The Size of StarfleetOne of the most discussed Star Trek-related issues amongst starship enthusiasts is the size of the Federation’s fleet. Several episodes provide valuable clues to the amount of ships in Starfleet, while others add details that require a bit of interpretation. In fact, Bernd Schneider wrote an excellent piece on the evidence depicted for either a large or a small fleet. Ultimately, since no definitive number is provided in the series, this discussion can not take place without a fair degree of non-canon speculation and extrapolation.
TNG Fleet ScenesIn TNG, there are three instances where significant fleet actions take place. The most infamous, the Battle of Wolf 359 from “The Best of Both Worlds” duology, indicates that the Federation could muster only 39 ships to intercept the Borg Cube in the (roughly) 5 days between the realization of the New Providence colony’s disappearance and the beginning of the battle. On the other hand, Starfleet is able to assemble 23 ships in about a day to facilitate a blockade during the Klingon Civil War in “Redemption, Part 2.” Finally, the Federation brings 15 ships to bear within 3 days of learning of a new Borg threat in “Descent, Part 1.”
In “The Best of Both Worlds,” it is implied that the loss of 39 vessels dealt a significant blow to the Federation. Shelby states that they intend to have “the fleet” back up in less than a year. The problem is, “fleet” could refer to Starfleet as a whole, a subdivision of vessels (such as the Ninth Fleet from DS9), or even just a single task force collectively referred to as a fleet. This particular “fleet” may have simply been the force assigned to missions near the Sol System. Also, Starfleet’s ability to build at least 39 vessels in less than a year would seem to indicate a much larger force of vessels. It is also worth noting that the 11,000 lives lost in the battle were the primary source of sorrow for Picard, Shelby, and the Enterprise crew rather than the ships themselves.
The examples from “Redemption” and “Descent” also display Starfleet’s ability to gather its defenses. The location of the emergency is certainly a factor, as Starfleet would most likely keep forces strong near the Romulan/Klingon border as shown in “Redemption.” However, Sela remarks that the 23 vessels aren’t enough to wage a war, and even Riker mentions that there are “only” 12 ships within a day’s travel of the Enterprise’s position. Once again, these signs point to Starfleet having a considerable amount of vessels.
I feel it is necessary to point out that, during these early TNG episodes, models were used to film the starships. It is possible that the figure of 39 ships from “The Best of Both Worlds” was chosen because it was a higher number than had ever been depicted in the franchise, and that it seemed unlikely we would ever get to see such a large fleet on screen at the time.
Star Trek: First ContactAnother major fleet action, the Battle of Sector 001, takes place in the film "Star Trek: First Contact". A fleet to combat the Borg assembled in the Typhon Sector, which was at least three hours from the Enterprise’s position and most likely even further from Earth. Excluding the Enterprise, at least 27 Federation ships could be seen battling the cube as it approached Earth. During the portion of the battle shown on screen, approximately 10 Federation ships were destroyed (possibly 11 if you count the Admiral’s flagship). While it is difficult to ascertain how much “in-universe” time passes on screen, it is safe to say that the fleet Admiral Hayes had been engaging the Borg from either continuously or in skirmish lines for at least three hours en route from the Typhon Sector to Earth. So, while 27 ships were shown and 10 were destroyed, it’s almost impossible to know the true size of the fleet that initially intercepted the cube in what may have been a time span of only a few hours. The large volume of ships could have been part of Earth’s enhanced defenses, or it could once again have been indicative of a much larger fleet.
Dominion War BattlesBy the time of the Dominion War, we were treated to many scenes of vast fleets engaging each other in deep space. As noted by Bernd in his piece on the size of Starfleet, the large fleets depicted in DS9 could have been assembled over the course of several years rather than a matter of days or hours since the Dominion did not attack immediately upon contact with the Federation. In the three years between the destruction of the USS Odyssey and the Second Battle of DS9, Starfleet could have recalled many of its vessels dedicated to exploration in order to fortify itself against attack.
The first on-screen usage of a massive fleet in DS9 occurred when the Defiant and Rotarran rendezvoused with a Federation-Klingon Task Force in “Call to Arms.” By my count, there were at least 62 Federation vessels (including a staggering 32 Akira-class ships) in the combined force. In “A Time To Stand,” it is mentioned that 98 out of 112 ships from the Seventh Fleet were destroyed by the Dominion in the Tyra System. While it is unknown if the figure of 112 ships was the entirety of the Seventh Fleet or if any Klingon ships were included, the loss (while devastating to the Defiant crew) did not seem to make them feel that the war was lost.
While many Dominion War battles were shown, exact figures for fleet sizes were either not stated or, in the case of the Second Battle of Chin’toka, included a mixture of Federation, Klingon, and Romulan forces. However, during Operation Return, it was directly stated that the Dominion fleet of 1254 ships was twice the size of its Starfleet counterpart at the battle. If we conservatively say that the Federation Task Force consisted of 600 ships, which comprised elements of only two fleets, this once again indicates a much larger Federation fleet.
While no specific numbers are mentioned for the Federation, the episode “When It Rains…” states that a fleet of 1,500 Klingon ships would be outnumbered by a combined force of 30,000 Dominion, Cardassian, and Breen ships. Once again, the Klingon “fleet” and its Dominion counterpart may only represent the vessels that are in that sector of space or on that particular frontline of the war. While one may assume that, when at full strength, the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans could field a force of similar numbers, there are two key things to note. As before, such a force may only constitute the ships available on the frontline of that particular sector. Also, it is very possible that the Federation Alliance would have superior numbers to those of the Dominion. Much was made about the Dominion’s shipbuilding and Jem’Hadar cloning capabilities so, for example, a Federation Alliance fleet of 50,000 ships may be necessary to combat a smaller Dominion fleet if the Dominion replaces its lost vessels at a rapid pace.
Fleets in the Dominion WarAs previously mentioned, a Federation task force made up of elements of the Second and Fifth fleets included approximately 600 vessels during operation return. There were at least 112 ships in the Seventh Fleet, 98 of which were destroyed in the Tyra System. Seven different Federation fleets (the Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth) were mentioned in DS9, and we can confidently assume that the First, Fourth, and Eighth Fleets also exist. Of note is the fact that most of the fleets were mentioned in conjunction with a Federation core world. The Second Fleet attempted to retake Betazed, the Third protected Earth during Operation Return, the Fifth fought along the Vulcan border, the Sixth was pulled from the Bolian front, the Ninth was stationed at DS9 near Bajor, and the Tenth was charged with the initial defense of Betazed. While the Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth all also fought near DS9, is it possible that there were other fleets that protected other key systems? Were Andor, Tellar, Benzar, Delta, Sauria, and Alpha Centauri also guarded by entire fleets? Since attacks by the Dominion were widespread across Federation and even Klingon space, it would make sense that fleets would be dispersed throughout the quadrant. Perhaps we only heard of fleets that operated near DS9 at some point, with the occasional reference to more distant fleets.
Since the elements of the two fleets in Operation Return consisted of six hundred ships, then each fleet could possess well over 300 vessels. With ten fleets of 300 ships, a Starfleet consisting of at least 3,000 starships is virtually a given. However, with each fleet having more than 300 ships and there possibly being other fleets guarding core worlds (and possibly even many other Federation member worlds), the evidence would again seem to point to a much larger fleet.
Voyager “Welcome Home” FleetWe were also given an example of what a peacetime fleet may look like, courtesy of VOY’s finale “Endgame.” When a Borg transwarp hub appears a light-year away from Earth, Starfleet is quickly able to assemble a fleet of 27 ships (including at least 9 Galaxy-class and 5 Nebula-class starships) within what appeared to be mere minutes of “in-universe” time. Even after being ravaged by previous Borg attacks and the Dominion War, the Federation immediately fields an incredible fighting force to confront the incoming Borg Sphere. Is this part of a new, post-Borg and post-Dominion defense plan for the Federation? Were several of those ships undergoing repairs at Utopia Planitia? Even so, the remaining ships would have needed to be well within a light-year of Earth to arrive in time even traveling at Warp 9.9. Having so many ships within a tiny fraction of Federation space, even though it was the core, makes it seem as if Starfleet has a vast fleet to draw upon.
Nemesis FleetThe final fleet mentioned in Star Trek, chronologically speaking, was Starfleet’s Battle Group Omega from Star Trek: Nemesis. Consisting of 7 starships and described by Captain Picard as “the fleet,” this battle group was quickly deployed to Sector 1045 to assist the Enterprise in preventing Shinzon and the Scimitar from reaching Earth. While 7 ships seems like a paltry force to defend Earth, it is likely that this specific battle group was solely intended as a first line of defense. Other forces, such as those in the Battle of Sector 001 and during Voyager’s return home, would undoubtedly be deployed along the Scimitar’s projected route and in the Sol System itself.
NCC Registration NumbersThe NCC registration numbers of the various starships may also provide a clue to the size of the fleet. Bernd already explored this issue in depth, but there is no on-screen reference that specifically states NCC numbers rise sequentially with the size of the fleet. However, later ships (such as the USS São Paulo and USS Prometheus), do seem to follow the trend of having larger NCC numbers. So, if the NCC numbers are at the 75000 level in 2375 and older vessels in the 30000 to 40000 range are still in service in the TNG-era (such as the NCC-34099 USS Livingston and the NCC-42296 USS Hood), it stands to reason that the Federation may have upwards of 40,000 vessels in service as of 2375.
However, the figure of 40,000 is not a certainty either. Older vessels with 30000 registries may be the exception rather than the rule, and other newer ships would have also been lost to accidents or combat. Also, the addition of runabout NCC registries further clouds the true scope of Starfleet. If several runabouts are stationed at each starbase, there could be upwards of 2,000 of them throughout the fleet. That’s not counting runabouts that may be stationed planetside at member worlds, colonies, or embassies, although it’s possible that such planet-based runabouts may be a separate branch of the fleet with their own numbering system. Given that we’ve never seen a runabout destroyed and replaced with another runabout of the same name, it’s very possible that the same NCC number would be used rather than register an entirely new number. For example, DS9’s USS Yangtzee Kiang (NCC-72453) was destroyed, but it’s possible that Starbase 718 received a new runabout and named it USS Yangtzee Kiang (NCC-72453-A) in honor of the destroyed vessel. Indeed, it is quite possible that the fleet is larger than 40,000 vessels if the re-use of registries is more common than we realize for more sizable ships as well.
Another method of increasing the size of the fleet would be retired vessels that may be kept in active reserve. For example, the Nebula-class USS Farragut is destroyed during the Federation-Klingon War, but another USS Farragut is mentioned in DS9: “Chrysalis.” Around the same time in the episode, an exterior view of DS9 is shown with an Excelsior-class vessel docked at the station. Nothing directly connects the name of the new USS Farragut to the ship at DS9’s docking pylon, but it is possible it was a reserve vessel re-commissioned to take part in the Dominion War. The presence of a Constitution-class ship at the Battle of Wolf 359 may also give credence to this theory.
Size & Population of the Federation The size of the Federation’s territory and its population are also critical in determining how many vessels Starfleet should field. Once again, Bernd has written an excellent analysis of both topics. In Star Trek: First Contact, Picard states the Federation is 8,000ly across, while the Star Trek Encyclopedia provides a figure of 10,000ly. While this area of space may not be a solid sphere, it would still constitute a large area to patrol in order to maintain stability.
The population of the Federation is never explicitly stated, but a casualty figure of 900 billion is proposed during the Dominion War in DS9: “Statistical Probabilities.” The figure obviously does not include the entire population of the Federation, but let’s use it as a baseline for a few examples comparing the current United States Navy to Starfleet. At this time, approximately 0.1% of Americans serve in the U.S. Navy. While there is absolutely no way to compare service numbers from a modern navy to a fictional space fleet, let’s assume that the Federation has a similar rate of service, which would be approximately 913 million beings. Now, let’s say half of those are in local planetary defense forces, and half of the remaining 457 million are either ground- or space station-based personnel. This would give us a figure of about 228 million ship-based Starfleet service members. In TNG: “The Drumhead,” a casualty figure of 11,000 people and 39 ships is mentioned in reference to the Battle of Wolf 359, providing an average of 282 people per ship. With shipboard personnel numbering 228 million, this would give us enough beings to populate a ridiculous figure of over 800,000 ships. As I previously stated, this is not definitive in any way, but it indicates that a population of at least 900 billion with territory spanning 8,000ly would need a sizable fleet.
InterpretationConsidering my opinions expressed above, it is quite evident that I believe Starfleet is a sizeable organization with a vast fleet. Given on-screen dialogue and evidence provided by registration numbers, I believe the most likely figure for Starfleet’s roster is at least 45,000 ships. Such a fleet would also provide an opportunity for a more diverse selection of starship names. Aside from a pair of Vulcan names, the majority of vessels encountered were named for Earth-related history, geography, and mythology. While this is practical for the writers of the episodes, since Earth provides the largest catalogue of names to draw upon, I would’ve liked to see more ships named after the cultures of other Federation members. What about the USS El’nar, USS Cataria, or USS Opal Sea of Betazed? The USS Mak’ala of Trill, the USS Temtibi of Risa, or another name created to represent one of the multitude of Federation members. In my recent review of the novella Lust’s Latinum Lost (and Found) by Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann, I highlighted my admiration for their decision to provide names for some locations on Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet. While many may say “it’s just a starship name,” I think it is much more. A vessel’s name provides a window into the culture and the history of the nation it represents, and I’m sure many serving on naval vessels throughout the world would agree. Naming conventions and NCC registries aside, it is difficult to determine an exact figure for the size of Starfleet. However, I hope this article was able to provide some insight into the subject.
(Theory by Jay Stobie)