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Navy Should Shrink Its Carrier Fleet

The Navy has said it will reduce its aircraft carrier fleet by one vessel as well as an associated air wing unless Congress repeals the Budget Control Act’s spending limits and provides the Pentagon with an additional $115 billion over the next five years.

According to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Navy will forgo the midlife refueling of the USS George Washington carrier and instead retire the vessel early, sometime in 2016. The Project On Government Oversight and Taxpayers for Common Sense recommended this move two years ago. And the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has concluded that it could save the Pentagon up to $7 billion over nine years.

While nuclear powered aircraft carriers are built to last roughly fifty years, they require a costly nuclear refueling and complex overhaul process half way through their service life. According to the Navy, it will cost $4.7 billion to refuel the George Washington next year. Yet, former acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox admitted that the Navy does not expect to have the requisite funding on hand to advance the refueling process for the George Washington.

By law, the Pentagon is required to maintain a carrier fleet of at least eleven vessels. However, Congress granted a temporary waiver that allowed the Navy to retire the USS Enterprise in 2013, even though the next carrier currently under construction, the USS Gerald Ford, will not become operational until at least 2016. As a result, the United States is currently operating ten aircraft carriers.

These ten vessels are all Nimitz-class aircraft carriers—each with a full-load displacement of over 100,000 tons. The United States also operates nine large-deck amphibious assault ships, which are like mini-aircraft carriers and are capable of launching helicopters, Harrier jump jets, and, perhaps sometime in the future, F-35Bs. Therefore, the United States has more than just ten aircraft carriers available for power projection.

For comparison, no other country currently operates more than two aircraft carriers. China and Russia each field one aircraft carrier a piece; France operates one aircraft carrier and three amphibious assault ships; and Great Britain maintains two amphibious assault ships. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphasized this point during a speech at a Navy League exposition in 2010:

The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship. The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends.

What would happen if the United States reduced its carrier fleet by one? Well, according to the aforementioned CBO, not much. That’s because the United States does not fully utilize the carriers it has: “Recent experience suggests that the Navy mobilizes 5 to 7 carriers to fight a major war.” Retaining a force of 10 carriers, “would still provide a force of at least 5 or 6 carriers within 90 days to fight such a war,” notes CBO.

It seems that some at the Pentagon might share this conclusion. Last year, Secretary Hagel initiated the Strategic Choices and Management Review to examine how the Pentagon could make do with the smaller budgets mandated by Congress via the Budget Control Act. While the full results of the review were never made public, The Wall Street Journal reported that the strategic review found that the United States could reduce its carrier fleet to eight or nine strike groups under lower funding levels.

A similar analysis conducted by a group of four think tanks came to the same conclusion. In January, analysts from the Center for a New American Security, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute came together for a budgeting exercise in which they outlined how they would respond to lower budgets and strategic challenges. All four think tanks unanimously recommended slimming the U.S. carrier fleet.

This comes on the heels of a report, authored by Navy Captain Henry Hendrix, which cast doubt on the long-term efficacy of relying so heavily on aircraft carriers as a means of projecting power. In his report entitled At What Cost a Carrier? Captain Hendrix explores the evolution of modern aircraft carriers, their vulnerabilities, and the growing technological capacity of China to target American carriers with conventional ballistic missiles.

Ultimately, Captain Hendrix recommends that the United States slowly divest itself of aircraft carriers. He concludes that, “the carrier had its day, but continuing to adhere to 100 years of aviation tradition, even in the face of a direct challenge, signals a failure of imagination and foreshadows decline.”

While prevailing wisdom suggests that the United States reduce its carrier fleet, some lawmakers are already putting up a fight. When the Pentagon’s consideration of retiring the George Washington was leaked to the press earlier this year, a group of eleven lawmakers, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) wrote to Secretary Hagel urging him to maintain an eleven-carrier fleet.

More recently, Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, included a provision in his panel’s portion of the National Defense Authorization Act that would withhold half of the authorized funds for the Office of the Secretary of Defense until it commits to retaining the George Washington. Yet, the Pentagon understands that it is operating in a constrained resource environment and must prioritize investments.

Maintaining an eleven carrier fleet is tremendously expensive, represents an outdated strategy of naval warfare, and, according to former Defense Secretary Gates in his Navy League exposition speech, is a requirement that should be openly questioned:

Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040 and it's in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.

As Congress and the Pentagon work toward achieving the deficit reduction targets set out in law by the Budget Control Act, they should forgo the refueling of the George Washington and allow the carrier fleet to shrink permanently to ten vessels. Furthermore, Congress should eliminate the statutory mandate for a certain number of carriers and let the nation’s needs and priorities dictate the fleet.