11 Navy Aircraft Carriers Simply Aren’t Enough

The U.S. Navy is limited by law to a minimum of 11 carriers.

The frantic pace of recent carrier deployments makes it clear the Navy needs more carriers—or fewer missions for them.

The upcoming head of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific believes the Navy has all the aircraft carriers it needs—unless a new threat rears its head.

The comments come after years of reports of overworked aircraft carrier crews, culminating in the USS Nimitz’s recent, record-breaking 10-month deployment. If the Navy doesn’t need more carriers, then it seems pretty clear it needs fewer missions for carriers.

Adm. John Aquilino, nominated to head U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, made the comments during his Senate confirmation hearings last week. In the hearings, Sen. Roger Wicker asked Aquilino if 11 aircraft carriers is sufficient for the Navy:

“We’ve complied to the law [with] 11, but is that enough though? Just tell us—we need to know. We can change the law of the land if we get enough votes.”

Wicker represents the state of Mississippi, home to one of Huntington Ingalls Industries’ (HII) naval shipyards. But HII builds aircraft carriers in Virginia—not Mississippi.

Aquilino replied:

“I think currently that the size of that force is correct unless additional challenges show themselves.”

a large ship in a body of water: USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg off Gibraltar, 2015. © U.S. Navy – Getty Images USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg off Gibraltar, 2015.Recent news reports strongly suggest the size of the Navy’s current carrier force simply isn’t enough.

By law, the Navy is required to operate a minimum of 11 aircraft carriers. And while Wicker is correct that the service has 11 carriers, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The 11th carrier, the new USS Gerald R. Ford, is currently non-deployable. The ship, whose first operational patrol was originally scheduled for 2018, is hung up on technical issues and may not conduct its first patrol until 2024.

In the meantime, the Navy’s remaining 10 carriers have faced a grueling schedule that’s wearing out ships and crews.

During the Cold War, the Navy’s 13 to 15 carriers and attached air wings typically spent about 6 months (180 days) at a time at sea. But those deployments have steadily grown longer as the carrier fleet has grown smaller. In January 2020, the USS Abraham Lincoln wrapped up a 295-day patrol. Also last year, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower spent 200 days at sea, while the Nay sent USS Theodore Roosevelt on a“double pump” of back-to-back deployments.

In 2020, Navy carriers spent a combined total of 855 days at sea—258 days more than all of 2019, according to U.S. Naval Institute News.

a large ship in a body of water: USS Nimitz entering drydock, 2018. © U.S. Navy photo by Thiep Van Nguyen II USS Nimitz entering drydock, 2018.If you have 10 aircraft carriers, that doesn’t mean you have 10 aircraft carriers that are ready for action at all times. Carriers typically abide by the one-third rule that governs most fleets: At any one given time, one-third of ships are patrol, one third are preparing for or just coming off patrol, and another third are in maintenance at the shipyard.

In emergencies, many (but not all) ships preparing for patrol can be surged early and ships returning can delay their returns. So, at any one given time, four out of 11 carriers might be available for operations, and up to five or six in emergencies.

What exacerbated the recent pace of operations? Combine COVID-19 pre-deployment quarantines; an on-again, off-again crisis with Iran; and USS Ford’s inability to deploy, which will leave the East Coast carrier fleet with just one carrier, USS Eisenhower, until mid-2021, per USNI News.

a large ship in a body of water: USS Stennis and USS Reagan in the Philippine Sea, 2016. © U.S. Navy – Getty Images USS Stennis and USS Reagan in the Philippine Sea, 2016.The addition of USS Ford would only partially fix the problem. The Ford is an Atlantic Fleet carrier, and the Navy’s Pacific Fleet carriers, like the USS Lincoln, are also heavily stressed. Adding a 12th carrier to the Pacific Fleet would help alleviate the stress on the entire fleet.

Could the Navy get by on 10 or 11 carriers? Yes—if it chose to substitute other ships for carriers, or reduce the missions requiring a carrier.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers or future versions of the Virginia-class submarines, equipped with hypersonic and anti-ship missiles, could substitute the firepower of a carrier in a pinch. The Navy could also decide it doesn’t need a carrier in certain regions all the time, particularly against Iran and the South China Sea. But what kind of signal would that send to potential adversaries?

Still, one thing seems clear: For the Navy of today, 10 or even 11 carriers aren’t enough for the task. The Navy needs more carriers, more carrier substitutes, or fewer missions.

By: Kyle Mizokami

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