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United States Navy

From dKosopedia

This entry is a brief introduction to the structure of the U.S. Navy it is part of United States armed forces. This entry is designed to allow the reader to have some sense of what naval resources the United States has, both as a resource for understanding news accounts of what is deployed in an area, and to provide context for budgetary debates in Congress over weapons systems and the size of the U.S. military generally.



When the United States Constitution was adopted there were two standing military forces, the Army and the Navy. After World War II, both departments were made subordinate to the Department of Defense.

The Navy Department is home to two military service, the Navy and the Marines. Discussion in this entry of the Marines is limited to a description of the Navy ships which are used to deploy them. The Coast Guard is a separate military service under civilian control in peace time.


The Navy has two main missions: power projection and sea control.

The Navy projects power through putting ordinance on target, strategic deterrence, amphibious assault and controlling air space.

Sea control means making sea lanes available to friendly shipping and denying enemy shipping access to sea lanes.

The Navy is also part of the United State's nuclear weapons force (called its "strategic force" in military terms).

The Navy is experimenting with converting existing systems designed largely for fleet defense to use as part of a national defense against ballastic missiles. These systems are not currently operations, but, they have shown more success in tests than land based national missile defense which has been a dismal failure in many tests of the system to date.

Force Structure

The Navy is organized around its aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship groups. It also has significant independent forces of nuclear submarines and sealift ships that operate autonomously.

The Navy’s notional carrier battle group has six surface combatants, an aircraft carrier and its air wing, two nuclear attack submarines, and a fast combat support (logistics) ship. In practice, aircraft carriers (and their air wings) are typically deployed with two cruisers and two destroyers, plus a frigate or two, a logistics ship and a nuclear attack submarine, or with one cruiser and four destroyers, plus a frigate or two, a logistics ship and a nuclear attack submarine. Most of the Navy’s cruisers, destroyers and frigates serve primarily as escorts. An example of the aircraft carrier groups assembled between the Gulf War and the Iraq War can be found here.

The Navy operates a number of aircraft, several of which are carrier based. These include both military helicopters and fixed wing aircraft discussed under the heading of Naval Aviation.

Surface Combatants and Major Support Ships

Aircraft Carriers (11)

The Navy has 11 aircraft carriers in three classes. One class, however, is on the verge of being decommissioned. All CV and CVN class aircraft carriers carry a similar compliment of about 70 aircraft (fixed wing and helicopter combined). A CV or CVN can carry up to about 85 aircraft.

Nine are of the Nimitz Class (CVN-68 to CVN-76). They were built from 1975 to 2003, and are scheduled to last from 2025 to 2052. Another Nimitz class, the George H. W. Bush CVN-77, was ordered in 1998 and is due to be delivered in 2008. They take from 6-10 years to build. These carriers displace 97,000 tons are 1092 feet long and 252 feet wide at the flight deck. They can carry up to 85 aircraft. They have a crew of 3200 in addition to 2480 air crew. They cost $160 million per year to operate and the most recent cost $2.5 billion to build. They are nuclear powered. The aircraft carried by aircraft carriers are discussed under the heading of Naval Aviation.

There is 1 aircraft carrier, CVN-65, of the Enterprise class. It was built in 1961 and is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2013.

There is 1 aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, CV-63. It was built in 1961, and is scheduled to be replaced in 2008 by the George H.W. Bush, a Nimitz class ship.

The next aircraft carrier in the Navy's fleet, the first in its class will be the Ford. Construction began in 2005.

Cruisers, Destroyers and Frigates (104)

Originally, cruisers were envisioned as providing anti-aircraft protection for the group while frigates were to provide anti-submarine warfare services. Destroyers were viewed as a mix of a frigate and a cruiser. Now, both cruisers and destroyers are similar ships which serve similar roles, with both escorting aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship groups and providing missiles in support of ground operations. Frigates serve primarily as escorts, with a focus on anti-submarine warfare operations, and in interdiction of shipping roles. There were also larger battleships, which are no longer in service. As a historical note, naval ships have grown far larger than their traditional designations. In World War II, frigates were typically 1,200 tons, destroyers were typically 2,000 tons, cruisers were typically about 10,000 tons, aircraft carriers with 15,000-25,000 tons, and battleships were about 35,000 tons.

The Navy has 22 CG-47 Ticonderoga class cruisers in service. The ships of this class still in service were commissioned from 1986-1994 (all were ordered during the Reagan administration) and are due to be decommissioned from 2026-2034. They have the Aegis sensor system. They displace 9,957 tons, are 567 feet long and 55 feet wide. They have a gas turbine propulsion system. They have a crew of 364 and a $28 million a year operating cost. They have two helicopters and the largest compliment of guided missiles, torpedoes and guns (most notably two 5” guns) of any U.S. surface combatant.

The Navy has 52 DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers in service, 3 more under construction, and 7 more scheduled to be built. They were commissioned between 1991 and 2006. They are scheduled to be decommissioned between 2026 and 2039. Nineteen more are in the works. They have the Aegis sensor system. They range in size from 8,300 to 9,217 tons, are 505-513 feet long and 66 feet wide. They have gas turbine propulsion systems. Similarly to the cruisers, they carry two helicopters, guided missiles, torpedoes, and one 5” gun.

The Navy has about 30 FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates in service. They were built between 1979 and 1989. No frigates are on order. They are primarily intended for anti-submarine warfare, escort of lower priority ships (merchant ships, amphibious assault ships and logistics ships), and interdiction of shipping. They range in size from 3,658 to 4,100 tons of displacement, are 445-453 feet long and are 45 feet wide. They have gas turbine propulsion. They have a crew of 300 and a $16 million annual operating cost. They have two helicopters, torpedoes, a smaller number of guided missiles than destroyers and cruisers and a 3” gun.

Mine Warfare (24)

The Navy has 14 MCM-1 Avenger class Mine Countermeasures ship commissioned in 1987-1990, and 10 MHC-51 Osprey class Coastal Mine Hunters commissioned between 1993 and 1999. The Navy is in the process is transfering Osprey class ships to foreign navies and has already transferred two to the Greek Navy.

The transfer of Osprey class ships was premised on earlier development of the LCS than has occurred. The delay of the LCS has caused the Navy to upgrade the Avenger class ships as a stop gap measure.

Hospital Ships (2)

The Navy has two T-AH 19 Mercy class hospital ships commissioned in 1986 and 1987 respectively. They are converted oil supertankers. Each is 69,360 tons, 894 feet long, 106 foot beam and has a 33 foot draft. They have a speed of 17.5 knots and a range of 13,420 miles. The crew consists of 63 civilian mariners, 956 medical staff and 248 Naval support staff. It has a helicopter platform for a C-47 and a seaport for taking in patients from sea. Each contains 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, radiological services, medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a cat scan and two oxygen producing plants.

Sealift Ships

The Navy has 51 different classes of sealift ships (T-AK, T-AKR, T-AVB, Cape, AE, AFS, AKE), 9 classes of tankers (T-AO and T-AOT) two classes of mixed tanker/cargo sealift ships (T-AOE), and one class of crane ship (T-ACS). The new USS Swift (HSV-2) is a catamaran and the fastest U.S. transport which will also influence the design for the Littoral Combat Ship. It has a cargo capacity of more than 615 tons, a cruising speed of 55 km/hr, and a top speed for more than 6,500 km of 85 km/hr. The Sea Fighter experimental 1000 ton test bed is in the same class. These are being examined for use as anti-mine and unmanned vehicle tender roles as well.

Defining an exact number of sealift ships available is difficult because unlike warships, many sealift ships are normally used for civilian purposes, but are either chartered by the Navy on an active duty basis, or available on a reserve basis for use by the Navy (or other services). About 70 ships are used by the Navy on an active basis at this time. An extensive discussion of Navy sealift arrangements are found here.

Auxiliary and Training Ships

The Navy has three training ships (the TS Golden Bear, the T-AP 1001 Empire State and the T-AP 1000 Patriot State). The Navy has 9 research ships in five classes. The Navy has four ASR-50 Safeguard class salvage ships.

Intelligence, Special Operations and Boats.

The Navy has a number of ships and submarines for intelligence and special operations purposes. These include two classes of min-submarines for delivering SEALs to their operations, landing craft and about 13 PC-1 Cyclone class Coastal Patrol Boats (341-392 tons).

Marine Ships

Generally amphibious ships, which are used to deploy Marines, are deployed in groups of three, with one amphibious assault ship (such as a Tarawa class ship) of the LHA/LHD type, one of the LPD type, and one of the LSD type. From time to time, surface combatants and submarines will be attached to these groups as deemed necessary by the Navy in high risk situations. As is the case with aircraft carriers, not all ships are deployed at any given time. At the time this is written, only five LHD/LHA class ships and their associated groups were deployed. The remainder were in training or returning from deployments.

Amphibious Assault Ships (10)

Amphibious Assault Ships which typically carry Marine landing boats, helicopters and Harrier fighter jets would be classified as aircraft carriers in any other world Navy. They are comparable in capacity to the UK’s three aircraft carriers and the sole aircraft carriers of Italy, Spain, Thailand and Brazil – only Russia, France and India have aircraft carriers with more capacity than the LHD-1 Wasp class Amphibious Assault Ships and each of them have just one such carrier which is still smaller than a U.S. carrier in capacity.

The Navy has 3 LHA-1 Tarawa class Amphibious Assault ships, commissioned from 1976 to 1980 and scheduled for decommission after 25-50 years of service. They displace 39,925 tons, are 820 feet long and 106 feet wide. They have gas turbine propulsion and a crew of 964, including officers, plus 1,900+ Marines. They cost $75 million a year to operate. A typical ship would have 6 AV-8B Harrier jump jets, a compliment of helicopters such as 4 AH-1W Cobra, 12 CH-46 Sea Knight, 4 CH-53 Sea Stallion, and 2 UH-1N Huey helicopters, 7 landing craft of various types, and a number of small missiles and guns designed to defend the ship against attack.

The Navy has 7 LHD-1 Wasp class Amphibious Assault ships, commissioned 1989-2001 with 30-40 years of projected service. One more is under construction and was originally scheduled to be commissioned in 2006. These displace 40,050 tons, are 844 feet long and 200 feet wide at the slight deck. They are gas turbine propelled. They have a 1108 member crew in addition to 1600-1894 Marines. They typically carry 6 AV-8B Harrier jump jets, and about 22 helicopters, although compliments vary. They can carry up to 6 landing craft or up to 60 amphibious assault vehicles (armored infantry carrying vehicles that can ferry themselves to shore). They have a small compliment of missiles and guns designed to defend the ship against attack.

Amphibious Ships (23)

Amphibious ships carry Marines and boats to deliver them as well as helicopters.

The Navy has 9 LPD-4 Austin class Amphibious ships (Amphibious Transport, Dock) commissioned 1965-1971 and originally scheduled to be decommissioned by 2008. These displace 16,914 tons, are 569 feet long and 105 feet wide. They have steam turbine propulsion systems. They have a crew of 420, including officers, plus 900 Marines. They cost $22.5 million to operate and $235-$419 million per ship to acquire. They have up to 14 landing craft or up to 24 amphibious assault craft (armored infantry carriers than can ferry themselves to land). They have up to six helicopters and several utility boats, in addition to light (.50 caliber to 25 mm) guns designed for defending the ship.

These ships have their own doctor and dentists, with a twelve bed medical ward, bacteriological laboratory, X-ray facilities, sterilizing room and dental operatory. Storerooms and refrigerated spaces, can subsist 1,500 crew members for 60 days, or 500 men for 90 days.

The Navy has 8 LSD-41 Whidbey class Amphibious ships (Landing Ship, Dock) commissioned 1985-1992 and scheduled to be decommissioned 2015-2022. They displace 16,360 tons, are 610 feet long and 84 feet wide. They have disel engine propulsion. They have a crew of 347-413, including officers, and can carry up to 504 Marines. They cost $20 million per year to operate. They carry up to 35 landing craft and have a two spot helicopter deck but don’t carry any aircraft. They have light guns and missile systems designed for self-defense.

The Navy also has 4 LSD-49 Harper’s Ferry class Amphibious ships (Landing Ship, Dock) commissioned 1994-1998, and due to be decommissioned 2024-2028. Eight more orders were cancelled. These are minor variation on Whidbey class that displace 16,400 tons.

The Navy has 2 LPD-17 San Antonio class Amphibious Transport docks, 3 under construction and has further plans for four more. These displace 25,000 tons, are 684 feet long and 105 feet wide. They are diesel propelled. They have a crew of 396 including officers and in addition 800 Marines. They carry two to four helicopters (or V-22 Ospreys tilt-wing planes) or one AV-8B Harrier jump jets. They carry up to 20 landing craft, depending on their type and have guns and missiles intended to defend the ship.

Command Ships (3)

The Navy has three amphibious force command ships. The AFG 11 Coronado, commissioned in 1970 and scheduled to be decommissioned in 2010, formerly an Austin class LPD, and two LLC-19 Blue Ridge class ships commissioned in 1970 and 1971, which were designed from the ground up as command ships and are modeled on the Iowa Jima class LPH.

There is some controversy over whether this class of ship should continue to exist. A command ship adds an additional target to a group of ships without providing any significant firepower or troop resources of its own. Some critics have suggested that command be handled via telecommunications from distant land bases, or with commanders stationed on combatant ships, or some combination of these two options.

Submarines and Their Support Ships

Nuclear Missile Submarines (14)

The Navy has 14 SSBN-726 Ohio class nuclear submarines in service. They were commissioned between 1984 and 1997 and are scheduled to be decommissioned between 2026 and 2039. Each carries 24 Trident II Nuclear Missiles (of the D5 class). No new Ohio class submarines are scheduled for production and there are no serious efforts underway to design a replacement.

Cruise Missile Submarines (4)

The Navy has 4 SSGN Ohio class submarines in services. They are modifications of the four oldest Ohio class SSBN submarines (commissioned 1981-1984) have had their Trident missiles removed. Instead, they carry 154 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles, plus 66 special forces troops, which use two of the former Trident launch tubes as airlocks. These are to be retired from 2023-2026.

Nuclear Attack Submarines (55)

The Navy has three classes of nuclear attack submarines in service, the SSN-668 Los Angeles class, the SSN-21 Seawolf class, and the SSN-774 Virginia class.

The Navy has 49 Los Angeles class submarines in service. They were commissioned between 1976 and 1996. They are scheduled to be decommissioned between 2009 and 2029. No more are scheduled to be built. They displace 6,927 tons, are 360 feet long and 33 feet wide. They are nuclear propelled. They have a crew of 126, cost $21 million to operate each year and $900 million to purchase. They have a mix of guided missiles and torpedoes as armaments.

There are three Seawolf class submarines in service (delivered 1997, 1998 and 2005 respectively, and due to be retired in 2027, 2028 and 2031 respectively). A third Seawolf, the Jimmy Carter, is an oversized version designed to tap transatlantic cables and deploy SEALs. The first two displace 9,137 tons, are 353 feet long and 40 feet wide. The Jimmy Carter is larger. They are nuclear propelled. They have a crew of 133, including officers. They carry the largest compliment of torpedoes and missiles of any U.S. submarine, and can also deploy mines.

The are three Virginia class submarine in service as of Febraury 2008, and three more are under construction and a further five more are planned. Each displaces 7,800 tons, is 377 feet long and 34 feet wide. They are nuclear propelled. They have a crew of 113 and a unit cost of $2,110 million. They carry torpedoes, guided missiles, and mines. They are also designed to be able to deploy craft used for delivering special operations soldiers (SEALs) and unmanned undersea vehicles.

Navy sponsored studies have rejected the notion that the U.S. should consider following many of the other Navies of the world by developing a diesel powered class of submarines, but the Navy has hedged it bets by paying for training exercises with diesel powered Scandinavian crewed and built submarines as a faux enemy, which could reveal any strong advantages of these types of submarines.

Submarine Tenders (3)

The Navy has two AS-39 Emory Land class submarine tenders commissioned in 1979. It has one Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV-1).

Proposed New Ships

There are, in theory, plans for a next generation aircraft carrier, two kinds of next generation cruisers, a next generation destroyer, a new class of ship called the littoral combat ship (LCS), and a next generation amphibious assault ship.

A program to build a new class of command ships was canceled in February 2003. A related program, called "Project America" to build a cruise ship for the Navy to use as a barracks for U.S. troops in areas were a U.S. troop presence on the ground might not be welcome was abandoned in mid-construction in April of 2002, with the half built ship purchased by Norweigan Cruise Lines.

Ship construction is driven to a great extent by the useful lives of ships now in service. A list showing US Navy Ship Age summarizes the aging of the current fleet from youngest to oldest.

CVN-21 (aka Gerald R. Ford class)

A next generation aircraft carrier, commencing with the Gerald R. Ford CVN-21 would begin construction in 2007 [1] at the earliest, with a ship delivered no sooner than 2013, but this could be delayed. It would replce the Enterprise in the current aircraft carrier fleet.

The current projected cost is $13.7 billion per ship, for a ship with relatively unambitious innovations over the current design. While $9.2 million has been allocated to development work through 2006, current plans to reduce the size of the aircraft carrier fleet from 12 to 10 reduce the need for a new aircraft carrier. Construction would have to start on the next aircraft carrier around 2015 to prevent the fleet of aircraft carriers from falling below 10 ships.

DDG-1000 Zumwalt

The destroyer plans call for a next generation destroyer DD(X) of about 14,000 tons displacement built around a 155mm advanced gun system and with a length of not more than 600 feet and a crew of about half the size of an existing destroyer. These are entering the construction phase with two on order. It is not clear if additional purchase in this call will be made, optimists among Naval observers hope that seven ships in the class will ultimately be built, but those plans have been put at risk by the immense growth in the production costs of the DDG-1000 compared to the planned costs.

The largest naval gun in the current fleet in 127 mm, and modest increases in barrel size translate into significant increases in munition weight and range. Proponents argue that this ship will fill a gap left by the retirement of battleships in providing fire support to ground troops in coastal areas.

The other main virtue of the DDG-1000 is that it would be far more automated than existing ships, with a crew of about 114, compared to more than twice that in existing destroyers. Detractors of the concept see this as a disadvantage, as it reduces the number of people available to deal with battle damage, while proponents not that smaller crews but fewer people at risk of being killed in naval warfare.

The DDG-1000 is intended to be more stealthy than existing ships, but it would still not be as effective as the stealth measures of stealth aircraft.

Current plans call for 2 to be built, the first named the the DDG-1000 Zumwalt, with the cost exceeding $10 billion per ship. According to Wikipedia in the "current plan, Bath Iron Works in Maine and Northrop Grumman's Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi will build one ship each."


The Navy is currently considering two different models of ships with cruiser designation that would incorporate innovations in the DDG-1000 design. One would be smaller, diesel powered and intended for air support of carrier groups (ca. 14,000 tons). The other would be larger (ca. 25,000 tons), nuclear powered and intended primarily for independent operation in a ballistic missile defense role. This ship class is at a conceptual phase only at this time.


There are also plans, which call for a “Littoral Combat Ship” in the 2,500-3,000 ton range and 378-400 feet in length, to replace the frigate and serve in other roles.

The first was originally scheduled enter service in 2007. Initially two each of two different models will be built through 2009.

One design from Lockhead Martin is relatively conventional, while another from General Dynamics features a fairly novel trimaran design.

After the first four are built, the Navy was to choose a winning design for the remaining purchases. These ships were to cost about $220 million each and would be the most numerous warship in the Navy with about 200 orginally planned, entering service at a rate of about five per year.

Production has hit snags of per unit costs have roughly doubled. Due to cost overruns and production delays, attributed in part to design changes during the construction process, the initial purchase has been cut to one ship of each design. The current planned buy is about 55 ships, but that purchase is jeapordized by rising production costs per ship.

The LCS would have a large modular cargo bay designed so that the ship can be changed from mine clearing to anti-submarine to anti-aircraft to special forces support to drone boat support and so on, on short notice. The core crew would be under 50 sailors, with accomodations for another 25 sailors associated with mission specific modules.

The LCS would be similar in size to existing frigates, but capable of faster short range speeds, and would have stealth characteristics.


An LHA(R) Amphibious Assault ship replacement is scheduled to enter service in 2013 with construction/detailed design to begun in 2007. Only long design work and long lead time components are currently being constructed at this time.

The current design calls for a 50,000 ton ship, based upon the design of the Wasp class ships, without a well deck from which landing craft could be launched. Thus, the current design is basically a small aircraft carrier, similar in size to those currently being procured by France and the United Kingdom, rather than a ship designed to deploy both helicopters and landing crafts like the Tarawa and Wasp craft ships do.

Law of the Sea

During peacetime access to the world's oceans is governed by international maritime law which is largely codified in the Law of the Sea Treaty.


Current Military Policy Trends

Under Donald Rumsfield's tenure as United States Secretary of Defense, some changes have been made in Navy policy. (See also the entry 2006_United_States_Federal_Budget-Department_of_Defense_(proposed)).

As noted above, current plans call for a Naval role in national missile defense.

The number of aircraft carriers in service (and with them the demands placed on supporting ships) is expected to decline from 12 to 10. No significiant active resources are currently being devoted to a next generation aircraft carrier or cruiser. Current expenditures of $9.2 million on aircraft carrier development compare to costs in 100 times as great if the program were actively being developed.

Development of a next generation destroyer and purchases of new Virgina class submarines have been slowed down. Current Navy plans call for reducing the fleet of nuclear attack submarines from 54 to 41-45 submarines, with the number possible going as low as 33. There are also discussions underway to prematurely terminate the Virginia class around 2012 and replace it with smaller nuclear and/or diesel powered submarines. The Virginia itself was designed to be a cheaper submarine the the Seawolf which came before it, but each one still costs more than $2 billion.

Emphasis has been placed on developing a "littoral combat ship", the LCS, with current plans calling for as many as 200 of them to be purchased, as the expense of the number of larger vessels that will be purchased for the fleet. The LCS will replace the existing frigates and mine sweeping ships in the U.S. Navy and may fill other roles as well.

Greater attention has been given to developing the notion of "sea basing", where naval ships are more consciously used in lieu of a ground base for U.S. troops. Development of a next generation amphibious assault vehicle (called the Marine Expeditionary Vehicle) for the Marines has been delayed, however, although development of the V-22 Osprey aircraft which can land vertically and would replace many naval helicopters used on ships to transport Marines continues despite serious technological problems.

Efforts have been made to look for airlift and high speed sea lift alternatives to existing sea lift resources, out of the belief that an ability to more rapidly deploy forces can make them more effective. An early model for a high speed sealift ship based on a catamarran design has been placed into service.

Unmanned surface vessels (USVs) such as harbor patrol and anti-mine boats, unmanned submarines, and unmanned aircraft (both small ones for reconnaisance purposes by all craft and larger ones for use on aircraft carriers) are all being developed. One early version of an unmanned surface vessel developed by the Navy is currently being used by the Navy of Singapore in harbor patrol roles. Unmanned armed drone helicopters are on the verge of entering service.

Efforts are underway to have multiple crews for expensive ships, to reduce the amount of downtown that ths ships themselves have. There are also efforts underway to move as many jobs as possible out of the Navy and into the private sector, and to move as many administrative and intelligence type military positions into telecommuting shore based positions. All future ship designs place a premium on reducing crew sizes. The LCS, for example, is intended to have a crew of about a sixth of that of a comparably sized ship in the current Navy (although this overstates the gains, as additional crew would accompany mission modules).

Efforts are underway, with little success, to find ways to divert as many naval resources to relieve demands placed on the Army and Marines by current conflicts as possible. For example, the Navy is developing its own port security units to patrol the shore when its ships are at dock, and is looking to use its resources rather than Army and Marine resources to man the prisoner camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Liberal observers have been split in their reaction to these changes. Some have noted that the war in Iraq has drained resources from other services including the Navy, resulting in fewer active aircraft carriers and perhaps a "hollow Navy". Others have expressed concerns that the overall size and force structure of the Navy continues to be expensive overkill given the current threat environment.

The Battleship Debate

Larger battleships, which were an important part of the U.S. Navy as recently as the Vietnam War, have all been retired, with the last two reserve ships taken out of service in 2005. Battleships were distinguished by their large naval guns which could be used for ship to ship combat or in support of ground operations. Those Naval guns had an effective range of about 20 miles (proponents argue that this could easily be upgraded to 45 miles) and the largest had 16" diameter shells (the largest shells in use now have 5" diameters). A 16" gun shell weighed about 2,000 pounds. The 5" gun shell used by U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers weighs about 70-110 pounds (with a 13 nautical mile range with ordinary munitions and a 60 mile range with advanced munitions). The 3" gun shell used by U.S. Navy frigates weighs about 25 pounds and has a 10 nautical mile range. Battleships were also more heavily armored than most, if not all, warships now in service. The last battleships decommissioned displaced about 57,000 tons when fully loaded and in service. These guns were not terribly accurate at long ranges when in service.

There is a continuing debate among military pundits over whether removing battleships from service was a good decision. Pro-battleship pundits argue that the Navy has followed the trend of the Air Force in abdicating the role of supporting ground troops and has favored expensive high tech weapontry over proven low technology solutions. They further argue that battleships are desirable because of the advantages provided by their heavier armor. Anti-battleship pundits note that the limited range and accuracy of the battleship's 16" guns made them less useful in support of ground troops than one might first assume, and that modern cruise missiles and carrier based aircraft can engage targets more accurately with sufficient power to destroy those targets at a greater range. In their minds, the modern replacement for the 16" Naval gun is not the 5" gun, but the F-18 carrying a 2,000 pound bomb and the $570,000 Tomahawk Cruise Missile (a 2,900-3,500 pound weapon with a range of 700-1350 nautical miles) carried by modern destroyers and cruisers. Anti-battleship pundits also argue that active defenses such as efforts to destroy opponents at long ranges and to destroy approaching missiles in the air make up for a lack of armor plating, and that concerns about cost aren't that important because newer weapons are more accurate, so fewer are needed, and because the total number of rounds fired in anger during the lifetime of a warship or warplane is relatively small.

Modern Naval Missions

The Navy is very expensive. Most warships in the U.S. arsenal cost $1 billion or more each, and the most expensive ones, the aircraft carriers, cost many billions of dollars themselves to build, must be deployed with several other billion dollar ships and require billions of dollars of aircraft in addition to the carrier itself. Keeping the fleet operating isn't cheap either.

Essentially no naval resources are currently devoted to Homeland Defense. The Department of Homeland Defense has its own Coast Guard with its own fleet designed to secure U.S. ports, stop smugglers, and interdict terrorists in U.S. waters.

The U.S. Navy is the world's largest Navy and was designed to counter a large Soviet Navy in the "blue seas". Much of the Navy's current fleet fits a template set by President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War, which in turn was based on a model of warfare drawn from the Naval battles of World War II modified to fit the new role played by nuclear weapons.

Now, it is almost unthinkable that there would be major combat at sea in a non-nuclear war in the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea with another advanced nation with a powerful Navy of its own. Only a war with Europe or a war with Russia would precipitate such a conflict, and neither is likely in the near to medium term future. Likely opponents in this region have a handful of submarines and what are somewhat patronizingly called small "frigate navies" by military analysts. Any war involving the largest Naval power in the region, Russia, would likely cause all other European nations to ally themselves with the United States.

The U.S. Navy does face a number of potentially serious Naval conflicts in the Pacific where attacks by North Korea or China aimed at Japan or Taiwan or to interdict shipping in a conflict involving U.S. ally South Korea are the primary contingencies planned for in the region, and each of these allies to whose aid the United States might come have their own significant naval resources.

Anti-piracy missions in the vicinity of Malaysia or Indonesia, or U.S. intervention in a conflict involving India and Pakistan are secondary considerations in the rest of the world, but in an conflict between India and Pakistan, the United States, if it chose to intervene would add its naval resources to that of the combatant upon whose side it intervened.

The U.S. Navy, unlike those of almost every nation other than Russia, France and the United Kingdom, is designed to allow the U.S. to project air power over land in distant places where it lacks bases, and to allow it to launch cruise missiles and deploy Marines for ground operations in places where it lacks Army resources on the ground. But, missiles and troops can also be deployed more quickly by air than by sea if ships are not prepositioned to address a conflict, so in these roles the question is whether naval force is the best option available.

Neither Latin America or Africa have nations with significant Navies. In these nations support of ground operations by U.S. Marines, or rescues of U.S. citizens in these countries during periods of unrest are the most likely missions.

The U.S. Navy's small nuclear submarine fleet is also a core part of the United States nuclear missile strategy. Serious consideration is being given to assigning a national missile defense role (i.e. the job of shooting down, e.g., nuclear missiles fired at the United States from North Korea) to the Navy's surface combatants.

Limitations on Aircraft Carrier Deployability

The fact that the Navy has twelve carriers does not mean that the United States has twelve carriers available for military activities at any given time.

At the time this paragraph is written, which is not atypical, there is one aircraft carrier deployed in the Persian Gulf, one aircraft carrier deployed in the Pacific, three out of service for routine maintenance, three returning from or recently returned from deployments, two with crews undergoing training, and two more ready to be deployed but not currently deployed. Thus, about two-thirds of the aircraft carrier fleet at any one time is not available for military duties absent a dire emergency and only one-sixth of the fleet is currently deployed.

For example, despite the fact that the United States has twelve aircraft carriers, if a naval conflict involving China or North Korea were to arise right now, only one aircraft carrier would be available immediately, one could be on hand on short notice, it would take weeks for two more to arrive, and it might take months for any further aircraft carrier support to arrive. This deployment level is fairly typical of all surface combatants, because most surface combatants operate as part of an aircraft carrier or assault ship group.

Navy sponsored studies have rejected the idea that any further aircraft carrier be smaller than the current aircraft carriers, or that they be non-nuclear powered.

The Competition

One way to evaluate the appropriateness of the size and distribution of U.S. Navy resources is to compare the U.S. Navy to those in the rest of the world. The following list summarizes all the ships of frigate class or larger and submarines publicly known to be in the Navy's of countries in various regions of the world.

For comparison, using the definitions used below, the United States has 24 aircraft carriers, 24 cruisers, 48 destroyers, 30 frigates, and 71 submarines including 14 nuclear missile submarines.

Also, it is worth keeping in mind that France and all other European allies of the United States would likely make their Naval forces available as part of a coalition in the event of a Naval war that involved Russia on one side and the United States on the other. This would add to the U.S. total a combined 6 aircraft carriers, 30 destroyers, 92 frigates, and 42 submarines.

Likewise, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea would each defend themselves with their own ships, as well as those of the U.S. Navy, in the event of a conflict that involved China or North Korea on one side, and the United States on the other.

North Atlantic and Middle East and Africa

Allies or Neutrals Unlikely To Attack the United States

Our ally, the United Kingdom has 3 aircraft carriers (which carry 8 Harrier aircraft and 12 helicopters each), 11 destroyers, 20 frigates, and 13 nuclear submarines, including 4 ballistic missile subs.

Our ally, Italy, has one aircraft carrier (which carries a combination of up to twelve Harrier aircraft and helicopters), one cruiser scheduled to be decommissioned in 2005, 4 destroyers, 12 frigates, and six submarines.

Our ally, Spain, has one aircraft carrier (which carries twelve Harrier aircraft), 16 frigates, and 6 submarines.

Our ally, Germany, has one destroyer, 12 frigates, and 12 submarines.

Our ally, Greece, has 2 destroyers, 12 frigates, and 8 submarines.

Our ally, France has one aircraft carrier (which carries 34 fighter jets, 2 electronic warfare aircraft and 2 helicopters), 12 destroyers, 20 frigates, and 10 nuclear submarines, including ballistic missile subs.

Our ally, Turkey has 19 frigates and 13 submarines.

Israel has 3 frigates and 3 submarines.

Egypt has one destroyer, 10 frigates and 4 submarines.

Algeria has 3 frigates and 2 submarines.

South Africa has 2 submarines.

Saudi Arabia has 7 frigates.

Oman, the Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates each have 2 frigates.

Mauritius, Mauritania, and Bahrain each have one frigate.

Potential Threats (As Viewed By U.S. Policymakers)

Russia has one aircraft carrier (carrying 28 fighter jets and 22 helicopters), 7 cruisers (it is comptemplating buying one more in the Black Sea from the Ukraine), 14 destroyers, 10 frigates, and 53 submarines (including 12 armed with nuclear missiles).

Iran has 8 frigates and 3 submarines.

Syria has 2 frigates.

Libya has one frigate.

Pacific Ocean

Japan, our ally, has 45 destroyers, 9 frigates, and 16 submarines.

Taiwan, our ally, has 11 destroyers, 21 frigates and 4 submarines.

South Korea, our ally, has 6 destroyers, 9 frigates, and 20 submarines.

Australia, our ally, has 14 frigates and 6 submarines.

New Zealand, our ally, has 2 frigates.

China has 21 destroyers, 42 frigates and 69 submarines (including 2 ballistic missile submarines).

North Korea has 3 frigates and 26 submarines.

Asia Other Than Pacific

India has one aircraft carrier (capable of carrying 30 Harrier aircraft and 7 helicopters), 8 destroyers, 16 frigates and 19 submarines.

Pakistan has 8 frigates and 10 submarines.

Thailand has one aircraft carrier (capable of carrying six Harrier aircraft and six helicopters) and 12 frigates.

Indonesia has 17 frigates.

Vietnam has 6 frigates and 2 submarines (which may not be functional).

Latin America

Brazil has one aircraft carrier, 8 frigates and 4 submarines.

Mexico has 3 destroyers and 8 frigates.


The U.S. Navy is vulnerable to a number of threats. Its surface ships, in particular, can be vulnerable.

A several thousand ton ship moving on the surface of the sea or ocean at less than 40 miles per hour is hard to hide from any sophisticated opponent, and these ships have such large crews and operate under a government so open that the general theater in which almost every surface ship in the Navy is located is a matter of public record.

Naval ships have to protect themselves from hostile aircraft, enemy submarines armed with torpedoes, explosive filled small craft on suicide missions, naval mines, and missiles launched from land, submarines, other surface ships (including small craft) or aircraft. These are particular concerns in near coastal areas, such as in the Persian Gulf. Many smaller nations have deliberately adopted a strategy of building navies comprised largely of short range coastal ships known as torpedo boats or missile boats, and it is possible that these ships will prove more potent than their small tonneage and limited "blue sea" capabilities would suggest in a defensive role.

In the "blue sea" smaller coastal submarines, land based threats, and small craft are not a concern, and largest craft can be identified and interrogated at a distance long before they become a threat. The problem is that there are virtually no "blue sea" naval threats for the United States Navy to respond to, and the further from shore a naval ship gets, the less useful it is in providing support for ground operations through its supply of missiles, contignent of Marines, aircraft, and supplies.

The large aircraft carrier groups which U.S. naval forces generally deploy in, reflect the substantial resources necessary to provide adequate mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-small craft warfare and anti-aircraft resources necessary to protect the force from these threats, before it can be useful for any other purpose.

While U.S. Naval resources have been used in a variety of conflicts largely in support of operations taking place primarily on the ground, there has been extremely little actual naval combat since World War II, and so it is difficult to determine how a conflict reflecting the changes that have taken place in military technology in the past sixty years would play out. For example, while U.S. ships have defensive resources designed to respond to an attack by cruise missiles, no U.S. ship has ever faced a barrage of multiple cruise missiles in real life. The multiple cruise missile attack is one of the key risks of concern to those who advocate a smaller surface navy.

Also, even if an opponent fails to actually sink a U.S. ship, merely causing serious damage to a major U.S. naval combatant could take that billion dollar plus asset out of the conflict because it might be forced to return home for repairs.

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This page was last modified 23:38, 28 February 2008 by Andrew Oh-Willeke. Based on work by dKosopedia user(s) DrDebug, Corncam, DRolfe, Lestatdelc and Carl Nyberg. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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