May 2, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Flattop Follies: Navy cuts back on carriers

Check this: After cutting the number of active aircraft carriers from 12 to 11 last year, the Navy is now requesting Congress' permission to go down from 11 flattops to 10 for the years 2012 to 2015.

It gets worse.

Maintenance required on nuclear-powered carriers means one ship is always in overhaul in the yards - so we'd actually only have nine carriers available for those years. And some fear that the drop to a 10-carrier force would wind up being permanent.

Look: Carriers are vital to our defense needs - the Navy deployed a second carrier this week to Iran's vicinity as what Defense Secretary Robert Gates called a "reminder." Scanning all the potential flashpoints around the world, it's not at all clear that we have enough flattops to meet current - and potential - wartime needs now.

How did we get to this point? Basically, the Navy brass are in a bind: The budget is tight, programs are behind schedule and they're trying to avoid sinking the fleet's total of battle-force ships below today's 279 hulls.

So the Navy asked Congress to waive current law, which requires 11 carriers to meet wartime needs. (And that minimum was 12 active carriers until last year. . . )

This dispensation would let the Navy retire CVN-65 Enterprise, which at age 50 is past its service life, three years before CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford joins the fleet.

The admirals want to prevent new shortfalls in their shipbuilding budget by avoiding a $2.2 billion price tag to keep Enterprise "operational" (on paper, anyway) to meet the letter of the law.

Fact is, we need balance in our armed forces to meet a range of challenges, from terrorism to major-power wars. The carrier's combat-strike capability is going to be a key element of that force.

And while the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan (and other anti-terror ops) don't always need the punch of a carrier group's ships, planes and submarines daily, other threats would.

It's troubling that, like our ground forces, the carrier fleet is also stretched thin. Navy brass already have difficulty meeting the need for carriers. What if another major crisis, such as a serious dust-up in the Taiwan Strait between powerhouse China and its rival Taiwan, comes across our bow?

Considering China's military buildup, you can bet that we'll need several (at least) carrier groups to deal with People's Liberation Army's navy and air force.

If the Korean peninsula goes up in flames and a million North Korean soldiers pour over the border, we'll need lots of carriers to support South Korea and the nearly 30,000 US GIs and airmen stationed there.

Not to mention Russia, another (re)emerging major power, which recently announced plans to build a carrier fleet of its own in support of its growing global interests.

Carriers are also handy tools of (gunboat) diplomacy. They provide US policymakers with 90,000 tons of deployable, difficult-to-ignore, cold-steel persuasion, as evidenced by the recent deployment near Iran.

Without firing a single shot, the presence of 4.5 acres of floating, sovereign US territory off the coast has given more than one foreign leader pause. At the onset of a crisis, the first words a president often utters are: "Where are the carriers?"

A failure to adequately maintain our carrier fleet will embolden potential adversaries. More than one historically great naval power became a shadow of its former self - much to its detriment.

Given the challenges we face, how can this nation not afford to maintain a fleet of at least 12 carriers? Remember: Even in a high-tech warfare world, quantity has a quality all its own.

Peter Brookes is Chung Ju Yung Fellow and Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post