America's Navy needs 12 carriers and 3 hubs

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  • Whereas the question used to be “Where are the carriers?” a new question emerges—“What carriers?”

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  • Congress must now decide if America’s single-digit carrier fleet is enough to meet the global demands of a superpower

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  • We should return to a “three hub Navy” and build the carrier force to twelve

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President Obama’s latest defense budget would shrink the US Navy’s fleet from 11 aircraft carriers to 10 absent additional funding. But the truth is that America is currently a nine-carrier nation.

Several years ago, Congress waived the 11-carrier requirement. As a result, the Navy currently operates 10 aircraft carriers until the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) joins the fleet in 2016. But one is in constant maintenance at all times and unavailable for global deployment.

Whereas the question used to be “Where are the carriers?” a new question emerges—“What carriers?”

Congress must now decide if America’s single-digit carrier fleet is enough to meet the global demands of a superpower. The short answer is no.

Pentagon leaders have tried twice now to retire an aircraft carrier earlier than planned to recoup the savings. President Obama has personally vetoed the decision, calling the aircraft carrier a “strategic asset.”

Part of its value is that it is an asset in constant demand. Last year, Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Moore said it best, noting “We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world.”

But while the demand is unyielding, the money simply is not there. Congress would have to instead find additional funds from within the defense budget or add money above the budget request to keep our carrier fleet steady. Retiring the USS George Washington (CVN 73) would save nearly $5B on its mid-life overhaul and nuclear refueling. 

The USS George Washington is only twenty years into a 45 to 50-year life. Retiring her early will create a shortage in naval power projection. This leaves combatant commanders around the globe in short supply of needed requirements. Cutting a carrier also undercuts an Obama Administration goal of “rebalancing” to the Western Pacific -- even as it continues to be left without satisfying policy options in the largely-abandoned Mediterranean. 

Instead of retiring an aircraft carrier early, the Administration should double down on American sea power and pursue a twelve-carrier force.

The United States currently postures naval power projection forces in the Western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf / Indian Ocean. The centerpiece of this force is the aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing of strike fighters, command and control platforms and helicopters.

The “two hub U.S. Navy” in existence since the fall of the Soviet Union and enshrined in its 2007 Maritime Strategy, often requires three aircraft carriers at a time to fulfill. This is because of the flexibility and signaling value of the aircraft carrier as the primary means of U.S. conventional deterrence. 

Iran’s bellicosity has meant that for much of the past ten years, two aircraft carriers were required in the Central Command region, while the third was on station in the Pacific.

In order to ensure continuous deployment of three aircraft carriers, twelve are needed. This “four-to-one” ratio is driven by the reality of time, distance and ship life. One carrier is on station, one is training or en route to replace it, one is on its way home or recently returned from duty and one is in maintenance.

The Navy has been trying to keep three aircraft carriers forward deployed in two operational hubs with ten carriers, accomplishing this through lengthening deployments and deferring maintenance, both of which are symptoms of approaching hollowness. People and platforms wear out more quickly, and short-term gains come at the cost of long-term availability. 

In spite of these measures, the nation has been caught without aircraft carrier presence in the Mediterranean several times in the past few years, raising the need to once again fill a third deployment hub there.

No American aircraft carrier was in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of the conflict in Libya.  Nor was a US carrier in the Mediterranean when our Ambassador to Libya and three others were murdered. No American aircraft carrier was in the Mediterranean when Syria stepped over President Obama’s “red line” and attacked its own citizens with chemical weapons. And while international conventions would ordinarily limit a carrier’s presence in the Black Sea, the complete absence of one in the Mediterranean surely helped further embolden Mr. Putin in Ukraine.

Those who bemoan the expense of aircraft carriers must speak to the utility the nation derives from them over decades of service—forward deployed and ready to respond. Those who believe the aircraft carrier is obsolete against a new generation of weapons should join the chorus of those who have been claiming the same thing for the past six decades as each new “carrier killer” has been countered.  

The nation should not seriously consider the planned cut in the carrier force. Rather, we should return to a “three hub Navy” and build the carrier force to twelve. This would provide the president and the next with credible options in each of the three areas of broad U.S. strategic interest. 12 carriers would provide those who wish to disturb the peace with a powerful, persistent and present reason to reconsider.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. Bryan McGrath is assistant director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower and the Managing Director of the Ferrybridge Group.

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