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.
1.Joe Gould and Megan Eckstein, “The Congressional Fight to Scrap Littoral Combat Ships Isn’t Over,” Defense News, 24 June 2022.
2.If the fleets were roughly equal in size, superior training, a more effective strategy, or greater overall naval professionalism were the decisive factor. Victory is defined as achieving the strategic objectives for which the war was conducted. The 28 cases were selected based on the assessment that naval combat contributed substantially to achieving the strategic objectives. That does not mean naval combat in itself achieved the objectives in conflicts that could be considered “all domain” or “multidomain,” only that reputable historians agree that naval operations were a significant factor. Only in a few cases were naval operations the sole factor.
3. Superior technology is defined as a technical capability possessed by one side that determined combat success in at least one major engagement.
4. Diffusion of military technology has been extensively studied. A representative source that provides multiple perspectives on long-term diffusion is Emily O. Goldman and Leslie C. Eliason, eds., The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Those who focus on “revolutions in military affairs” view the revolution is complete only when all sides have adopted the emerging technology.
5. One can define luck as an act of nature that effectively neutralized the advantages on one side. In the ages of galley warfare and fighting sail, weather was the great equalizer, with storms destroying more ships than battle. The ancients also considered divine intervention to be a routine factor of victory.
6. Captain Edward Brenton, later to be the biographer of Lord St. Vincent, wrote in 1838: “In the art of constructing ships of war the French were a full century ahead of us.’” James D.G. Davidson, Admiral Lord St. Vincent: Saint or Tyrant? The Life of Sir John Jervis (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2006).
7. For example, Tom Pocock, Battle for Empire: The Very First World War 1756–63 (London: Michael O’Mara Books, 1998) and William R. Nester, The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756–1775 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000).
8. Edwin P. Hoyt, Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 7-9; Hoyt, Three Military Leaders: Togo, Yamamoto, Yamashita (New York: Kodansha International, 1993), 104-106; Gordon Prange,
At Dawn We Slept (New York: Penguin, 1982), 11; John Deane Potter, Yamamoto: The Man Who Menaced America (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 35.
9. See Naval Expansion Act, 14 June 1940.
10. Calculating the number of carrier equivalents depends on whether partially completed hulls and ships constructed for the Royal Navy are included. One could argue for a slightly lower or possibly larger total.
11. Kamikazes were the most precise weapons in World War II because humans had direct control of the flight of the ordnance from launch to impact.
12. Estimates on the size of the PLAN include Ronald O’ Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, Updated March 8, 2022, Congressional Research Service, RL 33153; Jon Harper, “Eagle vs Dragon: How the U.S. and Chinese Navies Stack Up,” National Defense, 9 March 2020; and Geoff Ziezulewicz, “China’s Navy Has More Ships Than the US. Does That Matter?” Navy Times, 12 April 2021.
13. In his RL 33153 CRS report, naval expert Ronald O’Rourke writes that Chinese ships, aircraft, and weapons are now comparable in many respects to those of Western navies.
14. Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 40–44.
15. An argument is made that “technologies [themselves] often require a certain mass before they can make any impact, much less be effective. Put simply, it takes two radios to communicate, but a network is more powerful; radar becomes decisive as powerful and easy-to-use sets proliferate in an environment of tactical aggression and numerical superiority. A single torpedo fired at a target is less than one-quarter effective as a salvo of four.” Vincent P. O’Hara and Leonard R. Heinz, Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022), 233.
16. On a discussion on the difference in functions between armies and navies, see Sam J. Tangredi, “Beyond the Sea and Jointness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 127, no. 9 (September 2001), 60–63.
17. Department of the Navy, Navy Warfare Development Command, Navy Warfare Publication 3 (Change 1): Fleet Warfare, 2022, 19, note 23.
18. On Soviets taking the first shot, see ADM James D. Watkins, U.S. Navy, “The Maritime Strategy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 112, no. 1 Supplement (January 1986). On struggle for the first salvo see “Struggle for the First Salvo,” GlobalSecurity.org, and LCDR Alan D. Zimm, USN, “The First Salvo,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 111, no. 2 (February 1985).
19. “To withstand the Soviets’ threatened 'battle of the first salvo,' the U.S. Navy must have sufficient mass and mobility to combat enormous firepower, and the resilient mobility to regroup. From “Struggle for the First Salvo,”
20. “The potential to effect this concentration is greater at sea than on land.” Hughes.
21. For a recent comment, see LCDR Stephen Walsh, USN, “Stop Sending Carriers to CentCom,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 148, no. 9 (September 2022): 33–37.
22. Harlan Ullman, “To Deter or Win Future Wars, the United States Must Reverse the Cost-Exchange Ratio,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 147, no. 5 (May 2021).
23. Marcus Weisgerber, “Top Navy Admiral: Fleet Size Doesn’t Always Matter,” Defense One, 4 April 2022.
24. Description from Christopher A. Lawrence, War by the Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2017), 256.
25. A direct and concise statement (albeit Army-centric) in a section entitled “The Rise of Quality over Quantity,” is from Eliot Cohen’s “Technology and Warfare,” in John Baylis, James Wirtz, Eliot Cohen, and Colin S. Gray, eds., Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 244.
26. Aaron Mehta, “AI Makes Mattis Question ‘Fundamental’ Beliefs about War,” Defense News, 17 February 2018.
27. Sydney J. Freedberg, “HASC Chair Slams F-35, 500-Ship Fleet: Highlights Cyber,” Breaking Defense, 5 March, 2021.
28. Sam J. Tangredi, “AI Programs of Potential Military Opponents” in Tangredi and George Galdorisi, AI at War: How Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning Are Changing Naval Warfare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021), 92–116.
29. Freedberg, "HASC Chair Slams F-35."
31. “According to the U.S. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, estimates suggest a core strength of 60,000 fighters. With the addition of other militia groups and supporters, that number could exceed 200,000.” In contrast, “Jack Watling, of the Royal United Services Institute, says even the Afghan army has never been sure of how many troops it actually has.” From “Afghanistan: How the Taliban Gained Ground So Duickly,” BBC News, 13 August 2021.
32. Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904–1919 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1961), vol 1, 347.