With a few strokes on a keyboard, the Navy's top brass avoids shrinking its 280-ship fleet next year by simply reclassifying a couple of hospital ships and its small patrol craft deployed overseas.
The changes, quietly noted in the Defense Department's 2015 budget proposal released last week, add the dozen vessels to the battle force and help make up for the planned retirement of 10 frigates, a submarine and other ships.
The Navy's proposed 2015 budget, part of a $496 billion defense spending plan, also calls for adding eight new ships to the fleet. Under what it calls "revised counting rules," the Navy calculates, it will have 283 ships next year.
However, if the dozen existing ships aren't transferred to the battle force, the fleet drops to 271 ships.
The number of ships in the Navy's fleet can shift slightly from year to year as new vessels come on line and others are taken out of service. The number has long been used to gauge the Navy's effectiveness.
The size of the fleet is a particularly sensitive issue on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, where elected and military leaders are wrestling with tighter budgets and defense hawks warn that a smaller Navy endangers national security.
When asked about changes to the ship count, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement Tuesday, "We periodically assess the rules of how we count ships, and these changes better reflect the demands of our combatant commanders and the current mission requirements of our Navy's battle force. These changes provide us with the flexibility we need to ensure we have the right ships, with the right capabilities, in the right location."
Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said there's little doubt the Navy's actions are driven by worries about the overall size of the fleet.
"People should not put emphasis on the total ship count the way they do," Harrison said. "It doesn't make sense."
To bolster a fleet that is losing larger ships, such as frigates, by adding patrol craft shows the "fallacy" of using ship counts to measure the Navy's strength, he said.
It gives a patrol craft, with a crew of 28, the same weight as an aircraft carrier, which has 3,000 sailors on board.
"A better way is looking at types of ships," he said.
The Navy's calculations for 2015 also keep in the fleet count the 11 guided missile cruisers that it would temporarily take out of service.
The intent is to free up money to modernize the aging warships before slowly reintroducing them in future years.
U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, who leads the House Armed Services Committee's seapower and force projects subcommittee, disagrees with the Navy's approach.
The Chesapeake Republican has argued that, given the security threats worldwide, particularly in the Pacific, the Navy's fleet needs to grow to more than 300 ships.
He argued last year that the Navy has been "chronically underinvesting in its fleet for at least the last two decades."
"I am disappointed to see the Navy is now counting ships like patrol craft and hospital ships in its battle force fleet that only a year ago it chose not to count," Forbes said in a statement Tuesday. "As well, I do not believe that a ship put in a reduced status should be counted.
"With America's national security budget under severe pressure, it is imperative that the Congress and the American people be able to visualize just how radically sequestration is impacting American naval strength."