Book Review: SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT OF THE US FLEET 18TH EDITION

by Neds Job of the Week
Published on: 12/27/2008
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Book Review:  SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT OF THE US FLEET 18TH EDITION

By Norman Polmar

Let me get this part out of the way: This is an absolute must-have book if you have any books in your home library about the US Navy today. Even if you have an old edition, you need the new one. If you don't have your own personal library, then you need to be able to read it in the reference section at your local library, and that means you need your library to buy it.

This is not a coffee table book, although it's big (672 pages), dramatic, and full of pictures – more than 900 of them, along with copious drawings. But I say it isn't a coffee table book because your coffee table probably can't support it. This is an industrial-size book.

I found Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet to be an instrumental guide when I was at sea. A copy should be readily available on every bridge, in every Combat Information Center, and in every wardroom. I still have my copy of the 1976 edition, which I used when I was an ensign aboard the USS Tawakoni. And I cherish the copy of the 14th edition with my photo in an F/A-18 on page 367.

Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet was first published in paperback in 1939, edited by James C. Fahey. There were wartime editions, twoocean fleet editions and a victory edition (the Naval Institute republished the entire set some years back and I retain mine as a valuable reference). The esteemed Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison edited a few editions and his grandson, Samuel L. Morison, heads up Polmar's ships' data research team today.

Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet covers ships major warships built since WWII. Ships built before or during WWII are found in earlier editions. Naval aircraft or organizations are displayed, including those discarded or disbanded in the last decade. They come out with a new edition about every three years. And a lot has happened since the last one.

“There's a big problem with the rate of change,” Polmar told me. “This book went to press on a Monday, and we were making changes right up to the weekend before the press run.”

This edition has more than just ships and aircraft. It includes organizational charts of the Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Defense and the Unified Commands to whom the operational Naval forces report. It explains weapons, sensors and people, as well as the ships and aircraft that make up the Navy, as well as how the fleet is structured.

This edition has a chapter on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are playing and increasingly important role in Naval warfare. Polmar also explains that this edition has some special “sidebars,” about the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) found on F-14s and the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) used on F/A 18 Hornets in the Naval Aircraft chapter, and the Remote Gun Mount and advanced munitions in the Weapons Systems chapter.

I asked Polmar what he learned in editing this edition.

“The US Navy does not have a realistic long-range plan for shipbuilding, technology, personnel or concepts of operations,” he told me. “Rather, the Navy works from fiscal year to fiscal year, more concerned about budgets than efficiently managing and retaining key personnel skills.

“There is a 30-year shipbuilding budget that is an absolute farce in that it simply points out how to replace the fleet we have now. If the Navy had a true long-range plan, we wouldn't see this continued delay of the DD(X) and other programs because these delays and their impact would be readily apparent,” Polmar says.

Polmar told me that he finds submarines to be the most interesting ships to write about, but he says the Navy tends to ignore the technology available. “We're stuck in a paradigm about submarines.” He says that the USS Los Angeles, lead ship in a large class of attack submarines which first joined the fleet in 1976, has a crew of 143. Two Seawolf-class submarines have been built, with crews of 138. The new Virginia-class boats have a crew of 134. “Every other Navy has been able to effectively reduce submarine manning,” he notes.

I think I like reading this book because of the many obscure and specialized vessels and aircraft that have found a home in Naval service. If you need to find a fact or figure about the fleet, this is your reference. Sadly, the section of salvage ships lists far too few ships in my opinion, but that's just me. If you are interested in cable repair ships, missile range instrumentation ships, or even Maritime Prepositioning Force RO/RO ships that were built in the former Soviet Union, crane ships, self-defense test ships, stealth research ships, acoustic test barges, or high speed vessels, as I am, then you can lose yourself for hours in Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet.

Author: Edward Lundquist
Publication: Sea Classics
Date: Jul 1, 2005

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