Hope of saving carriers is sinking as cash dries up

By Mike Hixenbaugh The Virginian-Pilot ©

Really? Mothballing aircraft carriers?

The idea floated last week by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seemed particularly shocking in this Navy town – home to half the nation’s fleet of nuclear flattops, where carrier deployments and homecomings routinely lead evening newscasts.

It’s tempting to dismiss the notion of retiring two or three of the world’s most recognizable warships as political brinkmanship – a veiled attempt to push Congress into reversing big national security cuts.

But defense analysts say people shouldn’t roll their eyes at Hagel’s warning or other drastic changes described last week in the Pentagon’s first formal attempt to detail the long-term effects of sequestration.

If Congress does nothing to mitigate $500 billion in across-the-board defense cuts planned over the next decade, several analysts say, reducing the number of carrier strike groups from 11 is more than just a possibility – it’s almost assured.

“Given the size of the cuts, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that wouldn’t involve cutting carriers,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In an exercise this spring, Harrison and defense analysts from three other Washington-based think tanks developed plans for how they would deal with sequestration. Every group said it would eliminate at least two carrier strike groups; one analyst said he would cut four. Even if Congress reduced the budget cuts by half, each team of analysts still recommended cutting at least two carrier strike groups.

Aircraft carriers are widely considered America’s best weapon for projecting force around the globe. They’re also the most expensive piece of military equipment ever – one that typically deploys with seven squadrons of multimillion-dollar aircraft, a cruiser, two or three destroyers or frigates, and about 5,500 personnel.

“It’s not that carriers aren’t important; it’s that perhaps other systems in the force, even in the Navy, are of a higher priority and deliver more bang for the buck,” said Harrison, noting that he would rather invest in stealthy Virginia-class submarines and unmanned aircraft. “You can try to maintain 11 carriers, but if you don’t have money to deploy them, they won’t be very useful.”

Hagel’s remarks – delivered more than two years after Congress passed the budget control act that included the threat of sequestration – for the first time spelled out in some detail how the Pentagon might deal with cuts over the long term. He also talked about sharp reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps and changes to service members’ benefits. Hagel stressed that no decisions had been made. Indeed, many details would still need to be worked out.

For example, would aircraft carriers be decommissioned and destroyed, or would the plan involve defueling the nuclear reactors and placing the ships in long-term storage?

Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO Mike Petters addressed the hypothetical question Wednesday during a quarterly conference call with Wall Street analysts. The most efficient way to cut the fleet, Petters said, would be to deactivate the next few carriers slated to come into Newport News Shipbuilding for their midlife nuclear refuelings.

That would place the aircraft carriers George Washington, John C. Stennis and Norfolk-based Harry S. Truman in the cross hairs.

Disposing of a carrier isn’t a cheap proposition. The Navy is expecting to spend more than $1 billion to scrap the aircraft carrier Enterprise, now in the early stages of a multiyear disposal process that has temporarily reduced the nation’s fleet of carriers to 10.

Petters said his preference would be to maintain 11 carriers, but that, if the fleet must be reduced, it’s important that the Pentagon keep buying new ones.

“I think if we ever stop building the carriers, we’ll never really start building them back again,” Petters said. “And so we need to always preserve our ability to build them.”

However you slice it, said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute, fewer aircraft carriers would be bad news for Hampton Roads and for national defense.

“Given the level of cuts, I’m not surprised they’re looking at this,” said Daly, the former deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk. “That doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea.”

With a fleet of eight carriers, Daly said, the Navy would not be able to keep two carriers deployed at all times, which is the current standard.

“You could keep one carrier in one theater, and one carrier in another theater about three-fourths of the time,” Daly said. “That’s best-case.”

John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, isn’t certain that’s a bad thing. Arquilla began arguing three years ago that slashing the defense budget over the course of several years would force the Pentagon to strategically restructure the force to better deal with modern conflicts.

“If you just throw money at an organization, you allow that organization to forgo making hard choices about innovation – and that’s exactly what’s happened in the military,” Arquilla said. “I’m probably the only person in the defense establishment who will say this publicly, but I think everyone knows it’s true.”

Aircraft carriers are a prime example, Arquilla said, of an expensive technology that was designed for another era.

The rise of supersonic anti-ship missiles, smart mines and supercavitating torpedoes suggests that America should be investing in a smaller, stealthier Navy and relying more on unmanned systems to provide air power.

“The aircraft carrier is increasingly vulnerable and increasingly costly,” said Arquilla, noting the growing $15 billion price tag for the first-in-its-class aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, which is being built in Newport News.

“Seapower in the information age is moving toward a situation where large ships are more vulnerable than they are capable of changing events on the ground,” he said.

But carriers aren’t just useful for projecting force – they’re a big part of the economy in Hampton Roads.

With the Navy committed to a strategic shift toward the Pacific, Daly said, Norfolk would likely bear a disproportionate share of the burden if budget cuts continued.

The region might stand to lose as many as two of its five carriers, he said, a move that could also mean fewer jets flying at Oceana Naval Air Station and fewer destroyers docked at Norfolk Naval Station.

Losing a single carrier, economists estimate, would cost Hampton Roads thousands of jobs and $425 million in annual revenue.

Pilot writer Robert McCabe contributed to this report.

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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