The Biggest Boondoggle

How The Obama Administration Could Save $100 Billion.

Throughout the presidential campaign both candidates repeatedly pledged to ax wasteful spending from the federal budget. Now that the economic crisis is putting further pressure on outlays, will President-elect Barack Obama make good on his promise?

When it comes to spending on the Defense Department’s biggest boondoggle, the answer is a definitive no.

Over the next few decades the Pentagon is planning to spend more than $50 billion on its Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers. The first of these 100,000-ton ships is due for completion in 2015, with others following as vessels in the existing 12-carrier fleet are retired. Since aircraft carriers are near helpless without a protective ring of about ten destroyers, frigates and cruisers, the military wants to invest in newer versions of these, too, at a cost of an additional $50 billion.

This plan constitutes a huge waste of taxpayer money and exemplifies the Defense Department’s fixation on preserving legacy systems designed for a kind of war that the U.S. is likely never to fight again.

Why won’t the next Administration get rid of this white elephant? President-elect Obama simply has too little military expertise to take on the carrier champions, even though his senior adviser on strategic affairs, former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, has in the past called for reducing carrier crew sizes. But Danzig did not call for moving away from giant carriers, and he is unlikely to urge Obama to do so anytime soon.

So it appears that the carrier will live on, at great cost to the American people and at increasing risk to our national security. If there is ever another conflict at sea, it will erupt over Taiwan. Swarms of small Chinese vessels and aircraft armed to the teeth with smart weapons would quickly sink a carrier. The Chinese have focused on producing supersonic antiship missiles and mines that position themselves directly under a ship’s keel. They are experimenting with supercavitation torpedoes that create a small bubble of air in front, reducing resistance and allowing them to move at hundreds of knots.

In a world of such weapons, aircraft carriers should paint over their identifying numbers and replace them with bull’s-eyes. They have had a good 70-year run as capital ships, but their time is over.

Despite their iconic appeal (think of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, or the elegiac pbs series Carrier) and the juggernaut of military and political support they enjoy, these “fighting ladies” are too vulnerable, cost too much and do too little. When the carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson was supporting field operations in Iraq between January and June of 2005, at an operating cost of several billion dollars, it dropped a total of just four bombs on enemy targets. In terms of so-called irregular warfare, the most common form of conflict over the past 60 years, carriers have an insignificant role to play. Air Force planes, small or large missiles and artillery make more effective substitutes.

Defenders of the carrier are getting creative. One idea has been to have aircraft catapult off the carrier, fly to land bases and operate from there. This just makes the 41TK2-acre floating airfield the world’s most expensive taxi.

Another argument is that carrier aircraft play a key “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” role, conveying vital information to ground units hunting insurgents. But other kinds of manned or unmanned aircraft do the job just as well.

Does a carrier have deterrent value? No. Our carriers didn’t deter North Korea from invading South Korea in 1950, or North Vietnam from invading South Vietnam in 1965. Carriers were deployed to the Persian Gulf and the northern Arabian Sea during the crisis with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest response to such signaling: “The big powers are going down.” He doesn’t seem deterred.

At $8 billion per ship, spending on aircraft carriers constitutes the single-largest line item in a defense budget that now runs to $500 billion a year. That line should be cut.

John Arquilla is a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and the author of Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (Ivan R. Dee, $28).

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