In Defense of the Aircraft Carrier Fleet

A recent column [“Challenging the Navy’s numbers,” Walter Pincus, Jan. 4] advocated a course of action that, if followed, would have harmful consequences for American national security and damage our country’s standing in the world. The author advocates reducing the size of the bulwark of America’s global defense capability – our aircraft carrier fleet – without addressing the dire results of such an action.

Ninety percent of international trade moves safely and freely over the world’s oceans and seas, much to America’s – and the free world’s – benefit. A significant part of the reason is because American aircraft carriers provide us with the capability to defend our interests, neutralize our foes and deter would-be enemies in any corner of the globe more rapidly than other forces, without the permission of foreign powers.

But our ability to do all of this is entirely predicated on the current carrier force structure, which is barely sufficient to meet our combatant commanders’ needs, even though the Navy has already significantly increased the frequency and duration of deployment for our carrier sailors.

America is the strongest, most prosperous and most free country in the world. With our strength comes responsibilities that we can shirk only at our peril. The larger, wealthier and stronger we grow, the more we become a target for current and would-be rivals and opponents worldwide who seek to challenge us, if not to usurp our dominance for economic, strategic and/or ideological reasons.

For at least five centuries the global maritime commons has been guarded by a maritime “superpower.” As that mantle has passed among nations such as Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the U.S., so has each country’s era of greatness. Our decision now is whether, in the future, this will be our role or someone else’s.

To cite but one example, let’s consider the Asia-Pacific region. The Navy’s Pacific fleet protects America’s key allies, deters rivals and keeps open vital shipping lanes over more than 100 million square miles – more than half the surface of the planet. This region is also home to one of the greatest economic and military challengers to American supremacy, the People’s Republic of China. It is home to that country’s client state, North Korea. China already has nuclear missiles capable of targeting our country, and soon North Korea may, as well.

Our capacity to mount sufficient combat capability to deter these rivals – much less engage them successfully in the case of hostilities – while at the same time ensuring the security of Middle Eastern oil and worldwide seaborne commerce, in spite of an increasingly belligerent Iran, is clearly and unquestionably tethered to maintaining our carrier fleet.

It is precisely for these reasons and despite our current domestic economic woes (and the defense budget-slashing atmosphere on Capitol Hill), that the most recent Defense Strategic Review wisely concluded that an increase in America’s Asia-Pacific military presence is essential. Without the necessary aircraft carrier-based force, that presence would be impotent. It is a testimonial to the flexibility of the carrier and a key statement of its value that the “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific areas will require little more than steaming our flat-tops in a different direction.

Volumes could be, and have been, written about the vulnerabilities of shore-based, fixed airfields compared to the less vulnerable mobile platform at sea. In today’s environment, access to foreign airfields is neither assured nor often politically tenable or expedient. What might be a politically achievable military base today may be an untouchable airfield tomorrow.

There is no doubt that we must ensure that the cost of defense procurement – and every single other expenditure of taxpayer dollars, for that matter – is made as predictable and reasonable as possible. And, at a moment of great economic distress, we will surely have to make painful choices. But such decisions must not come at the expense of our national security.

Since our carrier capability was forged in World War II, America’s ability to use them to rapidly deploy superior military power in defense of our interests (or for humanitarian efforts) has been repeatedly demonstrated and used by every single president since; in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, Kosovo, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq and in the war on terror, among others. As global threats increase, the carrier’s role will become more vital than it is today. Plainly put, aircraft carriers cannot be cut without abandoning a key element to our security at home and abroad.

Michael R Groothousen, a retired rear admiral, lives in Virginia Beach.

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