I’ve heard a lot of people saying recently, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own.’ And I just want to be clear: No, it doesn’t. That’s one of the dumbest damn things I’ve ever heard.”1 With respect to the quoted speaker, not only does quantity have a quality all its own, but it also almost always proves decisive in naval warfare when professional competence is equal.
Using technological advantage as an indicator of quality, historical research on 28 naval wars (or wars with significant and protracted naval combat) indicates that 25 were won by the side with the larger fleet. When fleet size was roughly equal, superior strategy and substantially better trained and motivated crews carried the day.2 Only three could be said to have been won by a smaller fleet with superior technology.3
When professional naval competence and strategic acumen were equal, the larger fleet usually won, even when the smaller fleet possessed technological advantages at the start of the conflict. A primary reason is that technological advantages were inevitably short-lived.4 In a war between equally competent technological near peers—absent a series of amazing strokes of luck—the larger fleet always won.5 (See Table 1.)
With the growing potential of a naval engagement between a shrinking U.S. fleet and a growing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the three examples of technologically advanced but smaller fleets’ victories are not reassuring:
• The Byzantine Empire’s naval forces versus Vikings, Slavs, Turks, and Arabs to about the year 1000 AD/CE. At that time, the Arabs learned to employ the equivalent of Greek fire.
• The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean versus Mamluks, the Ottoman Empire, and Indo-
regional allies, 1500–1580.
• The British East India Company and various European nations versus Imperial China circa 1840–1900.
All other wars were won by superior numbers or, when between equal forces, superior strategy, or admiralship. Often all three qualities act together, because operating a large fleet generally facilitates more extensive training and is often an indicator that leaders are concerned with strategic requirements. In the Napoleonic wars, for example, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson may have been more brilliant—and braver—than his French and Spanish counterparts. His captains and crews were better trained. However, Great Britain dominated the war at sea because it had a larger fleet it could concentrate or disperse as conditions warranted. French warships were superior in the technology of ship design and construction, but ultimately, it was the large numbers of Royal Navy ships that prevented Napoleon from crossing the channel.6
Verdicts of History and Current Relevance
Before the Napoleonic era, British Prime Minister William Pitt (the Elder) used the larger Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) to eliminate French control from Canada and India. The French and British were technological near peers. France did not have the number of ships needed to reinforce or resupply its colonial possessions. In fact, Britain’s larger fleet also captured Cuba and the Philippines from Spain, France’s ally, although they were given back as part of the peace agreement. This global naval conflict and the corresponding land war raging throughout continental Europe has been referred to by some historians as the “first world war.”7 Americans refer to their part in it as the French and Indian War.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy had great admirals—Nimitz, King, Spruance, and others—who arguably were superior in strategic and operational acumen and, in particular, imagination to the admirals of Imperial Japan. Perhaps the exception was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was willing to gamble on operations his colleagues could not imagine being successful. However, it was the overall might of U.S. industry and the size of the U.S. fleet (particularly its logistics and amphibious ships) that ground out victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy—an outcome Yamamoto had even predicted.8
Imperial Japan entered the war with some superior technologies: the Zero fighter, Long-Lance torpedo, and aerial torpedoes that could strike in shallow water. As in similar cases, the United States quickly neutralized the technological advantage through countermeasures or by developing its own versions. As the U.S. war machine geared up and innovated, Japan fell behind in naval technology. The Two-Ocean Navy Act (Vinson-Walsh Act) of 1940 authorized a significant increase in the size of the Navy, with an emphasis on aviation.9 Both Imperial Japan and the United States began World War II with eight aircraft carriers—although the U.S. carrier force was split between the Atlantic and Pacific, giving Japan an operational advantage. During the war, Imperial Japan built 18 carrier-equivalents (fleet, light, and escort carriers) while the United States built 144.10 Unless the United States decided not to fight, Japan never had a chance. Even Japan’s precision weapons— kamikazes—were not able to change the outcome.11
Estimates vary, but some assessments contend that by the end of this decade, the PLAN fleet will reach 460 ships as the U.S. fleet sinks to perhaps as low as 260.12 In a naval-centric conflict against the continually growing PLAN, can the United States and its allies be assured that they possess strategy, technology, or training so superior that they can overcome these odds?13
Qualities of Mass
In examining the issue, the term “mass” will substitute for “numbers” since that is the term theorists and analysts most frequently use in describing past wars as well as in operations research. Metaphorically, Albert Einstein’s formula E=MC2 is also helpful—with E standing for “combat effectiveness,” M for “mass,” and C2 as acceleration in the speed of attack, or what Captain Wayne Hughes, the late great professor of tactics, would call “attacking effectively first.”14
Inspired by Professor Hughes’ work, my decades of research have brought me to this conclusion: In a naval struggle between near-peers, mass (numbers), and the ability to replace losses bests technological advantage. As the mass of one opponent grows, the chance of its defeat reduces. At a certain point of imbalance in mass, the larger naval force cannot be defeated, even when the opponent attacks effectively first in any one engagement. The advantages of mass listed in Table 2 explain why.
None of these combat advantages suggest that advanced C4ISR networks are not important to capable modern naval forces.15 Such networks—even in limited forms—have always been required to perform the function Hughes calls scouting—locating and reporting tactical information about the enemy. Scouting is the prerequisite for a successful engagement— “attacking effectively first.” The ability to put more ordnance on the enemy (which can include electromagnetic or cyber ‘fires’), while avoiding the enemy’s fires, wins engagements. The advantages of mass enhance scouting because the side with more ships, aircraft, submarines, and sensors can see more of the battlespace.
Naval Warfare is Different
In assessing the advantages of mass, it is important to recognize the vast difference between land and naval warfare.16 The dominant joint concept that there is a separation between maneuver warfare and attrition warfare—and that maneuver can substitute for attrition—is invalid in naval strategy. Maneuver is inherent in naval operations—just as it is in all the fluid mediums or domains: air, space, and cyberspace. Naval combat platforms themselves represent maneuver; there are no fixed locations in the ocean to defend, just as there are no fixed locations to defend in air, space, or cyberspace because the mediums themselves are in motion and they are domains that humans do not inhabit or can only inhabit for short periods of time.
This difference from land warfare can be most easily understood by observing that one cannot maneuver around or envelop an enemy fleet. There are no fixed lines to defend, breach, or avoid. There is no operational defensive. Therefore, attrition is the sole goal of naval warfare. As Hughes repeated throughout his years of research: attack effectively first.
One might assume that superior ship capabilities rather than mass can provide this effectiveness. But that is not what operations research indicates. As Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare notes: “Hughes’ salvo equations indicate that twice as many shooters beats half as many equivalent shooters firing twice as fast.”17
The Quality of Quantity
Each combat advantage derived from quantity deserves an analytical essay of its own, but there is nothing mysterious about them. The ability to retain dominant striking power after absorbing the enemy’s first salvo is a critical characteristic if the enemy shoots first. Absorbing does not mean deliberately allowing casualties but being able to respond decisively despite the inevitable casualties.
During most of the Cold War, U.S. naval strategists assumed the Soviet Navy would take the first shot—a belief reinforced by long-term Soviet Navy Admiral Sergey Gorshkov’s view that the outbreak of war was “a struggle for the first salvo.”18 The logic of building toward a 600-ship navy in the 1980s was to be able to gain access to the Soviet Union’s oceanic periphery to conduct sustained campaign-level operations even after the initial Soviet salvo.19
Massing fires ensures destruction of the enemy by facilitating saturation attacks.20 Logically, the objective is to attack from multiple axes with weapons hitting the target simultaneously in a sequence too fast for defensive systems to respond. Numbers allow for optimal massing, as Hughes’ salvo equations indicate. Again, the Cold War 600-ship goal was to ensure the mass destruction of the Soviet fleet prior to commencing access operations.
If the United States wants to retain global influence, maintain deterrence in multiple regions, and conduct combat operations against a near peer that is expanding its global military footprint, it needs a large number of naval platforms. Today, the peacetime demand of the regional combatant commanders overwhelms the availability of deployable Navy ships.21
In addition, a reserve of naval platforms is necessary to replace losses. In World War II, the reserve was the ability to build ships at speed. Today, most analysts doubt that the U.S. defense industry—which has consolidated and shrunk since the end of the Cold War—could expand quickly enough to meet wartime demand. To replace losses in a protracted conflict, the United States would need numbers of ships already in commission.
In the U.S. Navy, the cost of long-range precision weapons has resulted in relatively low inventories of them. The greater the enemy fleet’s mass or numbers, the quicker those inventories will be depleted. This point has been emphasized by the ongoing war in the Ukraine—the sheer mass of the Russian military has required Ukrainian forces to expend huge numbers of weapons. A navy should not build a large fleet just to deplete the enemy’s precision weapons inventory—the cost ratio favors weapons over platforms.22 However, a larger number of platforms increases the enemy’s targeting dilemmas, which can be enhanced by deception.
Numbers Don’t Matter Because It’s ‘All Different Now’
For the past three decades, the mantra “numbers don’t matter” has been repeated by defense decision-makers and—sometimes—senior Navy leaders.23 The perspective is that a smaller fleet of ships of greater individual quality—such as superior weapons technology or platform design—can defeat a larger but less technologically advanced fleet. After all, the U.S. Navy has experienced “a revolution in warfare created by the synergistic effects of increased weapons accuracy, improved intelligence and widespread communications” as well as emerging technologies, such as cyber capabilities.24
Greeks versus Persians, Seven Years’ War, the Battle of the Nile, industrial might in World War II, size of the Cold War Navy: Why bother discussing such ancient history when “everything is different now?”24 Satellites, ballistic missiles, wide-bandwidth communication, cyber weapons, directed energy, and hypersonics have “completely changed” war. Even erudite military leaders wonder if the nature
of war, as well as its character, has changed.26 Precision weapons brought a revolution in military affairs and provided a Second Offset against the larger Soviet force. Advanced technology, therefore, determines victory—or so
the logic goes.
A rather extreme but representative comment referring to the “game changing” role of advanced or emerging technologies is: “If you have a 500-ship navy and you’re up against someone who has a five-ship navy, but they’re able to shut down your information systems so none of your 500 ships work, they win.”27
There are no such five-ship navies, and the war most feared and most requiring deterrence is one against a technological near peer whose 500 ships are as advanced as the five, or more so. For several reasons, the Chinese will be the inherent leader in military applications of AI.28
However, there is another problem with the underlying assumption that technology can defeat mass: how advanced technology weapons will perform is largely unknown. The DuPuy Institute, one of the most notable independent centers of operational research on land warfare, and one that models combat outcomes based on historical data, expressed this concern in 2017:
Many have postulated . . . a revolution in warfare created by the synergetic effects of increased weapons accuracy . . . [etc., see above]. Recent U.S. conventional operations have increased this perception due to our opponents being technologically inferior, not particularly well trained, or simply incompetent, while the United States has enjoyed air supremacy and the luxury of outgunning our opponents.29
As a result, the DuPuy Institute finds it difficult to validate models of future combat based on past data because “there are no real-world examples in the past twenty-five years of combat between conventional armed forces with similar levels of advanced technology and military competence.”30
In fact, the precision revolution does not always seem sufficient to defeat less-capable mass. It is an uncomfortable but valid point that despite all its technological advantages, the United States could not sustain the government of Afghanistan and its armed forces. Numerous reasons can be cited for the success of the Taliban, but it must also be acknowledged that they had numbers on their side.31
Given the lack of real-world data, can one assert with confidence that “numbers don’t matter” when facing a military technological peer with increasingly realistic training, inexperienced but not incompetent military leadership, and a larger fleet? Such an assertion comes with considerable risk, which must be publicly acknowledged.
A Smaller Fleet, A Bigger Risk
The United States can fund a significant fleet that matches the growth of the PLA Navy—or not. Whether the fleet is 250 or 500 ships is for elected officials and the Navy to decide, but those leaders must identify, acknowledge, and own that risk. There is risk in all choices. But there is particularly higher risk in making choices based on unproven assumptions.
Based on historical research, claims such as “numbers don’t matter” and “our ships are more capable and therefore we need fewer” have no basis in evidence. Such claims are assumptions that ignore historical evidence, but as Hemingway wrote in A Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
In expressing the reality of mass and operational competence in the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord St. Vincent stated in 1801, “I do not say the Frenchman [Napoleon] will not come. I only say he will not come by sea.”32 Applying St. Vincent’s logic to the findings of my research: I do not say that a smaller, technologically superior fleet could never defeat a much larger fleet, I only say that—with the possible the exception of three cases in the past 1,200 years—none has. Historical evidence shows that smaller fleets lose. In the “ends, ways, and means” formulation of strategy, mass (or numbers) is one of the most important “ways.”
A naval war against China in the western Pacific in this decade would pit a smaller U.S. naval force against a larger PLAN, on China’s home turf, within range of the PLA’s air and rocket forces. U.S. leaders must ask themselves to what extent they are willing to bet on technological—without numerical—superiority in that fight.