In any discussion of fleet size, one of the common arguments used to defend the downward trend in ship numbers is that each successive class of ship is more powerful than its predecessor. Sure, the argument goes, we may be replacing 20 cruisers with only 15 but those 15 have more VLS cells, better guns, farther ranging sensors, etc. so we’re actually coming out ahead in terms of net combat power. That logic is intuitively appealing but does it stand up to analysis? The only rigorous analysis I’ve ever seen says no.
Capt. Hughes (1) performed mathematical modeling on naval engagements in which he included the effects of offensive weaponry, ship numbers, armor, passive defense, active defense, sensors, scouting, ship size, damage control, etc. After analyzing various scenarios with various factors he concluded that,
“Numerical superiority is the force attribute that is consistently the most advantageous.”
Now, some of you are saying, duh, how obvious but, I suspect, for the wrong reasons, at least according to the model. However, others are saying, wait a minute, my newly designed ship with 2000 VLS cells, super long range hypersonic missiles with 5000 lb warheads, stealth approaching invisibility, and worldwide networked sensing will blow any combination of enemy ships away without even needing to sound General Quarters because it has so much more aggregate combat power than any combination of the enemy forces. Well, unless you assign truly magical properties to the factors in the model, Hughes’ conclusion is valid regardless of the power of the ship(s) you have in mind. To many people, this seems counter-intuitive and just plain wrong.
The mathematical model produces the results it does and I’m not going to delve any further into it for this post. If you want to dig deeper, read the book and his analysis. I, myself, have some issues with aspects of the model but nothing that changes the basic conclusion. For the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss some aspects of fleet size (ship numbers) that may not be readily apparent but are suggested by the model and must be considered.
One of the popular conceptual arguments among naval commentators is that while fleet size is trending downward the aggregate combat power is trending upward so, therefore, the decrease in numbers is compensated or, more commonly believed, the smaller fleet is actually superior. The flaw in this logic is that the aggregate combat power is invariably compared to previous levels of combat power rather than to the combat power of potential enemies over the planned 30 lifespan of the new ship(s). This leads to an overestimation of one’s own combat power and an underappreciation of the value of numbers.
No ship is unsinkable – ask the Titanic. Further, modern naval combat (since at least WWII, if not earlier) tends to be short, vicious, and has a high rate of attrition. Rarely (never) is the magazine capacity of the combatants an issue. In fact, ships tend to be sunk with significant portions of their munitions unexpended. It stands to reason, then, that concentrating more and more of the fleet’s combat power in fewer ships (making for more attractive targets) risks the loss of large amounts of power for little or no gain.
Numbers dilute an enemy’s strike and complicate target identification and prioritization. Fine, you say, but an intelligent enemy will simply focus on the few high value units and leave the remaining units for leisurely mop up operations. Hence, what’s the point of additional numbers of ships (unless they’re all major combatants!)?
Well, for the case of the
fighting US , the astute observer will note that China ’s trend is towards heavily arming all their combatants relative to their size. Remember, with today’s highly destructive anti-ship cruise missiles a small vessel can inflict damage all out of proportion to their physical size if given the chance. Thus, the China can’t risk picking a few high value targets to concentrate on because the remaining ships are capable of inflicting significant damage. Therefore, the US must dilute their strike which, by definition, automatically enhances the enemy’s defensive effectiveness. US
Now, consider the reverse case wherein
is attacking US naval forces. The US Navy’s combat power is concentrated in ever fewer ships which facilitates the enemy’s targeting decisions and has the effect of enhancing their strike since all of their missiles are concentrated on fewer targets which increases the likelihood of success. Don’t believe me? The Navy’s plan, if followed through, calls for nearly a third of the combat fleet to be LCS’s. Thus, the Navy’s combat power will be concentrated in fewer and fewer ships. This isn’t me voicing an opinion – this is the Navy’s publicly stated plan! China
Hughes, backed by his simulations, advocates for more ships of smaller size so as to achieve a greater degree of distribution of firepower. Indeed, we see that there are significant factors related to fleet size (ship numbers) that are rarely accounted for in the common discussions. Perhaps it’s time for the Navy to re-examine the trend of concentrated combat power? Now, don’t misunderstand – numbers alone are not significant unless they come with firepower, often disproportionately so. At the risk of beating a dead horse, a thousand LCSs with no offensive power won’t gain us anything in combat. We need to look at frigate through destroyer size ships that pack useful firepower, both anti-ship and land attack.
(1) Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret), “Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat”, 2nd Ed., Naval Institute Press, 2000, Chapter 11