Carrier Calculus: How Many Do We Need?

August 20, 2013

Recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel framed the scale of choices foisted on the Department of Defense if it had to plan for sequestration level cuts.  In this context, he floated decreasing the number of nuclear powered aircraft carriers from ten to eight in his Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR). This decision presumably would also result in a reduction of the escorts and other ships required for a larger number of carrier strike groups (although not necessarily so).  Hagel’s proposition, while not an official recommendation, should have surprised no one, least of all the U.S. Navy.  A debate over how many large aircraft carriers—sometimes called super carriers—to keep in service has been going on since at least the very first Quadrennial Defense Review in the 1990s (or for purists we can go back to 1949 and the conflict over the first super carrier).  Prior to Hagel’s recommendation, then-Commander (and carrier aviator) “Jerry” Hendrix wrote a startling article called “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris” that recommended reducing the 12 carrier force down to as few as nine. This past March, Hendrix published an updated version of his original argument, this time focusing exclusively on the rationale for super carriers and what they bring to the table from a cost-benefit perspective.  Although he gives no numbers, his article calls for shrinking the overall force structure as well as individual ship sizes.  He called for preserving the carriers we have without making investments in new ones.  Hendrix also questions the viability of the manned air wing in the face of new technologies such as carrier-launched and recovered unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). However, as the U.S. seeks to downsize its carrier force, Japan has launched its largest warship since World War II, India launched the new carrier Vikrant, and China acquired an older Russian carrier, demonstrating that aviation ships still have a role to play in maritime and national security and Hendrix’s future without super carriers is not here yet.

This article argues that there are reasons other than cost-benefit analyses or emerging technologies to decrease the United States’ super carrier force.  It does not provide justification for their use or disuse beyond affirming the following basic premise:  floating airfields that can operate with assured access in most of the international maritime commons across the globe have both operational and strategic value today. Nuclear-powered ship-airfields have the additional advantage of speed and logistical independence, as they require no fuel to move or water for habitability. Thus, while there are valid reasons to decrease the carrier force, getting rid of them altogether at this time is ill-advised.

To start, we must briefly look at the calculations behind Hendrix’s argument.   In a 2009 article, Hendrix provides a quick primer on how to use this force on a sustainable basis, the so-called “garrison model” for the fleet:

Instead, the aircraft carriers (nine or ten for the sake of this discussion) and their support ships and airwings will remain in home waters, exercising as required to maintain six CSGs [Carrier Strike Groups] in a high state of combat readiness. The assumption underlying this force is that one carrier will be involved in reactor upkeep, one will be coming home from either a regional deployment or a major international exercise, and another will be on her way out. This leaves roughly six carriers in standby, ready to surge at a moment’s notice. Where they surge from is a critical question. A smaller carrier force needs to be redistributed to get the most out of a decreased number of ships.

In response to Hendrix’s model, those opposed to a smaller forceuse a common Navy term about force structure—forward presence. Simply put, having ten or more carriers supports a permanent forward presence of three carriers. These three deployed carriers include one in Japan, more or less permanently forward deployed, and one each with an associated strike group deployed from each coast of the United States.   On any given day then, there is an aircraft carrier theoretically in the Mediterranean, the North Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf (Central Command-CENTCOM), and one on duty in the Western Pacific. This posture gives policy-makers the maximum flexibility to respond to emerging crises, but it also discourages prioritization on their part when it comes to stationing the carriers—just station them in “the usual locations.”  Such an approach obviates the prioritization and decision making that is essential to strategic thinking. This was the old “steady state” system with twelve carrier strike groups.  With ten carriers, this calculation is stressed and results in longer deployments, which in turn lead eventually to longer shipyard periods, or lacking that (as with CV-66 USS America), a much-shortened lifecycle. Using ten carriers to maintain what the Center of Naval Analyses calls the “shrinking status quo option” is not the optimal number to maintain this posture. It is neither fish nor fowl.

When used to address emerging crises, super carriers also send signals out clarifying U.S. intent.  Robert C. Rubel (a retired naval aviator) and Dean of the Center of Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College argues that sometimes carriers can send the wrong signal.  They seem “scalable” to the crisis of the moment, but in fact they can cause needless escalation and a hardening of a particular position. Additionally, having three forward deployed carriers available on hand increases the likelihood of dispatching “ready naval power” without clearly thinking through the implications of its use. Rubel points to the 1982 Falklands crisis as evidence of a naval deployment contributing to the outbreak, rather than the prevention, of war.  The Argentineans acted on a “now or never” logic. More and more, they seem most useful at the low end, not the high end.

While ten carriers provide too little for the forward posture we desire, a force structure of eight super carriers can be a sort of forcing function for practicing strategic prioritization as well as patience.  Imagine a carrier in Japan and only one other carrier forward deployed.  First, policymakers will have to prioritize where to put the second ship.  This is not a bad thing, especially in the interwar period that the U.S. seems to be entering.   Second, if a crisis breaks out in another area of operations then the carrier can be moved, but as it moves the original mission can be altered by any number of events and then the direct application of naval power is no longer suitable, acceptable, or perhaps feasible (or all three). The immediate presence of a carrier does not guarantee the retrieval of the situation and indeed that carrier might make the situation worse.  Such was the case when carriers were misused in attacking Lebanon in the 1980s. Additionally, having the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in the Middle East in 1989 did not prevent the murder of Marine Colonel William Higgins, or the kidnapping of U.S. citizen Joseph Cicippio.

Let me be clear, I think it is a very bad idea to decommission perfectly serviceable ships, but I also think that picking numbers arbitrarily as some sort of doomsday point that cannot be crossed is at best overheated and at worst disingenuous. Decreasing the force to eight carriers is best done via a natural program of slowing production and attrition.  I recommend reprogramming shipyard jobs into building other types of ships, say as an initiative to rejuvenate the U.S. commercial shipbuilding industry. Or reprogram those jobs to improve port infrastructure (a program the President has proposed and which I back).

A final caveat is in order.   This entire debate often refers back to the battleship debate of the last century.  However, there is much misinformed history about battleships and their utility or obsolescence as applied to the current aircraft carrier debate.  First, the technology argument that T. X. Hammes makes is familiar and sounds similar to Billy Mitchell’s claim that battleships were obsolete after he sank a stationary one on a clear day in 1921—except they were not and most naval historians agree on that point. Secondly, even though it seems clear to us now that battleships were outdated after Pearl Harbor, they performed admirably in the Pacific executing non-traditional missions for the remainder of the war.  We continued to resurrect battleships for major conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm) until their final exit from the stage of history in the 1990s.

Thus, the battleship debate has some applicability to the aircraft carrier debate of today, particularly the claims about survivability, which seem reasonable but have little tangible evidence to support them.  However, can the U.S. afford to lose even one carrier in a day?  I don’t know—in 1941 it lost eight battleships in one day and managed to survive. So we must be cautious, we must remember that technology swings policy this way and that, as Hammes and others have noted, now in favor of the land over the ship, and then back again.  As Rubel and others have forecast, it seems the future of the aviation ship is as a sort of mobile airbase loaded with UCAS or drones, operating in a “disaggregated” fashion, “exercising command of the sea” instead of fighting to establish it as was done in times past.

Bottom line—ten or more carriers gives the illusion of three for a permanent presence, but it could actually cause misuse of the force, adventurism, and a false sense of security.   What do we get with eight?  With a forward presence construct we get one in the Pacific and one somewhere else.  We keep strategic appetites low, but still have the ability to surge.  With the Hendrix model (only one forward deployed), appetites remain even lower, but policymakers get more surge capability in the long run for a really serious crisis. Thus, the American tendency for “all or none” solutions must be resisted.

Ten carriers provide too few for the forward posture we desire but too many to develop good strategic habits in senior decision makers.   A recent “pundit” satirically captured the strategic problem that too many carriers informs:

Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided… strategy aligns ends, ways, and means, it’s difficult because it requires an ability to make disciplined choices.  Better to think about ‘keeping ‘all options open’ to react to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice.  Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results might result in personal accountability for leaders.

A forward posture using ten carriers might be keeping too many “options open” and at too high a price.


John T. Kuehn is currently the General William Stofft Professor of Military History at the US Army Command and General Staff College andhas served on the faculty their since July 2000, retiring as a commander in 2004.  He earned a Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University in 2007.   He is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, as well as numerous articles and editorials. 


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Benjamin K. Kittleson