Compared to 1917 and its challenges, the U.S. Navy today faces a more dispersed set of challenges, with each challenge demanding more resources for the Navy to be an effective instrument of national power. The Politifact article is right that “the ships of today are much more powerful than their predecessors,” but those of our adversaries have also advanced, as noted by Bryan McGrath at Information Dissemination. Today, the Navy must be prepared to fight not just at sea, but in multiple domains, including space and cyber, a requirement unimaginable by the Navy of 1917. We must fight to keep our ships afloat against hypersonic, defense-avoiding anti-ship cruise missiles, quiet diesel submarines, and suicide boats, all while operating multiple interconnected systems that require ever-greater resources to design, increasing expertise to operate, and a growing number of specialized experts to maintain. We attempt to learn, operate, and maintain all these systems with crews whose sizes have been “optimized” (i.e., cut). There are more threats than ever before, which means the same number of ships will take more time to meet the adversary, and must do so while using fewer people and less intimately familiar systems.

Context Matters

Some may inspect militaries like pieces on a board — a clearly defined capability ready to be deployed at any time — without considering enemy numbers, available ordnance, training level, or other readiness factors. But such a simplistic analytical framework is an unaffordable luxury for the professionals whose lives, and nation, depend on their force being up to the task. “Fact checkers” want to give the easy answer, but there is no easy answer to the hard question of whether our naval force is sufficient. The question requires in-depth study of how we build, maintain, and measure the capacity and capability that produces the sum total of force our Navy can bring to bear. Finally, it requires an understanding of history that is more than skin deep. Sun Tzu said, “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.” Well, for defense analysts, the line between facts and false conclusions lies in context.


Matthew Hipple is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he is president the Center for International Maritime Security — where he hosts the Sea Control Podcast. The venn diagram sections of “his opinions” and “official representation of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or Government,” do not intersect. Follow him on twitter: @AmericaHipple


Photo credit: U.S. Navy