Pentagon Study Would Cut Aircraft Carriers, Undermining Most Useful U.S. Warfighting System

Loren Thompson

Defense News reported this week that a Pentagon office has proposed reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet from eleven to nine. That may not sound like much, but in operational terms it means that on a typical day the Navy would only be able to have two or three carriers forward deployed near global hot spots.

The finding apparently comes from the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) shop, which was tasked by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper with finding ways of making the Navy lighter.

Warfighting systems don’t get much heavier than the large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers that are the signature expression of U.S. military power. No other nation has anything quite like them, because no other nation tries to sustain a global deterrence and peacekeeping role.

It isn’t likely that Congress or the White House will agree with CAPE’s assessment, but if they did it would signal a major retreat in Washington’s ability to shape the international security environment. CAPE has always been good at calculating the cost of military programs, but its ability to understand how capabilities impact outcomes in wartime is not strong.

For instance, it recently proposed substituting non-stealthy fighters for Marine Corps F-35s, as if being invisible to enemy radar isn’t important in warfare. That move would have saved a lot of money right up to the first day of combat with a near-peer adversary, after which the loss in lives and equipment would have been horrendous.

The irony of the carrier proposal is that it seems to be grounded in unfounded fears that big warships are more likely to be disabled in future combat than small warships. Actually, the precise opposite is true. However, it has to make you wonder why CAPE always comes down on the side of the cheaper solution, rather than the solution most likely to win wars.

The White House shouldn’t let coronavirus distract it from the foolishness of what CAPE is proposing, because cutting carriers is nobody’s idea of Making America Great Again. The fewer carriers we have, the less we are able to deter or defeat potential aggressors. It is comforting to have the world’s most capable Army, but what is the U.S. Army going to do if China decides tomorrow to become more adventurous?

That job falls largely to the sea services, since most of the aircraft operated by the Army and Air Force lack the range (and bases) to fight effectively in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. What aircraft carriers and amphibious assault vessels hosting Marine Air-Ground Task Forces get you are mobile bases that can go wherever the threat is, and sustain operations without requiring the permission of local governments.

Organizations like CAPE have been arguing for many years that big warships are becoming too vulnerable to operate in forward locations like the South China Sea, but that is a speculative assessment that has been around since Donald Rumsfeld’s first run as defense secretary in the 1970s. The reality is that countries like China won’t be able to find carriers in the midst of war, and if they could their attacks wouldn’t penetrate the multiple layers of protection surrounding a carrier strike group.

The Navy doesn’t talk much about what it would do in a war with China to protect its carriers, but the obvious first step would be to take out radars and other sensors capable of tracking the carriers and their escorts. This is a touchy topic because most of those systems will be within Chinese borders or in orbit, so let’s just say the Navy has a plan to blind Beijing if necessary.

Once Chinese military leaders can’t find the carriers, the range and accuracy of their long-range weapons becomes irrelevant. You can’t hit something you can’t see, and the U.S. Navy’s carriers are always moving. At 35 miles per hour, they can disappear into thousands of square miles of ocean within an hour, and Beijing would have no idea which way they went. They can also outrun China’s submarines.

Not that the Navy lacks defensive weapons. It has the most advanced search and tracking radars in the world, the most agile surface-to-air missiles, and the most resilient communications for cooperative action by scattered warships. Its undersea capabilities against hostile subs are also extremely sophisticated. China knows all this, but the Navy isn’t about to share details.

What’s most missing from the CAPE assessment, though, isn’t an understanding of carrier survivability, but of the offensive punch that carriers bring to U.S. war plans. So let’s consider a few of the things that make large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers uniquely useful in wartime.

For starters, nuclear-powered carriers have unlimited range—which is why they can always be moving when forward deployed. That means you don’t need vulnerable bases on land to carry the war to the enemy. The latest Ford class of carriers can sustain 270 air sorties per day. If we assume that each of those sorties delivers four smart bombs against enemy targets, then a single carrier can destroy a thousand different aimpoints every day. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the number of targets potentially destroyed is in the same range.

But that is just the beginning of what carrier strike groups can do. They can also provide continuous air cover to U.S. forces ashore. Their radar planes can deliver early warning of airborne threats to the entire joint force, and can track scores of threats simultaneously. Their jamming aircraft can prevent enemy radars from seeing U.S. and allied planes even when those planes lack stealth features.

Carriers are also the most effective system from which to exercise sea control over vast areas, thanks to the speed and reach of their aircraft. That means they not only can defeat enemy warships over large expanses of ocean, but also protect friendly ships in those same areas. And to repeat, this all can be accomplished without requiring access to local ports or bases.

So there’s a reason why aircraft carriers are always in demand by U.S. combatant commanders in the Western Pacific, in the Persian Gulf, and in the Mediterranean. Those commanders will snort derisively at any plan that would deprive the Navy of the ability to keep a carrier in each of the three regions continuously (two are probably needed in the Pacific, given the distances involved).

The Pentagon couldn’t have picked a worse time to raise doubts about future demand for aircraft carriers. Coronavirus has put the nation’s economy on the verge of collapse, and potentially emboldened our rivals. If Secretary Esper has any political sense, he will bury CAPE’s study for the rest of the election season.

Several companies engaged in building and equipping U.S. aircraft carriers contribute to my think tank, including Huntington Ingalls Industries—the only company in the world that constructs large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers.

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