Few things besides being on the terrifying receiving end of the near-infinite might of our awesome missiles and guns illustrate naval power better than a good chart, and this handy infographic illustrates why the U.S. Navy is the largest and most powerful in the world. While other navies, particularly the Chinese Navy may be getting a lot of attention, it’s worth keeping in mind that the U.S. Nav has nearly one hundred guided missiles cruisers and destroyers, far more than any other navy on Earth.
The Navy includes aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines—many of them nuclear powered and spread across the globe. While other navies have more ships, ton-for-ton the U.S. Navy has far more globally capable, “blue water” warships. The bedrock of this force, known as the deployable battle force, are the 92 cruisers and destroyers listed in this chart.
The chart, prepared by Greek naval analyst and blogger D-Mitch and re-published here with permission, shows the 92 major surface combatants of the Navy. This total includes two Zumwalt-class destroyers, 22 Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers, and 66 Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. That’s more cruisers and more destroyers than any other navy by a comfortable margin, and the United States is building one more Zumwalt and as many as 34 more Arleigh Burkes. (The closest any other country can come to this level of firepower is the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, which fields 47 destroyers of varying sizes—but no cruisers.)
Here’s what they all do.
The largest ships in the fleet are the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers. Cruisers were originally surface ships that were smaller than battleships, designed to scout for enemy fleets at sea. Today’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers were designed in the 1980s around the Aegis Combat System, a radar/computer/missile combination that allows a ship to fend off mass air attacks sea, protecting high-value-targets such as battleships and aircraft carriers. In the 2010s, a handful of the ships were upgraded to provide protection against ballistic missiles as well. Very few navies have anything close to a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, and the U.S. Navy has 22 of them.
The Ticonderogas are armed with two five-inch guns, anti-submarine torpedoes, and 122 vertical launch systems, armored silos that can pack a variety of missiles including SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors, SM-2 long range surface to air missiles, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, and Evolved Sea Sparrow short-range air defense missiles. The silos give the ships tremendous flexibility, allowing them to tailor their armament to each mission.
Each guided missile cruiser is 567 feet long, displaces 9,600 tons, and has four LM2500 gas turbine engines producing 80,000 horsepower, giving the cruisers a top speed of 33 knots.
The largest number of ships are the 66 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, plus an additional two more destroyers set to be commissioned this year. The Arleigh Burke-class class of destroyers are some of the most successful warships in American history. The first ship in the class, naturally the USS Arleigh Burke, was commissioned in 1991 and, aside from a short break, have been in continuous construction since.
Destroyers were originally designed to escort and protect larger ships from the threat of swarming torpedo boats. This gradually evolved to protect larger ships from aircraft and missiles, and with the end of the Cold War many ships operate independently or in small groups to perform missions. Now, with the increasing threat of new and upcoming navies such as China’s, destroyers are again focusing on protecting the bigger ships in the fleet.
The Burke destroyers are in many ways smaller, cheaper Ticonderoga cruisers. The Burkes have only one five-inch gun and 90 to 96 Mk 41 missile silos, but the destroyers can generally take on the same mission types, from ballistic missile defense to anti-submarine warfare. The original design has gone through three different upgrades, with the latest including a new, updated Air and Missile Defense radar system.
The Burke-class destroyers are between 505 and 509 feet long, displace between 8,230 and 9,700 tons and also have four gas turbine engines producing 100,000 horsepower, making them even faster than cruisers.
The two remaining ships in this chart are the Zumwalt-class destroyers. Named after former Chief of Naval Operations Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt and built to take advantage of the latest in naval technology, the Zumwalts were the first warships oriented toward the conflicts of the post-9/11 world.
They were designed around, however, a pair of 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems. With a range of 60 miles, the guns were designed to rain precision-guided shells or targets such as a terrorist camp or enemy beachhead. But, in a typical case of governmental incompetence all around, the U.S. Navy decided not to buy any ammunition for the big guns. So the whole Advanced Gun System is just sitting around on the Zumwalts, being kind of useless.
This forces them to operate closer to shore than most warships, making a stealthy profile a must. While the Burke-class ships were the first designed to minimize their radar signature the Zumwalts were the first to fully commit to stealth, sporting a clean, knifelike profile free of protrusions.
The Zumwalts have had considerable problems. Cost overruns and delays pushed the ships over cost and behind schedule, while budgetary issues prompted the Navy to trim the original order for 32 ships to just three. Cutting the number of Zumwalts caused the cost per guided shell to balloon from $50,000 to $800,000, making them unaffordable even to the U.S. Navy, which, as we said, decided to stop buying them altogether. Two ships, USS Zumwalt and USS Monsoor, have been delivered so far. So the Navy is trying to re-orient their purpose away from coastal operations, and toward an open-ocean ship killing role.
Although technically destroyers, the Zumwalts are actually even larger than cruisers. The Zumwalts are 610 feet long and displace 15,900 tons, in large part due to the need to conceal weapons and sensors inside a stealthy, high volume hull. The ships are powered by gas turbines and two MW Advanced Induction Motors (AIM) that generate a total of 69.2 megawatts—enough to simultaneously power 51,700 American homes. Down the road, these generators are hoped to power lasers and railguns once directed energy technologies are ready to go to sea. Although who knows when that is.
One surprising fact about these 92 warships: they’re surprisingly weak in the ability to sink enemy ships, a primary mission of warships for the last five thousand years. Some cruisers and destroyers carry up to eight aging Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and some don’t carry any at all. The end of the Cold War effectively sunk the mighty Soviet Navy, leaving the U.S. Navy the uncontested master of the seas and comfortable with minimizing the number of anti-ship missiles in the fleet.
Now, as Russia’s Navy begins the slow crawl back to relevance and the Chinese Navy commissions more than a dozen new ships a year, anti-ship warfare is once again a high priority. The U.S. Navy is buying the new Raytheon-Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile and the Lockheed Martin Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, both of which can fit in Mk 41 missile silos, a fairly quick fix for getting back into the ship-killing game.
Let’s just hope no big wars break out before then.