The Enduring Relevance of the Aircraft Carrier
Predictions about the end of the aircraft carrier are a lot like those we hear about the decline of American power – they occur often, continue to be incorrect, and provide a great opportunity for spirited debate. A new discussion about the decline of the carrier fleet has ensued this winter as rumors made their way around Washington that the Pentagon and White House are negotiating a reduction of the nuclear-power aircraft carrier (CVN) fleet from 11 to 10. While the Pentagon now insists a decision on the USS George Washington’s future will be put off until next year, if it’s budget does not actually provide funding for a Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH) for the ship, then the decision to scrap the “GW” is already well on its way to being made. Given the ongoing debate about the future of our carrier force, I thought I would take the chance to offer my own thoughts on our nation’s carrier fleet and its enduring utility to U.S. foreign and defense policy (Rear Admiral Michael Manazir offers another excellent defense here). I want to thank Ryan Evans and War on the Rocks for the opportunity to write in this forum and I look forward to any responses this piece may generate.
I understand that some will dismiss me and my arguments right out of the gate. They will say I am from Virginia, where they don’t just build aircraft carriers, but also homeport several at Norfolk Naval Station, so of course I would line up to defend the carrier. Indeed, I was born and raised in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where our nation has constructed carriers and been proud to homeport them for the better part of the last eighty years. However, I am not a carrier supporter simply because I am a Virginian; I am a supporter of a robust, forward-deployed defense for the United States because I believe that is the only assured way to defend our homeland and our interests abroad. I believe aircraft carriers play an enduring role in providing this capability to our country. Just as I support the carrier because it can provide our Commander-in-Chief with truly global presence and reach, I am also a steadfast supporter of other forms of American power-projection, like our Air Force’s long-range strike and heavy-lift assets, as well as our Marine Corps’ amphibious capabilities.
Carrier skeptics submit a set of arguments focused on cost, utility, and the size of today’s fleet to bolster their case. I hear everything from CVNs are too expensive, to they are vulnerable and outdated, to suggestions that the Pentagon’s shrinking budget demands we make do with one, two, or even three fewer in our Navy’s current fleet. I build my argument for the carrier as our front-line power-projection tool by addressing the prevailing criticisms levied against it.
First, cost appears to be the most difficult question to respond to. A carrier costs billions of dollars to construct and billions more to operate. Building and maintaining a carrier fleet is no small decision for any nation to make, even one of the size and economic stature as the United States. Yet when you consider the contributions a carrier can have relative to this cost, I believe it is a national investment worth making. Indeed, both Republican and Democratic Presidents have continued to build, maintain, and call on carriers since the USS Langley became our country’s first dedicated aircraft carrier nearly a century ago. When it comes to calculating a return on investment, carriers give the United States 50 years of service. Think about that – that is a half-century of providing U.S. policymakers with unparalleled global reach. In an unpredictable and competitive international system, America’s 11-carrier fleet gives it the capacity to deploy two or three CVNs to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and keep them continuously forward and present where and when the President chooses, while still retaining surge capabilities to meet a crisis. This provides the nation with a visible symbol of diplomatic strength to project America’s intentions to both friends and competitors during, for example, missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, tensions in the Straits of Hormuz or South China Sea, or an election in Taiwan. The carrier’s mobility and striking power make it both an unrivaled means by which to demonstrate diplomatic resolve and a powerful tool of military coercion. No other country has been able to field such a powerful and ready carrier fleet, the end result of which has been the continued ability to manage a peaceful, prosperous international order.
Second, critics argue that the carrier has lost its utility because today’s modern threat environment has made it increasingly vulnerable. Even if a carrier can provide so much capability, the investment comes at too great a risk, according to this line of thinking. It is well known that the People’s Republic of China is developing the means to harness the power of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) to target naval assets at ranges up to 950 nm from its coasts. Analysts have called this development a “game changer” for U.S. defense policy in the Indo-Pacific region. Yes, this technological development has introduced new risks for the surface Navy. However, the offense-defense technological competition is no different today than in the past when Soviet submarines, mines, bombers, missiles, and nuclear weapons were labeled potential “carrier killers.” The right technological or doctrinal changes can once again help the carrier face down these new threats. In a similar example, the Air Force has not stopped investing in tactical fighters because China has a large, modern ballistic missile force that can hold their bases at risk across the Indo-Pacific. Instead, it is adjusting its posture and considering a mix of hardening, dispersal, and missile defenses to continue to operate its assets across the East Asian littoral, despite Chinese missile investments.
The true ability of the carrier to overcome the current challenges rests with its modularity. A carrier is really just an advanced floating airfield that can adapt what capabilities are on its deck to the emerging threat environment. This modularity was on display a year ago when I attended the inactivation ceremony for the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), a storied ship that served our nation for over 50 years. Thanks to the Enterprise’s ability to support new strike-fighter innovations, it remained a front-line power-projection tool for a half-century. Today the F/A-18 and F-35C, while offering their own unique set of capabilities, lack the combat range to allow a carrier to operate from outside China’s or Iran’s area-denial network. Our response shouldn’t be to abandon the carrier, but to preserve its utility by investing in new platforms for the Carrier Air Wing with greater range and strike power. An effective 21st century sea-based power projection capability requires a future carrier-based unmanned combat air system that is stealthy, capable of automated aerial refueling, and has integrated surveillance and strike functionality. This would transform today’s carrier fleet from a capability with short tactical reach to a global naval strike and reconnaissance platform. A new dawn in naval aviation stands to preserve the indispensability of the carrier well into this century.
The final argument weighed against the carrier is about the size of our current fleet. I may have convinced you up to this point that we need the carrier and a new unmanned platform to extend its power-projection range, but just why are 11 carriers essential? To begin, there is enduring bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. Last year the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to maintain a statutory requirement to retain 11 operational aircraft carriers by a vote of 318 to 106. More technically, the size of the Navy’s carrier fleet is determined by a complex relationship between requirements (both peacetime presence and war plan fulfillment), maintenance cycles, resources, and how we choose to employ it. Rotational naval forces have for decades maintained traditional six-month deployments. Today, the minimum deployment length is seven months, and 9-10 month deployments have become routine. According to Admiral Gortney, Commander of Fleet Forces Command, “Just a single ship really matters in our ability…to generate the forward presence that we need.” If the carrier fleet were reduced to 10 “we will go back to nine and 10 months deployments.” A smaller fleet will only lengthen deployments, increasing maintenance demands and placing a greater burden on our sailors. A global power committed to maintaining its interests throughout the international maritime domain and intent on using the seas as a maneuver space for projecting power ashore when necessary requires no less than 11 carriers.
For a nation dedicated to sustaining its international maritime posture, an enduring investment in American Seapower is the best insurance policy. With its mobility, modular striking power, and unique ability to telegraph diplomatic intentions, the carrier remains the true “capital ship” of the U.S. Navy and the most valuable chess piece in the Commander-in-Chief’s tool box. Working to sustain the 11 carrier fleet, including investing in a next-generation Carrier Air Wing, should be the primary task of defense planners in the years ahead.
Rep. Forbes is Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. He is currently co-leading a bipartisan Asia-Pacific Security Series for the House Armed Services Committee.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Brooks