Naval readiness is in the news because for the last eight years the U.S. Navy has been told to put off training, maintenance of ships and aircraft and instead put as much as possible into expanding the navy to over 300 ships. The goal fluctuated between 308 and 350 but now there is the realization that readiness is more important. Any naval historian could have told you that. But it’s also true that politicians have an easier time getting the voters behind creating a large navy than paying for one than can actually go to sea and fight.
This is not a new problem. Since 2001 the U.S. Navy has faced growing problems maintaining the size of its fleet. At the same time the problem of how large a navy the United States needs has been around for a long time. As far back as 2004 there were loud complaints that the fleet too small to meet the nation's maritime defense needs. Historical comparisons were sometimes used, as in pointing out that the navy had fewer ships in 2004 than it did in 1930. Technically, that was true. In 1930 the Navy had 357 ships in commission, while by 2004 it had about 290. There were, however, some very important differences between the fleets of 1930 and 2004. In 1930 the fleet had only about 140 major warships (battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers) plus about 80 submarines for a total of about 220 fighting ships. The rest of the fleet included 36 mine warfare vessels, about 30 gunboats, and nearly 70 auxiliaries of various types. Move forward 74 years and a smaller 21st century fleet had eleven carriers, 102 surface warships and 72 submarines. This came to 185 warships. In addition there were 36 amphibious warfare vessels, a category that did not exist in 1930. A dozen of these amphibs were 40,000 ton carriers (for helicopters and any other vertical takeoff aircraft), plus 17 mine warfare vessels, 34 logistics support ships, and 18 miscellaneous support ships. So the fleet certainly was indeed smaller than it was in 1930 but was enormously more powerful. But there were other factors to consider. In 1930 the U.S. had a lot more competition on the high seas. The British Royal Navy was actually larger than the American fleet while the Imperial Japanese Navy was around 70 percent of the size of the U.S. fleet.
By 2004 there was a lot less competition and the U.S. Navy was able to maintaining a "17 Navy standard". That means the total tonnage of the American fleet was equal to the combined tonnage of the next 17 navies (in terms of size). Even combining the two biggest potential naval competitors (the Chinese and the Russians), the U.S. Navy still had a three to one advantage in tonnage. The advantage was substantially more when you took combat power (the quality and capabilities of the ships and crews) into account.
There were other ways to show American naval domination. In 2004 there were 34 aircraft carriers (vessels capable of operating combat aircraft) and the United States owned 24 (71 percent). This was eight times more than the second leading navy, the decidedly friendly Royal Navy, which had with three V/STOL carriers. In addition, the U.S. surface warships carried four times as many VLS (vertical missile launchers) cells as the rest of the world navies combined. The U.S. submarine fleet enjoyed better force ratios against the next two most numerous underwater fleets than it did against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In 2004 the U.S. Navy had greater command of the world's oceans than any fleet has ever possessed. That was then, what about now? The United States still has the most powerful fleet, despite continuing Chinese efforts to build its first modern high-seas combat fleet. For the United States, after 2001 it really became a question of how much naval superiority could you afford and how best to do the most with what you got.
By 2004 many U.S. Navy leaders had realized that a larger fleet was not going to be possible. Back then the long desired goal was 375 warship fleet. In 2004 there were nearly 300 ships but that number was declining and was to shrink to as few as 200 ships by 2020. There was an inevitability to this because older Cold War era ships were wearing out and had to be retired. New ships were not be being built quickly enough to replace them. The biggest cuts were expected in amphibious ships (expeditionary strike groups being cut from twelve to eight or less) and submarines (the 2004 force of 55 nuclear attack subs could fall to under 30.) But surface ships felt the cuts as well. Instead of building 24 of the new Zumwalt class destroyers that was expected to be cut to 13. That turned out to be optimistic as only three are being built. Fewer of the new LCS (littoral combat ships) were expected (40 instead of 56). In 2004 the navy wanted to put the money saved by building fewer ships and having fewer sailors, into new technology. Building modern warships is expensive, and the most expensive ships, the nuclear aircraft carriers, are first in line for replacement. Trying to maintain fleet size at close to 300 ships would cost about $20 billion more a year than Congress appeared willing to give the navy. The war on terror was mainly an Army and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) show, and that is where any extra money went go over the next decade.
But now the war on terror has become a lot less intense and there are growing calls for larger fleet. The question should be amended to include “larger than who for what.”