Inside look at the fleet behind Fleet Week

San Francisco Fleet Week, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is a spectacle and a special event where people get to see the machines and meet the people within it.        

But, Fleet Week shows us only the tiniest tip of a very large and crucial part of America.

When one thinks of "the fleet," the U.S. Navy is first and foremost. But it's way more than the Navy, especially in modern times says UC Berkeley military historian Professor Ronit Stahl.

"There was a time, when there was a draft, when almost every American and certainly every family had some clear connection with military service," said Stahl. "And, after the end of the draft in the 1970's that changed significantly." 

So, these days, comparatively few of us know the fleet, let alone the military. 

"The sense of the military as an institution has changed as a result of that lack of personal connection or knowledge," said Stahl.

In terms of deterring aggressors from attacking or invading America, with the exception of 9/11, it has worked very well since Pearl Harbor. 

While the fleet most of us know is the Navy, the U.S. Marines and the Coast Guard also serve vital maritime roles.

Combined, these three services have some 890,000 active and reserve sailors, Marines and Coasties, as well as 202,000 civilian employees. They operate 1,900 ships and boats as well as 4,000 aircraft at an annual cost of $225 billion. 

With the entire defense budget now consuming $733 billion a year, the age-old argument over its cost is never ending.

Economic studies show that over five years, each $1 cut in Federal defense-spending increases private spending by roughly $1.30. That's the fight politicians have constantly. "The military is part and parcel of the US Government but also US society and we should think of military and civilian life as intertwined rather than discrete," said Stahl.

The military led the nation in racial integration and broke the glass ceiling by allowing women to serve in combat roles. In the modern era, the military and especially the fleet have taken on many strategic humanitarian roles. They include transport of emergency personnel, relief supplies, emergency relief operations, medical services, community service in the United States and overseas.