Home » Education Legislation » Battle Over How to Count Navy Ships is Confusing, But Not New

Battle Over How to Count Navy Ships is Confusing, But Not New

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) leads ships from Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 12 during a maneuvering exercise on Sept. 23, 2014. US Navy Photo

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) leads ships from Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 12 during a maneuvering exercise on Sept. 23, 2014. US Navy Photo

Lawmakers and Navy leadership spent the past year going back and forth over how to count the number of ships in the Battle Force fleet. The Navy made some changes last spring that immediately increased the size of the fleet and complicated the ship-counting effort: certain ships would count only if they were forward deployed but not if they returned home to the United States. Congress pushed back, passing into law what was essentially a compromise counting rule – and the third methodology to be used in a one-year span.

As a result of the back-and-forth, the Navy’s most recent ship-count projection it submitted to Congress contains two sets of figures: one with the Navy’s preferred method, and one following Congress’s rule. 

The dueling methods have led to confusing charts and tables earlier this year, but the conflict over how to count Navy ships is not new – the Carter and Reagan administrations both created their own sets of rules for counting ships.

For most of the Navy’s history, the number to focus on was the number of active ships in the fleet – those that had been commissioned into the Navy and were manned by active duty crews. Naval Reserve Force ships were not included.

The Carter administration, however, created a Ship Operating Forces method for counting ships, which included “all active, reserve, and civilian-manned ships owned by the Navy,” according to a 1985 report by the Congressional Budget Office.

When the Reagan Administration came in, officials – including Navy Secretary John Lehman, of the 600-ship Navy fame – decided that many of the ships “were not considered sufficiently important by the administration to be included against the 600-ship goal,” the CBO report said. Lehman created the Battle Force ship count that was used for three and a half decades, until current Secretary Ray Mabus changed the rules in March 2014.

The idea behind the Battle Force count method is “to include in the count ships that are readily deployable overseas and which contribute to the overseas combat capability of the Navy,” Ron O’Rourke, naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, explained to USNI News on Friday. It doesn’t discriminate between active duty and Naval Reserve Force ships, he said, as long as a ship meets those requirements.

As a result, Defense Department ships that support Army and Air Force operations do not count, nor do Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships that primarily support Marines ashore.

O’Rourke noted a quirk in these requirements in the footnotes of a recent report, writing that previously planned but since canceled MPF (Future) ships “would have contributed to Navy combat capabilities (for example, by supporting Navy aircraft operations). For this reason, the ships in the planned MPF(F) squadron were counted by the Navy as battle force ships” even though current MPF ships were not counted.

These Battle Force counting rules were not formally changed until just recently – though the Navy did, in practice, make at least one change. For example, O’Rourke said, older classes of patrol craft were deemed eligible to be counted as Battle Force ships, including the Pegasus-class hydrofoil boat (PHM-1). But the Navy at some point changed its view about whether to include patrol craft in the count and did not include the Cyclone-class patrol ships (PC-1) when they entered the fleet.

Last spring, Mabus announced a ship-counting rules change in a letter to Congress. Patrol craft and mine countermeasures ships would count as Battle Force Ships, but only if they were operating in the Forward Deployed Naval Forces. Those ship classes, if stationed stateside, would not count. Hospital ships and a High Speed Transport would count. And so would cruisers laid up for extended modernization periods.

Congress stepped in, rejecting the idea of counting PCs, even though the older class of patrol craft were counted, and hospital ships. The current counting method under the law, therefore, mixes the Reagan-era method and the Mabus-proposed method. Future historians will have to bear in mind that the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Navy budget request spoke of projected ship counts in the Lehman-era methodology, the FY 2015 budget request in the short-lived Mabus methodology, and the FY 2016 budget request in both the Mabus and the congressionally mandated methodologies.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert wrote in his testimony to Congress that as of Jan. 1, the Navy had 288 ships by the Mabus methodology but only 279 by Congress’s; would have 291 in FY 2016 by the Mabus methodology but only 282 by Congress’s; and would have either 308 or 304 in FY 2020, with the gap closing as PCs retire.

The chart includes the footnote: Navy revised the accounting guidelines for its Battle Force according to requirements set forth in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Numbers in this statement are not directly comparable to those used in prior testimony, see chart below. The NDAA prohibits inclusion of “…patrol coastal ships, non-commissioned combatant craft specifically designed for combat roles, or ships that are designated for potential mobilization.” Ships that were counted last year, but are no longer counted, are Patrol Craft (PC) and Hospital Ships (T-AH).

  • Secundius

    Depends on which mathematics you use. The World Standard Mathematics, Russian Arithmetic or Rep. Paul Ryan’s saving the Budget Math…

  • Steve Skubinna

    It’s obvious that a “one size fits all” count is useless. Therefore the Navy should produce several. One could be all totals in commission and in service, which would list MSC vessels as well as the patrol combatants.

    Another should be deployable combat assets, and finally there should be a count of combatants actually deployed. MSC fleet support ships ought to be in a separate talley because while not combatants they are force multipliers, and what permits the combatants to remain on station.

    What we have now is the result of various parties wanting to make points for political or budgetary purposes, but largely useless as a viable count of combat capability on station.

    • Voice_of_Reason


  • Am I stupid or is the world being turned upside down. What, where, when, etc. a Navy ship is a ship if “she” has guns, can not be carried on another ship, i.e. small boats, etc. and can go in harms way. A hospital ship is a non-combatant so should not be counted. Are we at the point of nit-picking ship counts. Combatants, well sort of because we under gun our ships they have less punch they many foreign ships of the same size. Case in point the FF/LCS what class with their 57mm pea shooters.
    So let us go all in and count USCG cutters, As for as MSC ship’s why not arm them with modular vertical launch and close in defense systems. I “ASS”ume, all amphib’s are counted but most of them have less offensive power than the FF/LCR’s. Sure the newer ones have great aviation cababilities but no F35 yet…that is if the aircraft can do all that is expected. It is the same game they play with the budget, smoking guns and such. You thing the PRCAN and the Russians are fooled? How many times in the past few years has the Navy changed it’s sea control and fighting plans? IOur plan and goal should be the biggest in size, firepower, and numbers. Makes me feel like puking but no problem I’ll puke to the lee side. One more point and I’ll go have my morning coffee? About the Navy Reserve. Do we have reserve ships? That is not in mothballs but with active duty personnel and reserve crews? If it flies a commissioning pennant it should be a combatant.
    MMCS(SW)(SS) USN Ret.

    • Voice_of_Reason

      a “hospital ship” is indeed a SHIP. if you want to get an accurate count of ships for the purposes of budgeting, you need to count ALL ships.

      there should be no “off books” ships!

      • I did not write it was not a ship I wrote it was not a warship and as such shoulld not be counted in the line of battle.

        • Secundius

          @ Ken Badoian.

          As far as I know, Hospital Ship’s rate as Fleet Auxiliaries…

        • Voice_of_Reason

          understand. i think a categorized count is much more useful. “warship” is a useless term, because they vary tremendously in capability. A 600 ship navy made up of LCSs, for example, wouldn’t be as good as our current fleet that has kess than 300.

          • Secundius

            @ Voice_of_Reason.

            If seeing Combat is the Yard-Stick by which Warship’s are measured by, then Neither the Zumwalt class Destroyer, the Gerald R. Ford class Aircraft Carrier’s, or any other ship coming the Shipbuilder’s “Slips” are Warship’s. So now, you just reduced the Fleet to about 200 actual Warship’s…

          • Voice_of_Reason

            capability of a platform is more important than history of a platform, when counting assets.

          • Secundius

            @ Voice_of_Reason.

            Well considering Neither the Freedom/Independence classes have seen combat, their part is MUTE. Gerald R. Ford, is currently have Arresting Gear Problem, so he’s MUTE too. And there’s a 16,000-ton IF in the Zumwalt’s…

          • Voice_of_Reason

            But you are kind of making my point: Freedom and Independence class ships would be counted as warships, but they a nothing compared to an Aegis ship. Even if an LCS saw “combat”, it would still be inferior to an Aegis ship that hadn’t seen combat. So just counting total “warships” oesn’t give much in the way of useful information.

          • Secundius

            @ Voice_of_Reason.

            Same can be said of WW2 PT-boats as compared to Fletcher class Destroyers. They were there at the right time, and somehow got the job done. Speed can make-up for Gunnery. And being Modular Plug-In Systems, Swapping Gun Mounts are Possible or even Swapping for Missile Systems. And a hell-of-a-lot-faster, than on larger vessels…

          • Voice_of_Reason

            i think you continue to miss the point, or at least you are not addressing it.

            no one would count a PT boat the same as a cruiser, regardless of the merits of a PT boat for certain mission profiles.

          • Secundius

            @ Voice_of_Reason.

            Your also missing the point. The 2005, US Navy budget set by and ratified by President George W Bush, is pretty must Set-In-Stone, Can Not Be Touched. Call’s for 52 LCS class Hulls. Live With It, There Not Going Away Any Time Soon. So get your head around it and Move On…

          • Voice_of_Reason

            that is a completely different point.

          • Secundius

            @ Voice_of_Reason.

            Their Not going get rid of them any time soon. Their going to Transfer either, or Trade them…

  • Lazarus

    The PC’s belonged to Naval Special Warfare Command (NSW) when first commissioned in the 1990’s. NSW transferred them to regular Navy control after 2001 I believe. Since then the PC’s have been forward deployed on many occasions when not on loan to the Coast Guard. Based on deployment status, the fact that they are named, commissioned ships, and the precedent of including the PHM’s, the PC’s should be counted as battle force ships.

  • OleSalt_1

    Leave it to the CNO and the USN on the method of counting the number of ships. They are the professionals who serve and defend the nation and its operational interests. When politicians interfere and have their own agendas, the problem and arguments will be a waste of time and be demoralizing for those in service. Anyway, the number of ships the USN has presently would be very difficult to commit itself in their global tasks as a leading Naval Superpower – This is my humble opinion.

  • Secundius

    I would think the “best” count, is “A 10 Count KO”…

  • Voice_of_Reason

    This just isn’t as hard as it is being made out to be, just use several categories to get a more accurate picture, and include a grand total count of all ships. An example might be:

    Total ships active
    broken out into: active carriers, active bmd capable cruisers and destroyers, other cruisers and destroyers, frigates, PCs, assault amphibious ships, minesweepers, and support ships (hospital, oilers, etc.)

    Total ships reserve, broken out the same way:

    Total ships deployed, broken out the same way:

    Total ships available for deployment within 7 days notice, broken out the same way

    Grand total of all categories (without duplication)

    • Secundius

      @ Voice of Reason.

      You might try Jane’s Defense Weekly, and asking them. They make Counts, Assessments Technology Reviews, Evaluations, etc. On just about everything…


      I agree.

  • Thomas Conners

    How hard can this really be? We have more Admirals than we do ships and that in itself is part of the problem.

    • Secundius

      @ Thomas Conners.

      The Combined Active/Reserves combination is ~430-ships, with 275-ships Active, ~155-Reserves, and ~70 under construction. You just have to ask your Laptop the right questions…

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    How many actual ships ready for war are their.