Originally posted February 28, 2023.
This year when the Department of Defense submitted its annual budget request to Congress, unlike any year before, it supplied three alternative plans. All of the plans seek to expand the number of ships in active duty in an effort to keep up with China’s rapid naval expansion. The CBO reports:
On November 1, 2022, the Navy’s fleet numbered 292 battle force ships—aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, amphibious ships, combat logistics ships, and some support ships. The 2023 plan reflects the Navy’s desire to build a larger and more distributed fleet. To achieve that goal, the Navy would buy between 282 and 340 ships over the 2023–2052 period: 230 to 266 combat ships and 52 to 74 combat logistics and support ships. If the Navy adhered to the schedule for retiring ships outlined in the 2023 plan (that schedule is the same for all three alternatives), it would have a fleet of over 300 ships by the mid-2030s. By 2052, the fleet would number 316 ships under Alternative 1, 327 under Alternative 2, or 367 under Alternative 3. However, the fleet would become smaller in the near term under all three alternatives. Over the next five years, the Navy would retire 17 more ships than it would commission, causing the fleet to reach a low of 280 ships in 2027 before growing again.
According to the CBO, the major types of ships in America’s Navy are:
Nimitz Class CVN-68
The Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers are the heart of the battle force. Each carries an air wing of about 60 aircraft, which can attack hundreds of targets per day (based on 12 hours of flight operations) for up to a month before needing to rest. Carriers are the largest ships in the fleet, with a displacement of about 100,000 tons. (A ship’s displacement is the weight of water that it displaces when floating or, for a submarine, when submerged.) Ten of the current carriers belong to the Nimitz class. The Navy commissioned the first of a new class, the Gerald R. Ford, in 2017.
Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarines
Ohio Class SSBN-726
Strategic ballistic missile submarines are one component of the U.S. nuclear triad. Each submarine carries up to 20 Trident missiles armed with 1 to 8 nuclear warheads apiece. (Originally, they were built with 24 missile tubes, but arms control treaties now limit them to 20 operational tubes.) The Navy has 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, each of which displaces about 19,000 tons when submerged. The service has 4 other submarines of that class that it converted to a conventional guided missile (SSGN) configuration. Those SSGNs carry up to 154 Tomahawk missiles as well as special operations forces.
Virginia Class SSN-774
Attack submarines are the Navy’s premier undersea warfare and antisubmarine weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, however, they have mainly been used for covert intelligence gathering. They can also launch Tomahawk missiles at land targets, frequently in the early stages of a conflict in an effort to destroy enemy air defense systems. Of the Navy’s 50 attack submarines, 26 belong to the Los Angeles class. Displacing 7,000 tons when submerged, they are less than half the size of ballistic missile submarines. Virginia class attack submarines are a little larger, at 7,800 tons.
Large Surface Combatants
Arleigh Burke Class DDG-51 Destroyer
Large surface combatants, which include cruisers and destroyers, are the workhorses of the fleet. They provide ballistic missile defense for the fleet and for overseas regions. They defend aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships against other surface ships, aircraft, and submarines, and they perform such day-to-day missions as patrolling sea lanes, providing an overseas presence, and conducting exercises with allies. They can also launch Tomahawk missiles to strike land targets. Most of the Navy’s surface combatants displace about 9,000 to 10,000 tons.
Small Surface Combatants
Freedom Class LCS-1 Littoral Combat Ship
Small surface combatants include littoral combat ships (LCSs) and frigates. LCSs, which are built in two variants, are intended to counter mines, small boats, and diesel-electric submarines in the world’s coastal regions. The Navy’s new frigates, which it began building in 2020, are designed to be multimission ships, capable of performing many of the missions of the LCS but also carrying robust antiship capabilities as well as being able to defend against threats in the immediate area. More routinely, LCSs and frigates—like their counterparts, the large surface combatants—patrol sea lanes, provide an overseas presence, and conduct exercises with allies. They range in size from 3,000 to 7,000 tons. The Navy currently has no frigate because it retired all of its Oliver Hazard Perry frigates as of 2015.
Amphibious Warfare Ships
San Antonio Class LPD-17
The Navy has five classes of amphibious warfare ships. The two classes referred to as amphibious assault ships (also known as large-deck amphibious ships or helicopter carriers) are the second-largest types of combat ships in the fleet, displacing between 40,000 and 45,000 tons. With capacity for about half the troops and equipment of a Marine expeditionary unit, the amphibious assault ship is the centerpiece of the amphibious ready group. In addition to troops, each ship can carry as many as 30 helicopters and 6 fixed-wing Harrier jump jets or short takeoff and landing versions of the Joint Strike Fighters (F-35Bs), or up to 20 of those fixed-wing aircraft. The other three classes are divided into two types: amphibious transport docks and dock landing ships. Two of those ships together provide the remaining transport capacity for a Marine expeditionary unit in an amphibious ready group. They range in size from 16,000 to 25,000 tons.
Combat Logistics and Support Ships
Lewis and Clark Class T-AKE-1
The many combat logistics and support ships in the Navy’s fleet provide the means to resupply, repair, salvage, or tow combat ships. The most prominent of those vessels are fast combat support ships, which resupply carrier strike groups with fuel, dry cargo (such as food), and ammunition. Logistics and support ships can be as small as 2,300 tons for an oceangoing tug or as large as 90,000 tons for an expeditionary sea base.
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