Last year, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his staff had a bitter argument with U.S. Navy leadership over an issue that cuts to the very core of America’s maritime force: the future of the aircraft carrier.
The bruising debate over the most tangible symbol of U.S. military dominance pitted die-hard carrier advocates—who believe the flattop and its tactical aircraft are key to projecting power —against those who, like Mattis, believe that the days of the carrier are over as Russia and China develop long-range missiles and sophisticated overhead satellites.
“It was like a mini civil war over the future of the carrier,” said one U.S. defense official.
Navy leadership was pushing hard for a $24 billion dollar plan to buy two new Gerald Ford-class carriers from Huntington Ingalls Industries, the United States’ largest military shipbuilder and the sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Several lawmakers also backed the plan as part of President Donald Trump’s effort to build a fleet of 12 aircraft carriers and 355 ships. The U.S. Navy currently has 11 carriers and 285 ships overall.
“The Navy wanted to do this two-carrier buy, and Mattis and the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] staff said, ‘No way,’” the official said.
Ultimately, the Navy got its two-carrier deal, but at a heavy price: It agreed to defer the midlife refueling of an older, Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that participated in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Two U.S. defense officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that the aircraft carrier in question was the USS Harry Truman; experts say the move would be akin to retiring it.
“Mattis essentially told everybody they had to ‘shut up and color,’” said a former U.S. defense official with direct knowledge of the discussions, using a common military term to tell people to get on with the task at hand.
Retiring the Truman would reduce the number of U.S. aircraft carriers in operation around the world from 11 to 10 in the mid-2020s, a move that is sure to stir outrage from lawmakers. The two new carriers are not planned to be operational until 2027 and 2030, respectively, and, if history is any guide, they will likely be delayed.
The refueling, which is necessary for the ship to serve its full, 50-year operating lifespan, is a massive, years-long undertaking that involves replacing the ship’s nuclear core. Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy commander who is now with the Hudson Institute, explained that if the ship’s refueling is delayed by more than a few years, its fissile material will run out.
“This is in essence retiring it,” McGrath said.
The move to defer refueling the USS Harry Truman potentially saves as much as $4 billion, according to theWashington Post, which first reported news of the deal without naming the carrier. Breaking Defense first reported that the carrier in question is the Truman.
But ultimately the decision was not about the money, the defense official said.
“It’s really about, do you believe in the year 2040, 20 years from now, that carriers are still going to be relevant?” the official said. “It really wasn’t about the refueling per se or the two-carrier buy. … Those were the proxy decisions to have a discussion on the future of the carrier.”
Already, Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, has voiced his opposition to the plan. His subcommittee would play a critical role in authorizing such a move in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense policy.
“It’s a shortsighted … and unwise move on [the Pentagon’s] part,” McGrath said. “Tactical aviation is an incredibly important part of our warfighting kit, and there are a lot of scenarios that I could think of where there simply will not be big chunks of land to fly tactical airplanes off of.
“If you value tactical aviation in high-end warfights, it is going to get there on an aircraft carrier.”
Now that Mattis is gone, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has apparently taken up his mantle. Sources say Shanahan also pushed the decision, relying on the advice of so-called carrier skeptics in the Defense Department.
“Shanahan is still very, very new, even wet behind the ears in terms of the Pentagon, and now with Mattis’s departure he’s in an even more awkward position,” said one congressional source. “There are career people that are nestled inside [the Pentagon] that he has grown to trust … they want to see that money go to submarines, hypersonic, cyber, and AI.”
The deal echoes a similar Navy proposal in 2014 to retire the USS George Washington, an older Nimitz-class carrier, instead of completing its midlife refueling due to budget cuts. The Congressional Budget Office estimated at the time that the elimination of the carrier and its air wing would save $7 billion from 2016 to 2021.
The delay in the George Washington’s refueling had a significant impact on the workforce—Huntington Ingalls laid off 1,200 workers.
Congress eventually fully funded the overhaul, keeping the carrier from early retirement, and lawmakers are likely to do so again with the USS Harry Truman. But the move has already done significant damage—and the Pentagon has not kept Capitol Hill in the loop, the former defense official said.
“There are a lot of hurt feelings in Navy uniforms about this,” the official said, but noted that: “The strategic environment is driving a decision about the carrier right now, and there is no way to get out of the way.”
Details of the Pentagon’s budget are subject to change until it is submitted to Congress, an event that is tentatively planned for March 11.