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When Comparing Navies, Measure Strength, Not Size
By James R. Holmes, Toshi Yoshihara


THE IDEA of comparing navies sounds straightforward, doesn't it? To figure out which nation sports the largest navy, just break out the nearest copy of Jane's Fighting Ships, tally up the number of keels supplied in the handy chart for each nation, and compare figures. The navy with the most ships wins. But this simple process of bean-counting soon collides with reality. A quick example: on paper, China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is double the size of the US Navy. This is an absurd result, implying that American leaders must avoid a maritime conflict with China at all costs. Going by the numbers, the PLAN would prevail even over the combined fleets of the US-Japan alliance. Absurd, yet that's the story that raw statistics tell.


Absent an algorithm for calculating naval power, people steeped in naval affairs choose their own metrics — and come up with strikingly different results. For instance, the well-respected Economist of London published a story in August 2010 titled "China Now Has More Warships than America, According to the IISS." And sure enough, accompanying the story was a graphic from the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies purporting to show that the PLAN has overtaken the US Navy in terms of "major combatants." Rather than graph raw numbers, lumping smaller and lightly armed vessels in with heavily armed cruisers or destroyers, the IISS team measured the respective fleets in terms of submarines and large surface ships — the missile-, torpedo-, and gun-armed "shooters" best equipped to decide fleet encounters. The US Navy has fallen behind by that standard.


By contrast, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an insider presumably in the know, depicts the US Navy as incomparably larger and stronger than any other. Speaking before the Navy League this past May, Gates observed that the US Navy operates 11 large carriers. "In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship," he said, adding that it "has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines — again, more than the rest of the world combined." And "the displacement of the US battle fleet — a proxy for overall fleet capabilities — exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined." Like the IISS analysts, Gates spotlighted major platforms while also insisting that the tonnage of individual platforms matters. He created a furor among naval enthusiasts, implying that a fleet this overbearing could be trimmed without placing US maritime interests in jeopardy.


Mark Dodd, a reporter for The Australian, chimed in with a story on Oct. 1 titled, "Don't Fear Chinese Fleet: US Admiral," further reducing the problem of comparing navies to just carrier aviation. Dodd attributed the view expressed in his story's headline to Admiral Gary Roughead, America's top uniformed naval officer. During a speech in Canberra, the US Navy chief rightly observed that it will take PLAN mariners and aviators years to master tactics and procedures for handling aircraft-carrier task forces at sea, even after a Chinese carrier takes to the sea. From this the Australian reporter inferred that carrier operations represent the sine qua non for naval power. Chinese naval mastery, it follows, remains a remote prospect since the PLAN has never operated flat-tops. The US and its Asian allies can rest easy, confident in their nautical supremacy.


Balderdash. The metrics offered by IISS, Gates and Dodd reveal part of the picture. None offers mathematical precision, if indeed such precision is possible. Basing strategy on partial truths begets poor strategy.


Not Size But Strength


Numbers and statistics are far from meaningless, but the size of a navy on paper disguises as much as it conveys. A side-by-side comparison of force totals would only be useful if each antagonist built precisely the same aircraft, ships and weaponry for the same missions, if they committed their entire fleets to battle and if this hypothetical battle took place in open seas equidistant from their bases. Such comparisons are abstract and otherworldly. Nations design hardware to provide an advantage in combat, battles seldom take place out of range of shore support and geography shapes the space where fleets battle for mastery. In short, symmetrical navies do not meet in combat.


The true measure of naval strength is how much combat power a navy can mass at the decisive place and time to attain operational and strategic goals, factoring in geography, the proximity and quality of bases and logistics, the availability of shore-based air and fire support to each fleet, familiarity with the physical and cultural terrain in-theater, and — most amorphously — each side's resolve and consequent willingness to send precious warships, aircraft and seamen into harm's way. A physics metaphor applies. Political determination on the part of peoples and governments unlocks the fleet's "potential energy," applying it as "kinetic energy" at particular places on the map. But multiple factors inhibit statesmen from fully harnessing this potential. The strongest fleet is the one that stands the greatest chance of applying enough kinetic energy to defeat the strongest force its opponent is likely to commit to battle under prevailing circumstances.


Let's walk through some indicators of naval strength. First, numbers of platforms matter. According to the authoritative website GlobalSecurity.org, the PLAN boasts 1,045 vessels of all types, more than double the number available to the US. According to the Naval Vessel Register, 287 ships comprise the US Navy, of which 257 are in full commission and ready for service. Add in the 163 civilian-crewed noncombatant vessels of the Military Sealift Command, 51 of which are laid up in reduced operating status, and the grand total is 450 ships at US policymakers' disposal. (Both of these totals discount coast-guard fleets and maritime police forces.)


Rating the PLAN at twice the size or strength of the US Navy is self-evidently nonsensical, yet that's the tale raw numbers tell. And indeed, the Chinese figure includes surveillance vessels, oceanographic survey ships and tugboats, not to mention creaky old scows that would help the Chinese little during a fleet-on-fleet engagement. Even among major combatants, US Navy Commander Joe Carrigan, writing in China Brief, sees a fleet PLAN "bifurcated" between modern high-end platforms and elderly platforms dating from the era when the Chinese Navy hugged the coasts, seldom venturing onto the high seas.


Disparities in age and capability are far less pronounced in the US Navy, but even the American fleet features platforms like Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates designed in the 1970s, when economic malaise had depleted acquisition budgets — "hollowing" out the force. Fielding a navy adequate in numbers meant buying inexpensive ships in large numbers, but keeping costs down meant sacrificing combat capability. Many of the dilemmas from the painful 1970s have returned in this age of economic stagnation, flat or declining budgets, and skyrocketing shipbuilding costs. Rather than expand its fleet of high-end combatants, the navy is acquiring sizable numbers of less expensive — and less potent — men-of-war like the Littoral Combat Ship and the Joint High-Speed Vessel. However useful they may be for more permissive environments, these ships will diminish the average combat power of the American fleet in a major sea fight.

We should add that numbers deceive in another respect. Because of the wear and tear incurred at sea, ships must undergo regular maintenance. US Navy training and deployment patterns have one-third of the fleet overseas, another one-third working up through training and inspections, and the final increment in extended overhaul and completely unavailable for combat service. Commanders, then, have at most two-thirds of a navy's notional strength at their disposal. This further attenuates numbers of hulls.


Second, tonnage belongs in the mix as we appraise the capacity of a fleet — although, with apologies to Gates, it is not an especially reliable proxy for overall capability. It is true that larger ships of war generally carry more armaments, multiplying their striking power; more extensive radars and combat systems, enhancing self-defense; and more fuel, extending their cruising range. But displacement remains a crude measuring stick, even among combatant ships. In a hypothetical fight between a (now-retired) Iowa-class battleship, the premier surface combatant of its day, and today's DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, bet on the Burke every time. Long-range anti-ship cruise missiles would trump the Iowa's enormous weight of shot unless the dreadnought managed to close the gun range. Displacement: 58,000 tons for the battlewagon, 9,494 tons for the newest DDG-51s.


Curiously, the bigger and more imposing a warship is, the more reluctant senior political and naval leaders are to hazard it in combat. It is easy for us in the ivory tower to hold abstract debates over when to risk the fleet. But the fact remains that even land powers that should risk the battle fleet are typically loath to do so. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, for example, the tsar's government had nothing to lose and everything to gain by ordering the Russian Pacific Squadron out to challenge Admiral Heihachiro Togo's Japanese Combined Fleet. Yet the fleet sheltered timidly in port. It seems that the more capital and national prestige that are bound up in a platform, the less likely it is to see action. The fleet risks becoming a wasted asset without bold political and military leadership.


Third, manpower is another related but misleading statistic. The US Navy's authorized manpower comes to 329,000 men and women, the US Marine Corps another 202,000. This is around double the total end-strength of the Chinese sea services. It takes more sailors to man a heavier fleet, and the Marines pack a hefty punch of their own. But again, much depends on operational circumstances. Unless a fleet encounter involves ground operations, for example, Marines embarked in amphibious transports contribute little to the outcome. While embarked in the vulnerable transports, moreover, they are little more than targets. Only Marine pilots assigned to carrier air wings can land a blow against enemy forces.


The most we can say for tonnage and manpower as metrics is this: if two fleets are built for the same missions and one displaces the other in aggregate, then the heavier fleet is probably the stronger. Again, bigger ships do generally carry more munitions, more fuel and more protection, which translates into the ability to fight for longer across greater distances. This is probably what Gates meant to say in his Navy League speech, but if so, he was assuming all fleets have the same purposes and missions as the US Navy. That's a dubious assumption at best, and it certainly does not hold up in the Chinese case.


Don't Ignore Geography and Political Resolve


There is no substitute for examining the larger context in which sea power functions. Maritime strategy is not a static thing, but it does unfold within a static setting: geography. Where a fight may take place is a critical variable in calculating naval strength. Navies need not try to match each other in statistical terms. Rarely if ever will one entire navy stand into battle against another entire navy in an expanse where neither can augment its strength with land-based air, sea and missile assets. A global fleet like America's cannot concentrate all of its assets in a single theater, no matter how important, while a regional fleet like China's can apply all of its strength to managing events in its home region. As noted at the outset, even a lesser fleet can be stronger at the decisive point, and thus prevail.


In the 1890s, sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized this and beseeched the US to construct a navy powerful enough to dominate the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf against the largest European fleet detachment likely to venture into the Americas. To safeguard shipping lanes connecting East Coast seaports with the West Coast or the Far East, proclaimed Mahan, the US needed a navy able to "fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it" in the Caribbean or the Gulf. To "maximize the power of offensive action," the US needed a modest force of "capital ships" that would be "capable of taking and giving hard knocks" in a major fleet engagement.


Despite his reputation for encouraging open-ended naval arms races, Mahan pronounced himself unconcerned about outbuilding the entire British Royal Navy or German High Seas Fleet. It was not only fiscally unwise but also unnecessary.As a regional force, the US Navy merely needed local supremacy, meaning enough armored warships to win the fleet action most likely to take place in the sea lanes leading to and from the Panama Canal, then under construction. China too confines its naval energies to nearby seas, mainly the Yellow, East China and South China seas. The PLAN only needs sufficient strength to defeat the largest hostile contingent likely to challenge it in sea areas that Beijing deems important. Like Mahan's America, China need not win — or even run — a ship-for-ship arms race with the US and regional rivals like Japan to achieve its goals. As long as the PLAN contents itself with fighting within range of shore-based aircraft, small combatants and anti-ship missiles, that weaponry factors into the fleet's overall strength. It represents force that can be brought to bear at the decisive time and place. (Should China make a serious push to establish bases in the Indian Ocean, the stresses that wear on global fleets will begin to afflict the PLAN.)


True, the all-nuclear US submarine force can fight at great distances and with great skill, but the PLAN has accumulated an even larger undersea fleet optimal for lurking in nearby waters — the waters that will count in any future Sino-American clash. It is by no means clear that American attack boats hold a commanding edge over diesel submarines in the mostly shallow, convoluted waters of the China seas. Stealthy, missile-armed Houbei fast attack boats punch far above their weight in a near-shore environment. Nor do all the aircraft carriers or missile-toting destroyers in the world mean much if the US Pacific Fleet dares not come within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles and cannot bring its offensive firepower to bear. A fleet that cannot reach the theater is an impotent fleet, whatever the numbers say.


In the final analysis, then, the best way to gauge the relative strength of navies is to figure out how much combat power each fleet can apply in particular contingencies, taking into account not only hardware and personnel but also the geographic surroundings, the intensity of political commitment among the government and populace on each side, and the likely sympathies and actions of bystanders and prospective allies for each belligerent. This more subjective approach will disappoint those of a quantitative bent. Real-world conflict — a collision of living forces intent on getting their way — usually does.


James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-authors most recently of Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, October 2010). The views expressed here are theirs alone.



Back to Issue
    In the popular imagination, the maritime security of a nation is tied to the size of its navy. But even among specialists in naval affairs, there are sharp differences over how to measure the relative power of navies. James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College show how a possible naval conflict between the US and China would upend conventional views on which country’s navy is the stronger.
    Published: December 2010 (Vol.5 No.4)
    About the author

    James R. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College.

    Toshi Yoshihara is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author most recently of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, October 2010).

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