Carrier Calculus: How Many Do We Need?

August 20, 2013

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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

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15 thoughts on “Carrier Calculus: How Many Do We Need?

  1. Would such a move to drastically cut the Navy embolden China to further press their strategy of seizing our allies’ territory and further confront US interests around the world? Does this proposal also convey our country’s fatigue to our enemies? This proposal does convey weakness in every respect. This is exactly the worst time to convey weakness. Obama should cut his own security by a third before he cuts the nation’s security. Fat chance huh? If the war is over shouldn’t his security go back to pre-9/11? This is bankrupt leadership that history will judge harshly.

    1. –Drastic? Drastic is decreasing to 4, or 2, and without commensurate capability increases elsewhere. If this is drastic what does one call decreasing from 12 to 10 in the last 5 years? I will close with a favorite quotation of mine from Admiral William Moffett during the London Naval Conference of 1930:
      ” Aircraft will settle next war [sic]. Don’t care how many surface vessels we build. The more the other nations build, the less money they will have for aircraft. Friday Mar [sic] 21st proposed to Captain VanKeuren he get up a design for a 6-inch gun cruiser that would have a landing deck for aircraft.
      Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Jr., March 24, 1930 at the London Naval Conference

      My point, what will “settle the next war” over mineral rights and navigation in a place like the straight of Hormuz, the Barents or Bering Seas, or the Persian Gulf? Probably not an aircraft carrier.

      vr, john

  2. There are two confused topics here, and no clear way to measure either. To measure sequestration, one must look for rust on the Admiral’s car. Sequestration should continue until corrosion is wide spread and apparent.

    To evaluate the number, and role of carriers, we should consider the slow jeep carriers of WWII. They were to planes what troop transports were to invasion armies. Until the Battle of Leyte Gulf when they took on the heavy warships of Japan, in an terrifying role. And won.

    There may be two types of future war:thermonuclear or conventional. In the latter, America may need to spot lots of troops on a floating city at sea, for long durations, in areas we are unwelcomed on land. We may want to rent Carnival Cruise Lines. Or buy.

  3. Let me get this straight. The author argues that we should reduce the carrier force structure to deny our political/military leaders strategic options in a crisis to prevent “adventurism”? I have never heard of such a leftist pinko idea in my life!
    The types of ships and planes that we build now take decades to design and build, not months or years as in World War II when US shipyards turned out 15 Essex Class carriers in three years. We no longer have the ability or luxury to wait until the war starts to equip our military forces in such a short period of time.
    We need to decide how many of each ship type we will need to fight the potential enemies we have and maintain our force structure at that level. Even if we built and mothballed enough ships, it takes months or years to bring a ship out of the mothball fleet, recommission it at a combat-ready level.
    We need to provide our military with the tools to win the war they may have to fight, not so tie their hands that we risk losing it from lack of preparation.
    There are some things that just take so much time to build that we need to plan ahead for their need and hope they grow obsolete before they are ever used. Failing to build them because we hope they are never used is asking for trouble.
    It was this kind of thinking that caused the Falklands War in 1982. Great Britain had gone about reducing its military capabilities (especially naval aviation capabilities) for so long that Argentina thought it could get away with invading because the British wouldn’t be able to respond adequately so far away from its own shores. They were wrong, but barely. Admiral Sandy Woodard has said this repeatedly. He even recently stated that if Argentina did the same thing today he doubted Great Britain’s navy could respond the same way it did in 1982. Talk about an open invitation to war by being weak.

  4. “Nuclear-powered ship-airfields have the additional advantage of speed and logistical independence, as they require no fuel to move or water for habitability.”

    Though the carrier itself has a long logistical leash, the escorts have the same constant requirements for oil and water. So the number of log ships may be halved, but it seems to this non-sailor, that they need to replenish just as often.

    Any discussion of the number of ‘super carriers’ without talking about the role and number of small deck carriers seems short sighted, btw…

    1. Drill Sgt. True enough re: the escorts. however, and the info is anecdotal (but verfiable), in 1998 CVN-74 (Stennis) moved from NOrfolk to the Persian Gulf without escorts in two weeks. That is operational mobility, strategic mobility even…but the threat in the Gulf was regarded as low, at least as regards carriers. Too, Stennis could use the escorts for the Battle Group and navy ships already onstation. (this was before Deset Fox). My next cruise aboard CVN-74 saw several of our escorts with major casualties and again because we assessed the threat was low, we conducted flight ops in the Gulf using only our organic helicopters as plane guards, a function usually performed by the “shotgun” AEGIS ship.
      John T. Kuehn
      combat direction center officer
      USS John C. Stennis, 1998-2000.

  5. It is time to rethink the two-stage delivery systems. The aircraft carrier is superb at this in blue water operations and peacetime/limited conflict presence. What is the next “capital ship” of the future needs to project and overwhelm appropriate threats. Super LHDs/LHAs with multiple SPEC OPS units/F-35bs ready to launch? Possibly, but don’t forget all dimensions of warfare from undersea to C4ISR/Information Dominance in the setting. Also S&T breakthroughs might change the strategic balance. Lasers ?


    1. Exactly… what’s the mix for the future? Littoral multi-purpose ships plus special ops subs plus cruise missile launchers of all sorts plus drone carriers plus super carriers?? How many of each? And, of course, beware of leaning into “cheap” all-purpose solutions…

      1. Tim, you ask the right question. mix for the future? That is why I directed people to writing by Barney Rubel and Jerry Hendrix. The original article had citations, which for some people makes tracking down the other ideas a bit easier. r, John T Kuehn

  6. Aren’t we really talking about manned vs. unmanned aircraft here? When aircraft carriers succeeded battleships as “power projectors” they did so largely because the range of their weapons was much greater — 16″ guns vs. Dauntless dive bombers. In the Falklands, the Brits had to make do with Harriers and jumpjet carriers (and container ships!) because they’d scrapped their big carriers — and their refueling and AWACS capabilities. It was power projection on the cheap.
    But how many unmanned drones — recon and attack — or cruise missiles can fly off the modern equivalent of a jeep carrier?
    Aren’t we missing the fact that a new sea change (sorry) in power projection is taking place?
    Perhaps it’s not really the budget dollars that count, but a change in Navy strategy.
    Don’t these new technologies offer the sort of REAL flexibility that Professor Kuehn is talking about?

  7. I strongly disagree. Reducing force levels, and thereby flexibility, to control political decision making… Fits in very well with the “speak softly and carry no stick” crowd.

  8. As Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond wrote in 1932, ‘The objective dominates everything.’ Arguing numbers in the absence of strategy is merely accounting.

  9. The US needs to work more with its allies in naval strategy. I.e. Great to see that a us marine f35b squadron will be operating from the new Uk queen Elizabeth class carriers.

  10. How about we pull all our internationally land based aircraft, navy, and troops home (Germany, Japan, etc.). Take the money saved and keep twelve carriers running to protect SLOC (Oh Britannia!). The benefit is it is much tougher for the terrorist to attack a carrier then an air base. Germany and Japan can protect themselves. Six of the carriers could be drone only. KISS.