NORFOLK, Va.—The Navy says the size of its fleet is just fine, thank you, and to stop counting its ships and start thinking about the service’s skill in using them. The Navy raised the subject in rolling out its new slogan, “Presence, not size, matters.”
The U.S. Navy currently has about 290 ships, significantly smaller than China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with over 300 vessels, plus several hundred more in the China Coast Guard. But Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recently said that the best measure of sea power employment effectiveness—”How you use it!” in Richardson’s phrasing.
Naval analyst Norm Marpol called this viewpoint an overcompensation for inadequacies as a result of “fleet envy.”
Commander Ward Burke, a staff officer with DESRON 9, disagrees with the naysayers. “Sure, the PLAN has a lot of width and depth,” Burke says. “But they’re unskilled in maneuvering and seamanship. They can’t get the job done if they can’t use their tools.”
“You can’t just slap your dick—er, your ship—on the water and expect it to perform,” he added.
The Russian Navy, with about 300 ships, also has a lot of “big, powerful submarines capable of penetrating our most sensitive regions,” Burke said. But the Russian Navy is also known for the limited duration of its operations. “What good is the size of their fleet if they have no time on station?” asked Burke.
Burke said that “a lot of people” know that smaller-than-average navies, properly applied over the right maritime terrain, are often more effective than large fleets.
Some naval theorists disagree with Richardson’s concept.
“You know who says that the size of a navy doesn’t matter?” asks Professor Sherri Higgins of the RAND Corporation, “Countries that have small navies, that’s who.” “The best approach is to combine a large fleet with effective and sensitive employment. As usual the Navy is missing the boat.”
Higgins added, “France thought size didn’t matter until Britain’s Admiral Nelson handed them their asses at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson had only one eye and one working arm, but he had a fleet of big ships and he knew how to use them, if you know what I mean and I think you do.”
Nevertheless, the Navy appears unwilling to bend. Burke concluded, “We’re totally satisfied with our smaller than average fleet. We really are. Like, really.”
Reports that senior Navy leaders are attending self-affirmation therapy groups behind the O club right now are unconfirmed.