It's remarkable that more than thirty five years after the first Star Trek episode was made, there is still no clear idea on many basic issues concerning Starfleet and the Federation. One of the most talked about issues is just how many ships Starfleet counts amongst its ranks. For most of Trek history the size of the fleet was thought to be quite small, but this was kept deliberately vague so as not to tie the hands of future writers who may want to suddenly show large fleets of ships. The latter seasons of Deep Space Nine have shown that for once this policy worked just as it was supposed to!
There are remarkably few direct statements regarding the size of Starfleet. or the numbers of any given class. One such comes in the TOS episode 'Tomorrow is Yesterday'. The Enterprise is thrown through time and space after an encounter with a 'black star'. The ship finds itself in Earth's atmosphere in the year 1969. Disabled and struggling to make orbit, they are intercepted by a USAF fighter. When the ship's tractor beam destroys the aircraft, they beam the pilot aboard. When the pilot, Captain Christopher, compliments Kirk on the advanced nature of the Enterprise Kirk smiles proudly and declares :
|Kirk : ||"There are only a dozen like her in the fleet."|
Some take this to mean that there were twelve constitution class ships in Starfleet, some assume that it means there are thirteen - the Enterprise and twelve more like it. The writers of TOS novels often assumed that these twelve or thirteen ships comprised the whole of Starfleet. This seems unlikely to me; given the almost bewildering array of Starship classes in use during the TNG era, it seems incredible that the fleet used only one single class of ship during TOS. The non-canon section below also lists reliable sources which indicate that there are other classes of ship in Starfleet at this time.
Evidence for the overall size of Starfleet during the TNG era is quite sketchy. In the TNG episode 'Best of Both Worlds' the Federation battles a powerful alien species known as the Borg. The Federation gathers forty ships for the battle at Wolf 359, of which 39 are lost. The fact that only forty ships are assembled to face this extremely powerful foe could be taken to indicate that there are only a few dozen ships in the whole of Starfleet, but this is not necessarily so. The Federation had only a few days to gather its forces - perhaps a week at most. Even at Warp 9.6 a week would only allow those ships within about 36 light years to arrive at Wolf 359. This surely cannot represent a large fraction of Starfleet when the whole Federation spans eight thousand light years, as stated by Picard in 'Star Trek : First Contact'.
At the end of the episode Commander Shelby confidently declares :
|Shelby : ||"We'll have the fleet back up in less than a year."|
We see during the TNG era that ships such as the Excelsior and Miranda class can remain in service for many decades. If the Federation is capable of building in excess of thirty nine starships per year, then they could comfortably maintain a fleet of four thousand or more ships.
In the TNG episode 'Redemption, Part II', the Duras family attempt to gain control of the Klingon empire. Picard, suspecting that the Romulans are supporting the Duras, gathers a fleet of Starships at the Klingon-Romulan border in order to prevent supplies from crossing. Again he has a matter of a day or two, but is able to assemble a fleet of over twenty Starships for the mission. Even if every ship in the area headed for the base at warp 9.6, a single day would only allow those ships within about 5 or 10 light years to arrive. So again we have a significant number of ships based at or around a single Starbase.
Perhaps the best indicator of the numbers in Starfleet comes during the last years of Deep Space Nine. Beginning with the fleet seen in the final scene of 'Call to Arms', we frequently see dozens or hundreds of Federation ships on screen simultaneously. There are also direct statements supporting these numbers - for instance in 'A Time to Stand', the seventh fleet is stated to have lost 98 of 112 ships in a battle with Dominion forces. In the episodes 'Favor the Bold' and 'Sacrifice of Angels' Starfleet gathers a fleet to re-take Deep Space Nine from the Dominion. They plan to use elements of the second, fifth and ninth fleets, but when the Dominion begin to dismantle the minefield preventing their reinforcements from passing through the wormhole, Starfleet must proceed to the station without the ninth fleet forces. On being intercepted by a Dominion fleet, Bashir and O'Brien report :
|O'Brien : ||"I'm picking something up. It's a large Dominion fleet, bearing zero zero four mark zero zero nine."|
|Sisko : ||"How large?"|
|O'Brien : ||"Twelve hundred and fifty four ships."|
|Bashir : ||"They outnumber us two to one."|
So the Federation fleet numbers about six hundred and twenty seven ships. Since this is composed of 'elements' of two full fleets, then each element should average about three hundred ships. Which would mean that an entire fleet could easily be several times this number, or about 600 - 900 ships. The highest fleet number we have heard of is the tenth. Ten fleets with 112 ships each would indicate 1,120 ships in the whole of Starfleet. If a figure of 600 - 900 is more representative of the average, then Starfleet would have in the region of 6,000 - 9,000 ships. And bear in mind just because the tenth fleet is the highest we have heard of, this is no proof that there are not eleven, or eleven hundred for that matter.
An even better bit of evidence comes in the episode 'Tacking Into the Wind'. The Breen have developed an energy disrupting weapon which can completely disable Federation and Romulan vessels with a single hit. Fortunately, in the first battle in which the weapon is used a single Klingon vessel proves to be immune to it because of a small modification to its deflector system made shortly before. General Matrok says that he has ordered the entire Klingon fleet to be modified in the same way. Then the following dialogue takes place :
|Martok : ||"By tomorrow, we'll have fifteen hundred Klingon vessels ready for deployment."|
|Romulan : ||"With the Breen, the Cardassians and the Jem'Hadar, you're still outnumbered twenty to one."|
This proves beyond any doubt that even after almost two years of all out warfare the Klingon fleet still numbers at least 1,500 ships - possibly many more, since this is only the number of ships that will have that particular modification by the next day - and that the combined enemy forces numbers at least 30,000. Since the Klingon, Federation, Romulan and (eventually) Cardassian forces were predicting that that could defeat the Dominion and Breen fleet in the final episode 'What You Leave Behind', then the allies must have been fielding fleets in the thousands to tens of thousands at least.
In considering the number of ships, it is also worthwhile to consider the number of space stations. It seems certain that the number of bases run by Starfleet cannot be significantly greater than the number of ships - if anything it should be the other way around, each base should support several or more Starships.
Stations are named in several ways in Star Trek; most Starbases receive simple numbers. During TOS we heard of Starbase 2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 27. It is by no means certain that Starbases 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 13-26 also existed, though this seems likely. But even if the eight named Starbases are all that existed in TOS, it seems unlikely that they would support a fleet of only twelve ships between them!
And this is before we consider Deep Space Station K-7, which implies the existence of K-1 to K-6 at the very least.
During TNG we heard numbers for fifty three numbered Starbases, ranging from Starbase 12 through to Starbase 718. We also heard of Starbase Earhart, Starbase G-6, Starbase Lya III, Xendi Starbase 9, Starbase 39-Sierra and Starbase Montgomery. The latter imply the existence of up to six completely separate naming systems for Starbases. Given that there could be upwards of seven hundred bases identified only by numbers, the total number of all bases could easily be well into the thousands!
DS9 did not extend the upper limit of Starbase numbers, but did fill in some of the gaps with Starbase 41, 53, 63, 137, 201, 257, 375, 401 and 621. Since Voyager never mentioned a Starbase, this brings the total of numbered Starbases for all series to seventy one. Together with the six non-numbered Starbases in TNG, that gives us a total of seventy seven Starbases mentioned in all of Trek.
And these are just the facilities specifically identified as Starbases. We have not yet considered Spacedock, the giant station seen in 'Star Trek III : The Search for Spock', Epsilon IX seen in 'Star Trek : The Motion Picture', the Deep Space Stations, or the sundry other bases and facilities seen throughout the series.
The vital question regarding Starbases is that of how they are named. The numbers tend to be low in TOS and higher in TNG; this at least implies that they are assigned chronologically, i.e. the base completed this week is 510, next week's is 511, the week after is 512, etc. There is no particular reason to suppose that Starfleet would skip numbers, so we are led to the conclusion that Starfleet operates at least seven hundred and eighteen starbases during the TNG era. Possibly several times this number, depending on how the names are assigned to those stations which do not fit the number pattern.
There is no way to know for sure just what the ratio of ships to Starbases is, but some episodes give us hints. The episode 'Court Martial' features several scenes set in Starbase 11, including some in the Commander's office. On the wall there is a chart showing the progress of maintenance work on the ships in dock there. The chart shows NCC numbers rather than names, but there are ten ships listed on the chart. So there are at least this many ships in this particular Starbase at this moment.
If truly believe that Starfleet has some thirty Starbases in Kirk's time rising to upwards of seven hundred in TNG, then this would mean that there would certainly have been some three hundred or more Starships in TOS and seven thousand or more in TNG, even if we typically assume that every ship in the fleet is in dock at any given moment!
Another way to judge the number of Starships is via NCC numbers. The Enterprise's NCC 1701 has become legendary, but every ship has an individual number. NCC numbers tend to jump around somewhat, but like Starbase numbers they do generally go upwards over time. During TOS the lowest number seen was NCC 1017, the USS Constellation seen in 'The Doomsday Machine', while the highest was NCC 1764, the Defiant seen in 'The Tholian Web'. The Advanced Starship Excelsior seen in 'Star Trek III : The Search for Spock' had the number NX 2000, later to become NCC 2000 in 'Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country' when the vessel was in service. Most other Excelsior class ships have numbers in the 30 - 40000 range, although there are some as high as 50446. The later Ambassador class, of which the Enterprise-C is a member, mostly have NCC numbers in the 26000s (though at least two including the USS Ambassador itself are in the region of 10521). The later Nebula class are in the 60 - 70000 range, the Galaxy class tend to be around 71000, while the recent Intrepid class number in the 74000s.
If NCC numbers are broadly chronological, then as with the Starbase numbering system there is no real reason to suppose large gaps have been left in the numbering sequence. This would point to the highest figure yet for Starfleet numbers, with some seventeen hundred ships built in total for Starfleet by the TOS era, rising to over sixty four thousand during TNG and seventy four thousand by the time of Voyager. While it could be assumed that many of the ships would have been long since retired, this is not necessarily so - for instance the USS Repulse was established as still being in service when Dr. Pulaski transferred to the Enterprise-D from there in 2365, yet it has the low number of NCC 2544. So it's perfectly possible that most of the ships built in Starfleet history are still in service.
A fleet so large at first seems to strain credibility, but in fact it would fit some aspects of canon quite well. We know from Picard's statement in 'Star Trek : First Contact' that the Federation is spread across eight thousand light years. If we take the Federation to be a fairly solid block of space of this size - a common image is of something like an octopus with a central core and tentacles or even disconnected chunks of territory radiating out from it, thus allowing species like the Klingons to be much closer than 4,000 light years to the core - then ships on the outer fringe would be some eighteen years away from the core worlds at the normal cruise speed of Warp factor 6 (TNG scale), or two years away at the really high speed of Warp 9.6. Indeed, if we assumed a cylindrical Federation 3,000 light years thick (the approximate thickness of the galaxy where Earth is) and 8,000 light years across, then some 75% of it would lie more than 5 years travel from the core at TNG Warp 6. So no massive fleet could ever be gathered to fend off the Borg, unless they were kind enough to send a decade or so of warning.
The above figures are an only an approximation which make no attempt to accomodate an octopus-shaped Federation, but if we are looking at large territories lying thousands of light years away then it is always going to take years to gather any significant percentage of Starfleet no matter what the shape. This figure is important, because there has been only one crisis in all of Trek history in which the Federation did indeed get this kind of lead time - the Dominion war. It was three years between the loss of the USS Odyssey and the start of the Dominion war, and the war itself lasted two years. And it was for this crisis that we first saw fleets comprising hundreds upon hundreds of ships. On the admittedly rough calculations above, the Federation could gather 17,000 ships of a 70,000 ship fleet within five years - just the kind of force that would be needed to have any chance of defeating the 30,000 ships the Dominion was known to have in the latter stages of the war.
The book 'The Making of Star Trek' by Stephen E. Whitfield contains considerable detail about the original series. The author had access to the production crew and included several passages describing aspects of Star Trek technology and Starfleet. It includes the following direct quotation from Gene Roddenberry :
|Roddenberry : ||"In addition to the twelve starships, there are lesser classes of vessels, capable of operating over much more limited distances."|
Note that during TOS, the Enterprise and her sisters were thought of by the writers as 'Starship class' vessels. This is what is on the dedication plaque of the original Enterprise :
No other vessels were considered to be Starships during TOS, even if they were interstellar vessels. Later we would see the term Starship applied to the USS Reliant in 'Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan', and from this point on the term Starship becomes a generic tag for any large Federation interstellar vessel.
So during TOS, the writers thought of Starfleet as consisting of twelve (not thirteen, according to the quote) large long range vessels dubbed 'Starships', plus some an unspecified number of smaller, less capable of vessels which were not considered to be Starships.
Another book written with the co-operation and support of Gene Roddenberry was the Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph. Gene would later have something of a falling out with Mr. Joseph, and moved Trek in a direction that over-ruled much of the information in the book. But the Tech Manual remains a window into Gene's thinking during the period immediately after the original series.
The book describes the Constitution class ships as 'Class I heavy cruisers' and as 'Mark IX class' ships. It claims that there were four production runs of these ships. The first was of fourteen ships, the second sixteen, the third of four ships and the fourth an impressive one hundred and eleven ships. See my article on 'The Constitutions' for more detail.
The book also describes other classes of ship - fifty six single nacelled Saladin class destroyers are listed, as are forty single nacelled scouts and one hundred and forty twin nacelled transport/tugs. The TOS TM later fell out of favour with Roddenberry and has been contradicted by canon several times - indeed, some claim that the very concept of canon was created purely in order to rule this book out of consideration. Nevertheless, since Roddenberry did cooperate with the writing of the book it remains an important window into his thinking at the time of the original series, and as such could be considered as further evidence that Starfleet was intended to be much larger than eight Starbases and twelve ships.
In the TNG era there are Technical Manuals for DS9 and TNG. The TNG manual indicates that six Galaxy class vessels were built by Starfleet, with a further six partially built and then mothballed, so that they could be completed quickly in case of emergency. Ron D. Moore, a writer and producer who worked on TNG, DS9 and briefly on Voyager, is often quoted as stating that a figure of eight thousand ships for the TNG era fleet seemed 'about right', though I am unable to find any source for this quotation. However, in an online discussion the following exchange did take place with Mr. Moore :
|Question : ||"At the end of last year, you stated that there were officially two other Defiant-class ships operating in Starfleet. This is obvious because during the final flick in 'A Call to Arms', we could clearly see two other Defiant class ships other than the Defiant... My question to you is, how many Defiant-class ships are now operating in Starfleet? (other than the Valiant which, kinda died.)"|
|Moore : ||"We don't have an official number, but we presume there are at least a few dozen at this point."|
To produce this many of a single class in such a short time would certainly indicate a fairly formidable Starship production capacity for the whole Federation, pointing to a fleet numbering in the thousands. This is certainly in line with the number of ships seen during the last few years of Deep Space Nine, as discussed earlier.
During TOS it seems certain that there were twelve Constitution class Starships, plus an unspecified number of smaller vessels. The total fleet size is uncertain, but likely to be from one hundred to several hundred. The largest fleet we ever see in TOS was the five Starships gathered for the M5 test program wargame, which would have represented a very powerful force indeed - almost half of all the Starships (as opposed to smaller interstellar ships) in existence. Put another way, it represents roughly the same percentage of the Federation's total firepower as the six aircraft carriers that the USA sent to Iraq for the gulf war.
During TNG the fleet must be considerably larger. The sensible lower limit is 1,000 Starships in total, while 5 - 10,000 is much more likely. A 70,000 Starship fleet seems high, but this becomes much more reasonable if the Federation really does cover anything close to a solid block of space eight thousand light years across. Under these conditions only a few thousand ships would normally be present at the core of the Federation; assembling a fleet of several dozen ships would take a few days, while assembling the thousands or tens of thousands needed for a major war could take anything up to several years.