Surface Forces: Yesterday


November 26, 2007: Combat fleets have changed enormously since World War II. Back then, the U.S. Navy had 6,228 seagoing ships, about half of them warships. Most of them were support ships, and U.S. Army actually had a larger fleet (but only 1,225 seagoing ships), that was almost entirely support vessels (the navy had a larger tonnage of ships, about 12 million tons, compared to about 7 million for the army). The big change after World War II was the loss of most of the amphibious ships (including most of the 140,000 small amphibious craft the army and navy used), and support ships. Increasingly, the navy used commercial shipping to move a lot of supplies around, and had a lot fewer support ships in general. This was largely because during the war, the navy had maintained a huge fleet of warships (over a thousand) in the Pacific, almost entirely without ports for replenishing. This was an unprecedented operation, the likes of which will probably never be seen again.

By the 1970s, the World War II era ships were largely gone, and a new fleet, suited to Cold War needs, was being built. By the end of the Cold War, the ideal fleet was seen as one with 600 ships. But once the Cold War ended, budgets were cut, and the fleet shrank to 350 ships during the 1990s. Currently, there are only 280. The current rate of shipbuilding (seven ships a year, with an average life of 30 years), indicates a future fleet of about 200 ships.

The World War II fleet size was dictated by the need to defeat Japan, and the German submarines in the Atlantic, and the heavy use of amphibious operations all over. The Cold War placed much less emphasis on amphibious operations, and concentrated on defeating the much smaller Russian fleet. Anti-submarine operations depended a lot more on aircraft, and nuclear subs.

But the biggest changes were in technology. In effect, we have turned cruisers (which we persist in calling destroyers) into aircraft carriers. Anti-ship missiles give current destroyers the reach and destructive power of World War II era aircraft carriers. At the same time, the modern aircraft carrier, which is four times the size of their World War II predecessors, have much greater range and destructive power. It's the missiles and smart weapons again. But modern carriers only cost (adjusted for inflation) about five times as much (from one billion to five billion dollars). The next class of carriers will cost about fifty percent more, but will be highly automated and have smaller crews, and thus much lower operating costs.

Those missile armed destroyers are a lot more expensive than their World War II counterparts. Back then, your average destroyer was a 3,000 ton ship costing (in current dollars) about $100 million. Current U.S. destroyers are three times larger (in tonnage) and cost a billion dollars each. It's all technology. Much better radars, and electronics in general. Missiles cost several hundred times more than a five inch shell.

And then there are the submarines. World War II diesel electric subs cost about $50 million each (adjusted for inflation). Modern nuclear boats cost about 40 times as much. It's the technology again. Modern diesel-electric boars cost about five times what their World War II counterparts did. Add AIP (Air Independent Propulsion), which allows these boats to stay submerged for weeks at a time, and you double the price.

Attempts to build World War II type destroyers (the LCS, or Littoral Combat Ship), with modern weapons, has foundered on the cost issue. Originally estimated to cost $220 million, that has doubled during construction. Another problem the United States has is the need for trans-oceanic ships. The U.S. Navy is the mightiest in the world, and must be able to quickly traverse the worlds oceans to make that work. There appears to be no low-cost solution to being the most powerful fleet on the planet.


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