How Strong Is the U.S. Navy?

Summary:  We spend a substantial faction of the US national income on national defense (broadly defined), roughly the same amount as the rest of the world spends (most of which is by our allies). Yet our leaders frequently warn that we’re at risk, and our military edge can vanish quickly.  Recently Romney gave a fine example of this.  Today two political scientists give us a more accurate perspective.

HMS Revenge


How Strong Is the U.S. Navy Really?” By political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva. Published at The Monkey Cage. Posted here with their generous permission.

“A good navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” – Theodore Roosevelt, his second State of the Union, 2 December 1902

In the last debate, Governor Romney made the claim that the US Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916 implying that the US Navy is regressing in terms of overall strength. How accurate is this claim? We recently compiled a new data set on naval capabilities and created a measure of state naval strength for all countries from 1865 to 2011. As such, we are in a position to address the claims of the Romney campaign. Broadly stated, our measure of state naval power is based on a state’s total number of warships (non-fighting ships are excluded) and each ship’s available firepower. To make comparisons over time, our annual measure is based on available firepower within the international system in that year.  (For more information, see our paper below) . In 1916, the US controlled roughly 11% of the world’s naval power. This is an impressive number that ranks the US third in naval strength behind the UK (34%) and Germany (19%), and just ahead of France (10%). What about the US navy in 2011? In 2011, the US controlled roughly 50% of the world’s naval power putting it in a comfortable lead in naval power ahead of Russia (11%). The US Navy has decreased in absolute size as Governor Romney argues (although this decline has been ongoing since the end of Cold War). U.S. warships are more powerful now than in the past, as President Obama implied. However, neither the number of warships nor the power of our ships is what is most important for understanding military and political influence. It is relative military power that matters most. In this respect, the U.S. navy is far stronger now than in 1916. Their paper, including the key graphic Power At Sea: A Naval Power Dataset, 1865-2011” — Abstract: Naval power is a crucial element of state power, yet existing naval datasets are limited to a small number of states and ship types. Here we present 146 years of naval data on all the world’s navies from 1865 to 2011. The creation of this country-year dataset focuses on warships that can use kinetic force to inflict damage on other structures or peoples. As such, the dataset captures naval power in terms of ship types and available firepower. This paper introduces the country-year data, describes variables of interest that can be used in either country-year studies or dyadic studies, and suggests potential questions of interest that scholars could explore using the naval power dataset. The key graphic (click to expand):

Click to expand

About the authors Brian Benjamin Crisher is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Florida State University. He has an undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University in international and comparative politics, and a graduate degree from WMU in comparative politics. Mark Souva is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida State University. For details see his webpage. For more information All posts posts about this topic (including pirates and the USMC) are listed at the FM Reference Page  Naval warfare and strategy. Posts about the US Navy:

  1. Recommended reading: an autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games, 14 January 2008
  2. A 4GW puzzle: what happened in the Straits of Hormuz?, 17 January 2008
  3. DoD Death Spiral – the US Navy version, 31 January 2008
  4. Update to the “Navy Death Spiral”, 22 April 2008
  5. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  6. A step towards building a Navy we can afford, 16 July 2008
  7. “Amphibious Ships are the Dreadnoughts of the modern maritime era”, 2 September 2008
  8. What Tom Barnett should have told Congress about America’s 21st century Navy, 3 April 2009
  9. How to design a naval strategy for a crazy nation, 16 July 2009
  10. Dr. Gross asks “Can The Case Be Made For Naval Power?”, 5 July 2010



12 thoughts on “How Strong Is the U.S. Navy?”

  1. I intend to read the paper, but have not yet and my comment is specifically to address what is written in this post.

    I would consider it a failure of political science writ large if the political value of naval power is measured primarily in relative comparisons of military power based solely on metrics that measured tools and/or technology.

    The implications of which would be naval power is measured primarily by capacity against other naval power. It is hard to imagine a less valid way to articulate the political value of naval power than with this type of simplicity, and that is what makes the discussion of naval power by both candidates in this election unworthy of much intellectual examination – as neither have contributed even a single suggestion what is lost or gained with more or less American naval power.

    In these elementary examinations and comparisons of US naval power, the diplomatic function of naval power is often missing. I hope that in reading the paper linked above I will discover these two students have not made this fundamental error in political analysis of seapower, but based on what is printed here my expectations are not very high.

    At it’s most simplistic, the candidates debate quality vs quantity without context. That context is complicated, but one thing is for sure – it is absolutely not primarily relative comparisons with the rest of the world.

  2. The lethality and effectiveness of our navy per ship has increased dramatically, as has the relative superiority of our forces compared to other powers. Inasmuch as our straight up national defense is concerned, we have more than enough to not only defend our country but crush our nearest competitors in any conventional conflict.

    However, in the contemporary geopolitical situation, the role of our navy is not just about strict national defense or power projection, it is also about keeping sea lanes open and safe for transit by merchant ships.

    Yet at the same time, this situation need not be a justification for building a massive and ultimately unsustainable navy. We can keep sea lanes open and safe through the use of strategic alliances with other countries including China, which have an obvious interest in protecting international trade. Indeed, joint patrols can increase military to military ties and in the case of China or Russia, can ultimately help prevent future conflicts. We can further augment this through the legalization and encouragement of regulated and sanctioned armed privateers which can provide escorts for large ships transiting through danger areas and where state naval resources are spread thin.

  3. I find it interesting that Russia, even after the collapse of the USSR, scrapping many vessels, selling off elements to China or India, and leaving so many ships and submarines to rot in various ports, still has the second most powerful navy.

    It gives an idea of how much one could possibly let go of the US navy without endangering its superiority.

  4. “National defense.” Don’t you just love this term? So Orwellian. Yes, we have to have a strong Navy, Army, and Air Force, to defend ourselves from Canada and Mexico–those villians. And of course,those evil South Americans can’t wait to destroy us. And God forbid should the Cubans decide to attack. Remember back when those horrible Filipinos were a menace to us?

    Yes sir, it’s a dangerous world out there. Just ask Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Yugoslavia, Honduras, Chile, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, Nigeria, the Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Oops, I forgot Mali. The very thought sent shivers down my spine.

  5. Ed raises an excellent point. America has enjoyed lots of good fortune in its short history. We had the good fortune to find a mostly empty country with a mere six million or so aborginal peoples far below our technological level, easy to rape and torture and mass-murder in order to grab their land and iron and copper ore and forests and beavers and buffalo and bison. Then America had the additional good fortune to be surrounded by a pair of nations notable for their inoffensiveness — has anyone heard any terror tales of the “bloodthirsty Canadians”? Or scare stories about the terrifying conquests of the rapacious Mexicans?

    Finally, America had the great good fortune to find itself separated from the nearest hi-tech predator nations like Germany or Japan by well over three thousand miles of ocean. As a result, America has never seen its cities bombed by the air by a ruthless enemy, has never seen its shores invaded by a gigantic D-Day-type landing force, has never seen its peoples herded together and liquidated and large numbers of its cities reduced to ash and their entire populations slaughtered as so many of the nations in Europe and Asia and South America did.

    General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps put it succinctly in 1933:

    “I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

    “I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”

  6. Michael O'Hanlon asks What Type Of Navy Do We Really Need? in USA today

    What Type Of Navy Do We Really Need?“, Michael O’Hanlon (Brookings), USA Today, 26 October 2012 — “Our 286-ship fleet is working overtime, but we can also make it work with some new thinking.” Opening:

    Mitt Romney and Barack Obama sure are good at the zingers. During Monday’s presidential debate, Romney claimed that today’s U.S. Navy is at its smallest size — in terms of the numbers of major ships — in a century. Obama sarcastically retorted that we aren’t playing a game of Battleship and that counting ship numbers is a silly way to assess naval capability. Both candidates are basically right as far as they go, but their exchange contributed very little to an understanding of what the Navy of the United States requires today.

    One thing is clear: The Navy remains hugely important. With Iran destabilizing the still vital Persian Gulf region, China rising in Asia, many trouble spots from Libya to Syria to North Korea most accessible via the sea, and the global economy more interdependent than ever, at the very least we can be grateful the candidates are calling attention to this crucial matter.

    Here is a short list of how we are putting to use our 286-ship Navy around the globe: …

  7. “With Iran destabilizing the still vital Persian Gulf region, China rising in Asia, many trouble spots from Libya to Syria to North Korea most accessible via the sea, and the global economy more interdependent than ever, at the very least we can be grateful the candidates are calling attention to this crucial matter.”

    Typical. Iran is destabilizing the region! Can you imagine any more outrageously hypocritical and obtuse idea? After decades of our invading and bombing and trying to starve the region, it is Iran who is destabilizing! And China: the new ogre. It is “rising” in Asia. So pull out the guns and prepare to shoot them! Korea is a “trouble spot” for which we bear no responsibility at all, of course. And to cap it all, we have to be “grateful”–grateful!–to the likes of a Romney and Obama, for pointing all this out.

    This mentality is why we will fall and fall hard.

  8. Mark Helprin in the WSJ: America's Capsizing Naval Policy

    We’re a guillible and easily led people, so propaganda like this finds an eager audience:

    America’s Capsizing Naval Policy“, Mark Halprin, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 28 October 2012 — “China’s maritime power and aggressive posture is rising while the size of the U.S. Navy continues to shrink.”

    It’s not fact free, but a delusionally one-sided picture. Helprine is a fellow at the Claremont Institute, and novelist.

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