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Book Review – The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th Edition

The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th Edition, by Norman Polmar with Richard R. Burgess; Naval Institute Press; 688 pages

It is a remarkable achievement for any book that is not the scripture of a major religion to reach its nineteenth edition. Come to think of it, our naval services are a kind of religion, and Norman Polmar, if not its apostle, is one of its major prophets.

The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th Edition, weighing in at a hefty 4.6 pounds, is a logically organized and handsomely produced volume. It’s an essential resource for anyone who needs to analyze, procure, plan for, organize, train, equip or understand America’s bewildering variety of naval platforms, programs and systems.

There are 33 chapters, beginning with a quick survey of the “State of the Fleet.”  There is a glossary listing all the alphabet soup of the most common acronyms, and lucid explanations of the structure of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, Navy Personnel, and Marine Forces. Separate chapters describe strategic missile submarines, fast attack submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, frigates, and the controversial littoral combat ship, which Polmar describes as the “worst managed U.S. surface ship effort of the last 50 years.”

The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th Edition

The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th Edition, by Norman Polmar with Richard R. Burgess; Naval Institute Press; 688 pages

Pulling no punches, the chapter on amphibious warfare ships notes that USS San Antonio (LPD 17) “Cost approximately twice the estimate and took twice as long to construct as planned; subsequently she has suffered continuous material problems – an icon of poor Navy management and inept commercial shipbuilding.”

The chapter on Landing Craft and Vehicles provides this sad assessment of the Marines’ cancelled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle: “Too late, too expensive, too limited in capabilities…”

Comprehensive chapters cover the indispensable auxiliary, sealift, experimental, and support ships, including the sailing frigate USS Constitution, “the oldest known warship still afloat.” The much-loved battleships, although now all preserved as memorials and museum ships, also rate a brief chapter, with a clear and objective explanation of why they aren’t coming back.

Long chapters also cover naval aviation and naval aircraft, with a separate chapter for the increasingly important variety of unmanned aerial vehicles. Weapons systems and electronics are concisely described in their own chapters. Readers requiring more detailed open-source information should refer to another massive reference work, edited by Norman Friedman (“the Other Norman”), The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, 5th Edition.

Concluding chapters cover the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and “Miscellaneous Ships and Craft,” including vessels operated by the U.S. Army and the National Science Foundation. “Addenda” at the end of the book update the coverage to the beginning of 2013.

Polmar is particularly critical of the Navy’s chaotic and deeply politicized ship naming practices, which violate both its traditions and its regulations.

The book is illustrated with hundreds of halftone photographs, many with dark and muddy resolution, perhaps because they were converted from color images. Many pages are also adorned by A.D. Baker’s meticulously sharp line drawings. There is a general index, as well as an index of ship and class names.

Littoral Combat Ships

The first of class littoral combat ships USS Freedom (LCS 1), left, and USS Independence (LCS 2), maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California. The littoral combat ship is a fast, agile, networked surface combatant designed to operate in the near-shore environment, while capable of open-ocean tasking, and win against 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft. Author Norman Polmar has some harsh words about the littoral combat ship in The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th edition. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Jan Shultis

For anyone who has not closely followed the decline of American seapower over the last two decades, it will be shocking to see how many vessels, aircraft, weapon systems, and capabilities our naval forces have lost.

This will be the last edition of Ships and Aircraft edited by Polmar, a naval analyst and consultant who has authored more than 50 books and served as an adviser to three Secretaries of the Navy, two Chiefs of Naval Operations, three senators and a Speaker of the House of Representatives. Richard R. Burgess, the co-author, is managing editor of Sea Power, the journal of the Navy League of the United States, and a writer on naval aviation.

Unlike some reference works, this book is not simply copied-and-pasted from corporate marketing literature and official press releases. Polmar and Burgess masterfully explain the deep background behind ship and aircraft programs, along with the technical specifications and operational histories. Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet is a dependable reference providing balanced and objective assessments that speak truth to power.