Public discussion of the U.S. armed forces has a seemingly ubiquitous tendency to place each branch in a vacuum when it comes to preparing for future conflicts. For instance, discussions over the Army revolve around recruiting shortfalls instead of force structure, logistics, or the role the branch would play in a potential conflict with China.
For its part, the Air Force frequently faces criticism over cost, especially the F-35 program. Though this criticism is apt, it rarely considers the need to simplify the supply chain for building, repairing, or maintaining aircraft.
The Navy, too, has faced a barrage of criticism from Congress for its inability to construct more ships to better compete with China, now that Beijing has substantially grown the size of the Chinese navy.
The media has likewise criticized the Navy’s alleged inability to stop the Houthis from terrorizing commercial shipping in the Red Sea, though that is not the Navy’s mission.
As of November 2023, the U.S. Navy had 291 active battle force ships with another 190 in reserve and 51 under construction, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
China, on the other hand, has approximately 370 surface ships and submarines, according to the U.S. Naval Institute. However, some sources claim the number is much higher.
Directly comparing the gross number of ships between the U.S. Navy and China’s Navy (PLA-N) can be useful, but it doesn’t account for capabilities, missions, joint force operations, allies, national imperatives, national interest, or shifting national priorities.
This isn’t to say that the U.S. Navy doesn’t have its problems. However, it’s necessary to consider the Navy’s responsibilities and how other national assets compliment the Navy’s mission.
What Does the US Navy Do and Why?
A common theme among the many articles drawing attention to Navy readiness is the perceived lack of a clear definition of what the Navy does and why the U.S. needs a Navy.
The mission statement of the official USN website states: “The United States is a maritime nation, and the U.S. Navy protects America at Sea. Alongside our allies and partners, we defend freedom, preserve economic prosperity, and keep the seas open and free. Our nation is engaged in long-term competition. To defend American interests around the globe, the U.S. Navy must remain prepared to execute our timeless role, as directed by Congress and the President.”
This mission statement is rich in platitudes, but it lacks a practical explanation of what the Navy does, why it does it, and why it needs to possess certain capabilities. To start, it is best to describe why it is imperative for the U.S. to build and maintain such a large and capable navy.
The Navy’s Transition from a Colonial to a Superpower’s Protector
The U.S. may have gained its independence from Great Britain, but it was still quite vulnerable to invasion from the sea as proved by the War of 1812. Washington understood early on that it needed a navy capable of protecting its maritime borders in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico from several European empires that were still present in the New World.
Not only did this navy need to defend the U.S. from invasion, but it also needed to ensure that U.S. ships could travel unmolested to their destination. The U.S. waged wars against Barbary pirates for exactly this reason, but the Barbary Wars did little to secure U.S. freedom of navigation on the seas or to protect U.S. borders.
Fighting Barbary pirates did demonstrate that the U.S. Navy and Marines could fight a conflict on the other side of the world, however. U.S. victories in New Orleans and North Africa (especially Tripoli) demonstrated that the U.S. – a former colony – was growing into a capable military power.
Early victories were important for the U.S. but the security challenge of being surrounded by several European powers in the New World remained and eventually led to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. The Doctrine claimed that the U.S. would not tolerate further colonization in the New World, nor would it allow the creation of puppet governments. As President Monroe stated, “It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness.”
The only problem with this view was that the U.S. didn’t yet have the ability to enforce it. It wouldn’t be until 1898 that the U.S. would finally succeed in driving European occupation out of the Western hemisphere.
The U.S. presidents and members of Congress who served during the 19th century grew up with the threat of foreign intervention in the New World, whether that threat came from invasion, subversion, or economic disruption.
For many people, this mindset clearly demonstrated that the U.S. required a strong, expansive navy to dissuade threats to the homeland and protect U.S. trade internationally. In essence, requests for funds to grow and maintain a navy – now needed on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts – became a more urgent matter.
Politicians and the public both came to understand the need for a navy to protect maritime borders and trade. But it was World War II that pushed the U.S. to believe that having a strong presence on the world’s oceans wasn’t enough – it had to unequivocally dominate the water.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s total war in the Atlantic convinced the U.S. that its Navy, while capable, was no longer a sufficient deterrent to foreign expansionism. As the U.S. fought the war on multiple fronts, it was also churning out military equipment, including naval vessels, at an incredibly high rate. As a result, the U.S. had a substantial military when the war was finally over.
Instead of drawing down at the wars’ conclusion, Washington was determined to ensure that its massive navy could permanently occupy the world’s oceans. The U.S. government was determined to not fight another massive war on two oceans.
While the Navy had a large enough presence to prevent a two-front war from happening again, Washington went a step further and took pains to contain the Eurasian landmass in its entirety.
It wasn’t just about defeating competing navies but preventing those navies from being built.
During the Cold War, the Soviets managed to create a large navy. However, Moscow was at a significant disadvantage due to access and technology.
Washington and its allies encircled the Soviets with naval, air, and ground assets nearly across the entirety of the Soviet Union’s borders. While Moscow had its allies, they were similarly boxed in by the U.S.-led corridor.
The U.S. Navy held an advantage over the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, the U.S. was once again unchallenged on the oceans.
Space-Based Systems Create Convenience for the US Navy
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. shrunk its military – including the U.S. Navy – to a size more proportional to the perceived risks at the time. But although the Navy decreased the number of active ships and personnel, the size of the oceans remained the same.
Fortunately for the U.S., other assets such as intelligence satellites can monitor activity in potential conflict zones or maritime choke points, essentially replacing the need for a U.S. naval presence. Additionally, Washington has invested in aircraft and spacecraft that can loiter over a particular area, collecting intelligence and freeing up U.S. naval vessels for other missions.
It’s not just about monitoring the oceans, either. Each branch of the U.S. armed forces has forward-deployed newer, surface-based missile systems that cost less than a naval vessel and require fewer servicemembers to operate. These new systems give the U.S. the ability to permanently cover certain areas that are typically around 1,000 miles in diameter.
Back in 2016, the Navy published a plan indicating its intention to eventually construct and maintain 355 ships, according to Defense News. The Navy likely needs those 355 ships as all of its vessels will need regular maintenance, upgrades, repairs, and ultimately replacement.
Having 355 ships doesn’t mean that they will all be deployed at once, but the additional vessels will allow more U.S. navy ships to be deployed while others receive service. Advances in technology and the expanding presence of the U.S. in space have allowed the U.S. to replace some naval capabilities with less expensive systems while augmenting the capabilities of existing naval ships.
The important point is that the U.S. still views its control of the oceans as a national imperative. Although China may be building more ships, a direct comparison based solely on numbers leads to a flawed view of the U.S. Navy’s capabilities.
China remains a threat on the seas. Beijing is building a navy that suits China’s immediate threat environment and is also trying to lay a foundation for a future navy that could potentially have global reach.
For now, however, the U.S. Navy retains its supremacy over the oceans. That power is unlikely to change in the near future.