August 1, 2008
By Mackenzie Eaglen
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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