Measuring Navies: Looking Beyond Janes Navy International

by admin on September 10, 2013

USSLakeErieMissileTestWhile naval analysts love to compare raw naval power between navies (hull numbers, ship types, gun calibers, etc.), relative assessments of tactical naval performance or strategic effectiveness are harder to come by.

Static, hull-based capability measurements are less controversial and far more comforting–I mean, policymakers have been comparing ships and fleet size since Athens first started building triremes.  Even the most ignorant Congressional Representative out there can leaf through and understand a Janes Navy International reference book.

It is simple and it works. What better way to make the case for new ships than to point out that a rival is building more harder-hitting stuff than you?

But times are changing.  Simple measurements of raw naval power are becoming less and less reliable proxies for either future naval battlefield effectiveness or future strategic naval accomplishment.

It is becoming a crisis.  Policymakers don’t have a good way to measure the impact of what is a rapidly changing maritime battlefield.  They are not examining how the U.S. Navy supports wider strategic goals.  And that should be a huge concern for all those worrying about how America’s limited resources are going to be allocated in the lean years ahead.

Of course, simple measures like hull numbers still matter, but as the sea gets crowded and as war at sea gets increasingly sophisticated, it may be time to revise the shorthand that the American national security community uses to measure naval power.  In fact, it may be wise to start de-emphasizing raw naval power entirely and start explaining to policymakers–and the public–how the U.S. Navy is doing in seizing tactical capability and furthering U.S. strategic goals.

It all boils down this: Given that navies are an enormous investment, how does a taxpayer or policymaker know how well their navy is actually doing?

That is a deceptively tough question to answer.

Navies Need a “Report Card”

It is distressing–the only time Navies get a clear, unambiguous report card is on the battlefield–how many sailors were lost?  How many ships?  Were the objectives secured?  Did we win or loose?

But today the maritime battlefield is a little different–defining winners and losers is not as easy as it was in the days of Nelson.

Fights are also harder to come by–Navies these days don’t spend an enormous amount of time fighting each other.  Instead, navies spend a lot of time doing other things–carrying forward the strategic goals for their respective countries.

Given that national strategic goals are regularly articulated, does anybody regularly explore, in an unclassified fashion, the relative performance of various navies in the furtherance of their various strategic goals?

Not really.  Everybody has just been too focused on the numbers to carry the analysis forward.

Why get away from hull numbers?

Years of American overwhelming naval superiority has lulled U.S. decision-makers into a false sense of security. And with policymakers becoming increasingly quick to cite the fact that, numerically, the U.S. Navy is better resourced than the next five or so navies combined, the Navy is at risk–as the world’s biggest Navy sails into the coming resource fight, relying on ship numbers to serve as a measure of “effectiveness” is a recipe for defunding.

From a global perspective, the U.S. Navy’s numerical superiority is dwindling anyway.  Navies are growing, and, as more warships are launched, America’s “raw numerical power” is going to be locally diluted to a point where hull numbers become less important–and other less tangible or less easily explained measures may matter more (rate of fire, sensor effectiveness etc).

So if the U.S. Navy needs to get away from a discussion of raw numbers, what other measures of effectiveness are out there that might be useful to inform policymakers on where a particular navy stands relative to another?

What are alternative measures?  

I don’t have a good answer here.  But with China and other navies exploring means to mitigate the U.S. Navy’s traditional numerical strength and raw power, it is imperative for the U.S. Navy to explore alternative, unclassified ways of comparing tactical battlefield effectiveness.

There are a plenty of measures that could serve–reliability rates, readiness rates, exercise participation, training rates–all of these are routinely collected and could be bundled and released. But which measures matter most on the modern maritime battlefield?  I don’t believe anybody in the national security community actually knows right now.

And even while the Navy measures the heck out of itself, it is loathe to release things that might allow outsiders to evaluate their tactical effectiveness (or glimpse their assessments of other navies, either).  But the Navy may need to show a little leg.

It is a tough challenge. 

The metrics of naval force are changing in ways that policymakers and the public don’t quite understand. And that increases the risk of resource mis-allocation, military miscalculation or worse.  In a resource-constrained environment, American policymakers and taxpayers need to know more about the measures that actually matter on the modern maritime battlefield.

How do we define strategic effectiveness?

Let’s look to the strategic side.  That should be simpler–take the strategic priorities of various countries and simply see how the Navies have done in furthering those priorities over time.

But…do we really do that?  Is it even possible?  It certainly leads to an interesting question–Which navy out there is doing the best job of advancing their navy’s strategic goals?

That is what we are going to grapple with over the coming days as we look back across the last twenty-five years and try to define the most strategically effective Navy in the world.  Should be a fun week!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Hooper September 12, 2013 at 7:55 am

Thank you for your note! Always a pleasure to hear from the University of Kiel’s Institute for Security Policy. I don’t want to abandon quantitative measures entirely. Numbers…have a certain quality all their own, but I think it is very important to start stressing effectiveness–what are Navies out there to actually DO? And do they do it well? I don’t think the US public really understands just what our Navy does–and that should worry every officer out there in the fleet.

Navies are built to fight, yes. But, in the main, they are tools of policy, and we need to know if they are doing a good job of fulfilling that political role.

Feel free to email me directly if you want to continue mulling this. Contact email is in the right column.


Sebastian B. September 12, 2013 at 2:27 am

Superb food for thought, thank you very much. This is exactly one of the problems that my work as a political scientist centers around. It is of utmost importance to be able to explain to a broader or narrower public alike the strategic difference that Navies make to attain foreign policy ends. The quantiative school (number of ships, TLAMs, etc.) is overwhelmingly strong (cf. Presidentatial campaign 2012), and has consistently be the easy way out (“Hey, how can you argue against the fact that a ship cannot be in two places at once?”). Looking forward to your assessments.


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