The US hospital ship Mercy gets resupplied at sea.

The US hospital ship Mercy gets resupplied at sea.

Quantity has a quality all its own. The Navy announced this afternoon that it has changed the arcane rules by which it counts ships, adding 10 coastal patrol craft, two hospital ships, and a high-speed transport to what it calls the “battle force.” The new rules would also keep 11 cruisers the Navy plans to not-quite-mothball on the rolls.

Those debatable additions drew an immediate denunciation from the chairman of the House seapower subcommittee, Rep. Randy Forbes. Forbes, like many Republicans, is ever watchful for what they think is administration gimmickry to hide the full impact of the budget cuts known as sequestration. Another Hill source told me the new system was just too confusing because some ships might drop in and out of the count from year to year, making congressional oversight even more difficult.

So revising these arcane metrics may become a political hot button. (In fact, that already happened just last year). They also shed light on how the Navy is reimagining itself for the post-Afghan War world — and they expose the service’s open secret: the “battle force” isn’t actually a force for battle.

What is a warship, anyway? Aircraft carriers clearly count, with their on-board squadrons of attack planes. So do missile-laden submarines and destroyers. Whether the Navy’s smaller and more fragile Littoral Combat Ship is a “real” warship has been hotly debated. Hospital ships? Coastal patrol boats that aren’t seagoing ships at all? As strategically important as they are — hospital ships for disaster relief, the patrol craft for guarding the Gulf against Iran — designating them as “battle force ships” does muddy the waters, at least metaphorically.

“With America’s national security budget under severe pressure,” Rep. Forbes said in a statement, “it is imperative that the Congress and the American people be able to visualize just how radically sequestration is impacting American naval strength.” (Note how, for Forbes, the ship count is part of a much larger political debate).

“I am disappointed to see the Navy is now counting ships like Patrol Craft and Hospital Ships in its battle force fleet that only a year ago it chose not to count,” Forbes said. “As well, I do not believe that a ship put in a reduced status should be counted” — that’s the 11 obsolescent but still functional cruisers Congress has forbidden the Navy to retire.

The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, has already insisted that he’s not trying an end run around the retirement ban. The cruisers will be taken out of active service only until there’s money to modernize them and send them back to sea, he said. They’ll even be preserved and monitored more carefully than ships “laid up” in the past.

“We’ve done it before with battleships, [but] this is going to be more sophisticated,” Greenert told reporters Monday. “As a minimum you sort of shrink wrap them, put dehumidifiers on them. We will have people assigned to the ships to monitor [their condition]. When we put ships ‘in mothballs,’ [by contrast], they float out there and nobody has to look at them.”

Nevertheless, those 11 cruisers will take a long, long time to get ready for missions in an emergency, more so than even ships undergoing major maintenance.

Yet at the same time the Navy wants to keep the 11 “laid up” cruisers in the “battle force,” it is taking out three ships that actually could deploy, namely the Navy minesweepers used for mine warfare training in San Diego. Minesweepers in the Persian Gulf will count as part of the battle force; minesweepers at the stateside training base will not. Similarly, the 10 upgunned Cyclone­-class patrol craft deployed on a long-term basis to Bahrain will be counted; patrol craft in the US would not.

Even better, whether a ship gets counted will depend not only on where it is but when. If theater commanders regularly request a particular class of vessel that’s currently not in the battle force, the Navy now says it will add it, “on a case by case basis,” to quote a leaked letter from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The key criterion will be whether the ships are formally included in something called the Global Force Allocation Management Plan. “This will be a temporary authorization to include these ships in the ship count,” Mabus wrote, “until the ships are no longer requested in the GFMAP or are retired (whichever occurs first).”

Making the battle force more representative of what forward commanders actually do and do not use is a worthy goal. But counting the same ship at some times in its career and not at others “involves a great deal of confusion,” said a Congressional source. “That does make it harder to conduct oversight.”

There is a method behind the madness, however. Here’s the secret: Despite the term “battle force,” the Navy doesn’t measure itself primarily against the demands of future wars.

It’s day-to-day “presence” around the world that drives the size of the fleet: hunting Somali pirates; keeping an eye on the Iranian, the Chinese, and other bad actors; showing the US flag in foreign ports; conducting disaster relief and training exercises to built partnerships with potential allies. Compared to pure warfighting, these missions can make use of — indeed, require — a much wider range of vessels.

When Adm. Greenert outlined his top priorities for reporters Monday, “forward presence” was Nr. 2, second only to preserving the nation’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent. Readiness for today’s missions was Nr. 3; new tactics and technologies for future threats was Nr. 4.  “Do we have the capability and capacity to defeat an adversary in a major contingency?” Greenert said. “That was Nr. 5.”

Is that a shocking statement for the head of the Navy? Or is it perfectly sensible for a world that saw its last major naval battle in 1944, where pirates, typhoons,  and terrorists in speedboats come up as often as provocations by major navies like China’s? Or is it just a repeat of testimony the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave before the House Armed Services Committee? Perhaps the confusing part of how we count the “battle force” isn’t the counting part at all: It’s the word “battle.”


  • Don Bacon

    I have it on good authority from an authoritative Navy source whose name can’t be revealed because of the sensitivity of the matter, that the real reason for changing the ship-counting rules is that the Navy doesn’t want to be caught red-handed with having more admirals than ships.

    The Navy currently has 275 admirals and 283 ships, but with new ships coming in at horrendous prices, Navy shipbuilding in big trouble and other financial priorities like the $200m Failed Strike Fighter and the $400m Little Crappy Ship the Navy could soon have more admirals than ships. Can’t have that. Thus the change in counting rules. They’d count gravy boats if they could. If it were up to me I’d can admirals not ships.

    In WWII the Navy had one admiral per 130 ships.

    • Gary Church

      If you had not insulted me I would be cheering you on. That…is an astounding figure. And infuriating.

    • Ed

      Any idea as to why they don’t want to let admirals go? If there’s too many, there seems to be no other logical course of action, to me.

    • Lee

      Why should we care about the number of admirals vs ships, its rather arbitrary isn’t it? Today’s ships are profoundly more sophisticated and lethal than those of WWII. The problem is that everyone wants capability and the latest technology but cringes at the actual cost to acquire and integrate it, so when competing for scarce resources, programs submit ridiculously optimistic cost estimates. When the rubber meets the road and the cost and schedule goals can’t be met, programs are forced to cut corners and or reduce capability.

      • Gary Church

        You have never had to bow and scrape before these god-like beings or you have some fantasy of becoming one yourself. If you don’t understand why one admiral for every ship is absurd then there is no use trying to explain it to you.

  • Thatguy96

    The Mercy is not just for disaster relief. The Mercy’s primary mission is “To provide rapid, flexible, and mobile acute medical and surgical services to support Marine Corps Air/Ground Task Forces deployed ashore, Army and Air Force units deployed ashore, and naval amphibious task forces and battle forces afloat.” Its not Mercy’s fault there hasn’t been a major amphibious operation in decades. If there ever was to be one you can be assured it would take part. That’s the primary reason for having large hospital ships. It performed its primary function during Desert Storm as well.

    • Mitchell Fuller

      Both USN hospital ships were commissioned in the 1980’s.

      My thinking is, for depth in capability, Navy needs to build at least two more of these ships on a modern platform.

      Problem is Navy (as currently all services) has shown itself abysmal in execution of design and project management, ex; LCS (per current reading, Navy has been instructed to look for a mission for it…….)

      • Wilson P. Dizard

        Potential roles for the gold-plated, eminently not-survivable Littoral Combat Ship: towing target barges for underwater-unoccupied-vehicles (UUVs) to attack; prepositioned equipment vessels for equipment needed during visits of Congressional Delegations (CODELS) in vacation spots co-located with Navy bases, including parts of Australia and Hawaii where CODELS require special foods and beverages not available on local markets; conversion to prison hulks at the Newport Naval prison for all of the bent Defense Investigative Service personnel and Navy officers set for long prison sentences as a result of the ongoing contracting corruption scandal involving ship refits & resupplies in SE Asia; permanent assignment as a “tall ship” for its role in the “tall tales” told by its contracted suppliers and project managers to keep Congressionally-budgeted funds flowing to the LCS program; courtesy tugboat and contracted rescue vessel for the Chinese PLA Navy’s barely-functional, Ukrainian-built aircraft carrier, allowing it to make port calls without jeopardizing its engines or navigation systems; the possibilities are endless.

      • Don Bacon

        The Navy is buying more LCS, and has got the price down to about $350 million each. (Down being a relative figure.)

        news report:
        The Navy on Tuesday committed nearly $1.4 billion to buy four more
        Littoral Combat Ships this year even as the viability of the program
        remains in question.

        Spending huge sums of money is never in question at the Pentagon.

    • Gary Church

      Hospital ships are not to engage in battles and not to be engaged if I am not mistaken. That would make them not part of the battle fleet.

  • J. C. Smith

    There is an online joke of dubious humor showing various navy craft under past presidents, then a raft with President Obama on it as “today’s navy” or something like that. I had no idea how close to reality that joke could be.

    • Gary Church

      You still have no idea because that is not reality. The president is not trying to turn the navy into a raft. If anything the defense industry thieves that steal every penny they can from the taxpayer are the ones building the raft. Wake up.

  • ycplum

    Sounds like bean counters are arguing over how to count half a bean.

  • Ed

    Then just devise another term, sheesh! Is it really that hard to keep track of two numbers? For instance, the Navy could have one internal count for this “battle force” (however ill-defined that is), and one for reporting the ship inventory to Congress. Absolutely no need to confuse externals with “Global Force Allocation Management Plans” and so forth.

    Unless the Navy thinks they should take no orders from Congress and would rather decide their course on their own, regardless of politics. But that would be far to respectless and rebellious for a strong, unified nation as the US, right?

    • Gary Church

      The money and votes associated with a battle fleet are what drive most of this sophistry. It has very little to do with actual military readiness. In this age of robots and missiles the surface combatant is obsolete and submarines may not even last much longer. It is something like the situation the Royal Navy found itself in under Jacky Fisher at the beginning of the 20th century; he started building Dreadnought Battleships and that automatically made the rest of their fleet worthless. Only a decade later Submarines had the potential to make Dreadnoughts obsolete but the technology to make torpedoes precision weapons did not happen and prevented that for the next half century.

      If not for nuclear weapons keeping the peace a third world war may have seen the wake homing and wire guided torpedo bringing an end to surface battle fleets and heat seeking and radar guided missiles making manned aircraft ineffective. Small innovations (like the minie ball) can have huge consequences.
      We now have long range drones carrying supersonic anti-ship missiles making anything on the surface no longer survivable and in ten years we may find sea gliders or something similar making even submarines obsolete. It is a reality the defense industry cannot accept. It may lose us the next war and bring about the end of America. A hundred years ago the global blood-letting known as the great war began and hopefully this century will not see a repeat.

  • Curtis Conway

    Perhaps the confusing part of how we count the “battle force” isn’t the counting part at all: It’s the word “battle.”

    If the ‘Forward Presence’ does not have ‘combat’ capability, then it is not very useful in its mission. All combat vessels must have a US Navy crew, not Military Sealift Command or civilians. However, every vessel must be oceanic capable. Battleforce elements have to be able to cross an ocean, then do battle. Otherwise we are just ‘playing games with names.’ How do Liberals win arguments ? They change the definition of time honored and well understood terms around which the argument is held. The moment you buy the new definition . . . . you have lost the argument, because you are no longer dealing with the real world, but rather dealing with the new construct, which ignores reality, because they can’t deal with reality (the Truth) in the first place.

    • Gary Church

      There you go automatically assuming this is all a liberal vs conservative issue. Stop making such asinine assumptions first and then maybe you will make some sense.

      • Curtis Conway

        Then do not redefine terms, and represent those terms as ‘new truth’ regardless of source, and not be so sensitive about labels. Like personal relationships, one is not offended . . . unless it applies. If it does not apply, then its water off you back. There are those who can live in the Real World and deal with truth, and those who want to redefine everything to fit their ‘new universe’ in which they feel more comfortable. About the time these folks get comfortable in their ‘new universe’, someone invades their space and shows themu just how unsafe that space is, and all the sudden a “Hospital Ship” without weapons is not such a COMBAT PLATFORM!

        • Gary Church

          Stop blaming liberals for everything. Liberal does not automatically make a person anti-military. That is a myth. Plenty of liberals in the military. I am a liberal and I don’t agree with calling a hospital ship part of the battle fleet and don’t know any liberal who would be happy with that. It is all political games and they do it to just cloud the issues and divide us; exactly what these thieves in the military industrial complex want. They want to keep making money Curtis.