Where are the Carriers?

“When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is:  ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?‘”

President Bill Clinton

March 12, 1993 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt

At a dinner party on Manhattan’s upper east side recently, I asked my table-mates how many aircraft carriers they thought America had in service.  It wasn’t an idle question.  It was triggered by comments from two of the guests.  Both had just returned from Iran, and one was a senior European Union staffer involved with security issues.  Their report was seriously distressing, and the conversation turned to the possibility of U.S. (or Israeli) intervention.

The answers to my question – how many carriers — ranged from 22 to 100. The EU expert weighed in with 40.  All were shocked to learn that the United States has a total of just 11 aircraft carriers.  And even that number is misleading: two are in dry-dock, one for a four-year refueling; six are various stages of refurbishment, training and certification and can, in theory, be ready to “surge” in 30 to 90 days.  But only three are actually deployed.

I knew the number because I had recently been aboard the USS Harry Truman, a nuclear super-carrier with some 70 jets and a crew of 5500.  Following my embark, I was determined to investigate the value of these behemoths as objectively as a concerned citizen (without a security clearance) could.  I interviewed dozens of defense experts and reviewed thousands of pages of studies and testimony.  I was also sensitive to the fact that I had experienced a tailhook landing and catapult launch, which are often referred to as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”  I appreciate why, and tried not to let that interfere with my assessment.

My questions started with the basics: Are carriers cold war relics as critics charge? Or are they, as supporters profess, cost-effective platforms essential to achieving critical foreign policy and security objectives?  Are they too vulnerable to new Chinese anti-ship missiles as Defense Secretary Gates implies?  Or is that vulnerability the latest feint by inter-and-intra-service rivals?  And is 11 the “right” number to meet current and potential obligations?

The answers I found were not encouraging.  And my dinner partners’ surprise quickly turned to concern.

Most experts fear that our carrier capability is stretched way too thin. And they are very concerned about what will happen in 2013 when the 50 year-old nuclear super-carrier Enterprise is retired.  Its replacement, the USS Gerald Ford, is not scheduled to be commissioned until late 2015, and won’t join the operational fleet until several years after that.

Moreover, the carriers and their crews are being worked harder and longer.  At today’s heightened operational tempo, deployments are more frequent, longer, and leave less time for essential maintenance.  As retired Navy captain Dick Costello put it, “We’re driving them hard and putting them away wet.”

Contrary to critics’ rhetoric, aircraft carriers have played an expanded role since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The carrier’s traditional roles of deterrence, sea control, and showing-the-flag have taken advantage of their hard-to-miss presence.  Carriers have been front-and-center in numerous conflicts where weapons were never fired.  But since the end of the cold war, carriers have taken on the greater demands of kinetic power projection: carrier-based aircraft have flown most of the critical early sorties in almost every “hot” encounter of the last 20 years. Troops are never sent into harm’s way without first securing the airspace and without on-going close air support. Initial air operations are almost always the predominant responsibility of Navy-Marine air, while on-going sustainability is shared with the Air Force.

When special operations forces and CIA operatives went into Afghanistan after 9/11 – some of them memorably on camels – it was carrier-based aircraft that provided the essential cover.  In fact, Navy Air was responsible for fully 75% of all strike sorties.  This required four carriers on station.

In 2003, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, five Navy carriers again provided essential air-superiority and ground support. More than half of all American sorties were conducted by carrier-based pilots, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused American requests to operate Air Force jets from land bases.

Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni explained another benefit of having carriers forward-deployed: the element of surprise.  When, in 1999 President Bill Clinton ordered air strikes against Iraq, Zinni was able to draw on carriers undergoing “routine” operations in the area.  The Iraqis had no advance notice of night-time strikes by carrier-based pilots and were unable to disperse valuable pieces of equipment. In subsequent strikes by land-based Air Force planes, the Iraqis had enough time to move their machinery.

Carriers are also playing a growing, non-traditional role: disaster relief and delivering humanitarian aid.  Following the 2004 Asian tsunami, the USS Abraham Lincoln led relief efforts.  Not only did the carrier’s flight deck provide the main staging area for distribution of desperately needed supplies, its medical facilities were literally life-saving for thousands.  Moreover, as former Ambassador Douglas Paal noted, its quick response and presence provided Secretary of State Clinton with a formidable platform from which to engage the Indonesian government.

Does the Navy believe 11 carriers are enough to meet the challenges demanded of them by successive presidential administrations? As recently as June of 2000 – before the attacks of 9/11 or our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq – the Navy told Congress that it needed 15 carrier battle groups.  Unfortunately, with only 11 carriers, large areas of the globe are suffering from a “presence deficit.” According to Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, these include the Black sea, the Baltic region, Indian Ocean, and areas off the African coast.  In addition, South America, the Caribbean, and the Balkans have not seen a carrier in several years.

The most formidable carrier critic is outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “I’m not going to cut any aircraft carriers,” Gates told Fred Kaplan in his recent Foreign Affairs interview. “But the reality is, if Chinese highly accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles can keep our aircraft carriers behind the second island chain in the Pacific, you’ve got to think differently about how you’re going to use aircraft carriers.”

Gates may not have cut the number of carrier groups outright, but he has significantly delayed the start date for building new carriers from every four years to every five.  And there is some talk about not refueling the Abraham Lincoln when its reactor core must be replaced in 2014, halfway through the carrier’s 50-year lifespan.

Is this Chinese missile threat sufficient to diminish carrier capabilities? Not according to former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III. “The Chinese lack some of the key hardware and software to constitute the ‘system of systems’ required to achieve the kill chain of detection, tracking, guidance and pinpoint accuracy needed.”   Holloway also notes that a carrier can move 12 miles  between the time a missile is launched and when it arrives at the target.  And its flight deck and hull are heavily armored. “The Enterprise experienced a serious fire a number of years ago when nine major caliber bombs (750 – 1,000 pounds) exploded on its flight deck.  It was back in operation after four hours.”

Perhaps most tellingly, no nation is pursuing aircraft carriers more assiduously than China.  They have purchased three old carriers from the Soviet Union and a fourth from Australia. In addition, they have constituted an air wing that is practicing landings on a carrier-shaped strip, and are reported to be building a new carrier in secret.

The one thing critics and supporters agree upon is that carriers are very expensive.  The USS Gerald Ford will cost about $11 billion by the time it enters the fleet.  And that doesn’t include the cost of its air wing or its strike group of cruisers, subs, and support ships.  (Just as a point of reference, the “cash for clunkers” program cost us $3 billion, and the overall stimulus and bank-bailout have totaled $1.5 trillion. That is 1500 billions.)

Our current spending on carriers and aircraft is a grave concern to former Navy Secretary John Lehman.  He notes that we have only 10 airwings and no attrition aircraft.  Moreover, he is critical of Secretary Gates’ position that while we may have no back-up aircraft for the carriers, we have plenty of Air Force planes. Lehman notes that, “In any potential conflict with an increasingly truculent and aggressive China, Air Force reserves are largely irrelevant.  We have very few land bases in the Pacific.”

As I conducted my investigation, I kept hearing that the Navy has no congressional champion, as it did first with Georgia Congressman Carl Vinson and later with Virginia Senator John Warner. Moreover, the public seems not to know or care what the Navy does.  In a recent Gallup poll, the Navy was ranked dead last among the branches of the military services in terms of both prestige and importance.

So, without a champion or broad public support, is there little wonder why our carrier resources continue to erode?  I came away from my investigation convinced that the modern super-carrier is our most flexible and proven defense platform.  But I was also very troubled by the realization that our initial incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq required four and five carrier battle groups respectively.  And that we didn’t have enough ships to support those operations simultaneously.

What my dinner partners worried about was: what would happen if two-or-more conflicts erupt concurrently?   We went around the table citing current concerns:  Iran is attempting to build a nuclear weapon; North Korea recently sunk a South Korean warship; a Japanese tanker was attacked just last month in the Straits of Hormuz; Venezuela has threatened Colombia; and China is showing increased belligerence towards Taiwan.  And all those were cited before appetizers were finished.  We’ll just have to hope that no President, faced with a crisis, will ask, “Where are the carriers?” and hear that they’ve been retired in favor of the next politically popular clunkers program.

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