On May 22, a serious fire broke out on the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier George Washington as it sailed to relieve the forward-deployed Kitty Hawk in the western Pacific Ocean.
It might take all summer to repair the ship, so the planned decommissioning of the Kitty Hawk is on hold. Instead, it's now one of 40 ships from the United States, Chile, Canada, South Korea, Australia and Japan taking part in this year's Rim of the Pacific exercise.
In an age of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency operations, many U.S. officials appear content to overlook the importance of conventional weapons such as the aircraft carrier. That's a serious mistake.
For any U.S. president, the aircraft carrier embodies the ultimate crisis management tool. Continuously deployed throughout the globe, carrier-strike groups give our military unparalleled freedom of action to respond to a range of combat and non-combat missions. The recent George Washington incident only further emphasizes the significance of maintaining a robust carrier fleet, one large enough to meet all contingencies and "surge" in crises, no matter what may happen.
Carriers can move large contingents of forces and their support to distant theaters, respond rapidly to changing tactical situations, support several missions simultaneously, and, perhaps most importantly, guarantee access to any region in the world.
In a time when America's political relationships with other countries can shift almost overnight, aircraft carriers can reduce America's reliance on others -- often including suspect regimes -- for basing rights. A carrier's air wing can typically support 125 sorties a day at a distance up to 750 nautical miles. They also operate as a hub in the strike group's command, control, communications and intelligence network, playing an increasingly larger role in controlling the battlespace at sea.
Whether in a direct or support role, carriers have taken part in almost every major military operation the U.S. has undertaken since the Second World War. They also serve as first-rate diplomatic tools to either heighten or ease political pressure. When tensions with North Korea or Iran increase, a carrier, or sometimes two, is sent to patrol off their coast. And when an election takes place in a nascent democracy or country central to U.S. interests, a strike group typically is sailing offshore.
In March, when Taiwan held important presidential elections that will chart the future of that country's relationship with China, both the Kitty Hawk and Nimitz trolled nearby to ensure a smooth transition of events and deliver a psychological message of U.S. interest.
And at a time when policymakers expect to spend less on defense and where the services' lists of unfunded requirements continues to mount, we'll likely call on the aircraft carrier to perform an expanded array of duties, ranging from humanitarian relief to counterinsurgency support and temporary basing for Special Operations Forces.
As the Navy assumes responsibility for humanitarian missions in places such as Africa and South America, it will rely on aircraft carriers to provide immediate relief following natural disasters. During Operation Unified Assistance, following the December 2004 tsunami and during relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, for instance, they placed a central role.
For these enduring reasons, both the Congress and the Navy must work to ensure that a sufficient number of aircraft carriers remain in operation. During the Reagan years, the Navy maintained 15 carriers. In FY 2006, Congress required the Navy maintain at least 12 carriers.
However officials allowed this number to drop to 11 -- the current number -- in the FY 2007 budget to accommodate the retirement of the John F. Kennedy. Although the Kitty Hawk is expected to begin decommissioning in the coming months, it will be replaced later this year by the George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), the last of the Nimitz-class line.
To maintain 11 carriers, the Navy will have to procure seven CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers between 2009 and 2038. Under current plans, however, a shortfall to 10 carriers is projected to occur between November 2012, when the Navy decommissions the Enterprise, and September 2015, when the Gerald R. Ford is expected to be commissioned.
In reality, this projected three-year gap will be longer, perhaps much longer. Not only will it take an additional 30 months for the Ford to become operationally ready to deploy after commissioning, but in all likelihood construction delays will push back the planned commissioning date even further. The result could be a five- or six-year period where the Navy has only 10 carriers.
Yet in the past half-century, carrier levels have never fallen below 12 ships. It's no surprise that a recent RAND report concluded that "this gap will severely strain the navy's ability to meet the forward-presence requirements of theatre commanders."
Nevertheless, this year the Navy again asked Congress to waive the legislative mandate of 11 carriers to accommodate the upcoming six-year gap. The House Armed Services Committee, already having acknowledged that "a reduction below 12 aircraft carriers puts the nation in a position of unacceptable risk," chose wisely to reject the Navy's request.
The committee further directed the Secretary of the Navy to submit a report by next February reviewing potential options, including either returning the retired John F. Kennedy to service or maintaining the Kitty Hawk until the completion of Gerald Ford. Officials should also consider accelerating the delivery of the Ford to the 2013-2014 timeframe.
In the meantime, the Navy should take two additional steps to help surge aircraft carrier capacity.
The Navy has structured its Fleet Response Plan to uphold its goal of a "6+1 fleet" -- in which at least six carriers are deployed (or able to deploy) within 30 days, and a seventh can be deployed within 90 days. Under the current plan, the Navy uses a 32-month operational cycle consisting of one six-month deployment.
Each carrier, then, is deployed for only a limited time within a cycle. Yet with fewer ships and more needs, aircraft carrier capacity is stretched to its limit. As the RAND report suggested, the Navy should consider extending the Fleet Response Plan to a 42-month/two-deployment cycle. This would allow the Navy to project power while also meeting the full requirements of the "6+1 fleet" plan.
The Navy also should look to homeport additional carriers in either Hawaii or Guam. For the past decade the only carrier home-ported outside the continental United States has been the Kitty Hawk in Yokosuka, Japan. From California, it can take two weeks for a carrier strike group to travel to East Asia and three weeks to reach the Persian Gulf. Shaving off this time by positioning a carrier in Guam, for example, would allow ships to respond more quickly to unforeseen crises.
It's time to give aircraft carriers their due. They're not weapons platforms from a bygone era, but rather flexible tools of national security that can offer a vast array of capabilities. Congress was correct to stop the Navy from reducing the carrier fleet below the already-low level of 11 carriers. Now it must be prepared to back up its foresightedness by funding whichever option the Navy determines best for managing the looming Enterprise/Ford shortfall. When the question is, "where are the carriers?" we need to ensure the answer is, "plentiful, and ready to serve."
Mackenzie Eaglen is Senior Policy Analyst for National Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared on Washingtonpost.com