How Congress and the Pentagon Joined Forces to Worsen the Navy’s Carrier Gap


Earlier this month, the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (CSG) returned to Norfolk from an eight-month deployment, a cruise extended a month to meet strike requirements in Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As “extended” tours become the norm across the fleet, it is yet another reminder that aircraft carrier demand continues to outmatch supply. The question is whether this latest warning will be enough to change plans and redirect investments.

Washington is rightfully worried about carrier coverage around the globe as hot spots grow hotter. Yet politicians are not working creatively enough to get additional aircraft carriers into the fleet faster, even though it would help alleviate these “presence gaps” and influence events more favorably for the United States. Case in point: As we explain in detail below, Congress and Pentagon civilian leadership joined forces to change the way the Navy tests and fields its carriers in a manner deleterious to the Navy and America’s presence in key hot spots.

There is a reasonable debate to be had here, and it all hinges on risk: How much risk should policymakers accept, and when? While the impulse to do as much testing as possible on a new class of ships is noble, it is impractical and not the standard applied to other types of vessels. The question at hand is not a dismissal of testing, merely a deferral.

Congress and Pentagon leaders should agree with the Navy and get CVN-78 Ford into the fleet in 2019. While this solution carries some risk in pushing back full-ship shock trials to a later date, it also solves an immediate and growing problem of too few carriers for too many missions.

For Want of Carriers

Three years ago, in response to the budgetary meat-axe of sequestration, Rear Admiral Thomas Moore, then running the Navy’s carrier acquisition program, aptly said that the United States is an “11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world.”

If only.

America has been a single-digit carrier nation for years now ever since Congress again waived the legal requirements for a minimum fleet size back in fiscal year 2007 with the decommissioning of the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). Back then, it was a waiver to drop from 12 to 11 carriers. Congress let the Navy fall further yet again from 11 to 10 in fiscal year 2010 in anticipation of the decommissioning of USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 2012.

Today, America’s carrier fleet technically totals 10, but there is always one tied up in refueling or complex overhaul so as to effectively eliminate it from service and realistic ship counting. Plus, the “minimum” of 10 aircraft carriers is only the latest requirement written to match a falling budget target after it was clear the money was not available to meet the floor. Worse yet, the forthcoming Navy Force Structure Assessment — the first conducted after the recent deterioration in the threat environment — will likely increase the required carrier fleet size.

The Logical End of “Doing More With Less”

When Congress waived the legal requirement for U.S. Navy to operate 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, it did not anticipate that a decade would pass before the Navy would again be able to meet that target.

In the interim, the Navy scrambled to cobble together a strategy to maximize carrier presence by pushing ships and sailors to the breaking point. As a result of these oft-intended one-time measures, the absence of American aircraft carriers in key geopolitical hotspots has been kept to a minimum. However, gaps do exist, such as the late 2015 carrier gap in the Persian Gulf that left no naval airpower to strike Islamic State targets. The potential 2016 carrier gap in the Middle East was avoided only by extending the Truman strike group deployment and disrupting thousands of sailors, marines, and their families. Additionally, there have been more frequent gaps in the Western Pacific.

To avoid breaking its sailors and ships with constant deployments of eight to ten months, Navy leaders in 2014 promulgated the new Optimized-Fleet Response Plan (O-FRP) to keep all carrier deployments at seven months, accepting the risk inherent in carrier presence gaps until another ship comes online. Ostensibly, the Truman’s sailors should be the last victims of a tour length over seven months — if the Navy adheres to its plan over the next three to four years — since the newest carrier, the Ford, is supposedly set to deploy in 2019.

But there are two reasons to doubt the Truman is the last to see deployments elongated. First, though the Ford’s construction schedule remains roughly unchanged, several component tests remain to be finished. While Ford will likely be commissioned late this year or early in 2017, it will not be ready for fleet operations until 2019 at the earliest. Second, the choice to conduct shock trials on Ford, detailed below, could push back its first deployment to 2021, thereby extending the duration of the carrier gap and associated presence deficit. Additionally, a delay in Ford’s first deployment means it will take the Navy longer to meet its combatant commander requirement of fielding three Carrier Strike Groups ready to surge within one month, leaving conventional deterrence weaker during a period of relatively global instability.

The continuation of constrained defense funding leaves the Navy with worse-than-expected maintenance problems, as well. Yet the external threat environment shows no signs of improving in the near term, meaning that carrier presence demands will only remain constant at best or, more likely, continue to grow. And CVN-79 Kennedy will not deploy until 2027.

Put another way, the next president may contend with the current carrier shortage throughout the entirety of his or her first term absent a change of heart and plans by policymakers.

Mandating Shock Trials on First-of-Class Ships Breaks with Precedence

Last year, Navy leaders quietly relented to pressure from Congress and the Pentagon bureaucracy over whether to conduct full-ship shock trials on CVN-78 Ford. Shock testing is a rigorous endeavor in which ships are subjected to nearby live explosions to test the structural integrity of the ship’s hull and the resiliency of critical systems.

The Navy argued proven precedence to get the carrier to sea quickly and modify it as needed after shock trials on CVN-79 in the early 2020s. A public debate over America’s premier power projection platform never really occurred, and opponents of the Navy dominated what little debate did occur by caricaturing the Navy’s position as: “It’s a $12.8 billion ship. Why wouldn’t we conduct shock trials on it?! You’re putting sailors at risk!”

Late last year, Congress ordered the Navy to conduct shock trials on Ford in its 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and appropriators followed suit with adequate funding to carry out the tests. The 2016 defense bill also provided the secretary of defense with the authority to waive this requirement in the interest of national security, but Secretary Carter has chosen not to do so.

What happened to prompt Congress to take this step? In August 2015, Pentagon Director for Operational Testing and Evaluation Michael Gilmore won a quiet bureaucratic victory inside the Pentagon to force the Navy to conduct shock trials on the Ford. Gilmore convinced Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work to support his decision against the Navy’s wishes by arguing that the shock trials would help to understand the ship’s survivability and would only delay the ship’s deployment by three months — if all went perfectly.

In a perfect world, conducting shock trials on the new carrier class as soon as possible would be preferable — but the U.S. military has never had the luxury of living in a utopia. Partly as a result of this reality, as Craig Hooper writes, first-of-class shock trials are the exception rather than the rule in modern shipbuilding. For instance, full-ship shock testing was not completed until 1987 on the fourth Nimitz-class carrier (CVN-71), despite the fact that the first-of-class carrier had commissioned in 1975. Plus, CVNs 68, 69, and 70 were operating in a uniquely high-threat environment — this was the era of Red Storm Rising, with its frenzied U.S.-Soviet competition around carrier battle groups.

For Burke-class destroyers and San Antonio-class amphibs, the third ship of each class conducted shock trials. Ditto for the Littoral Combat Ship program, which just conducted shock trials on its sixth hull. Further, Ford’s hull will be quite similar to that of her well-tested predecessors, and her internal systems will have been independently shock-tested already — making this a lower-risk choice should policymakers proceed with fleet introduction first and shock trials second.

The Navy’s Least Worst Choice — It’s About Risk

Despite the silence from Navy headquarters following the decision to force earlier-than-expected shock trials on the Ford-class, this setback is significant. In everyday terms, it is the equivalent of giving additional weekend shifts to a single mother with two jobs and three children. True, the Navy has not recently asked for more carriers in its budget requests. Despite the Navy’s sway in Congress, a consensus to pursue investment in more carriers has not existed ever since the Navy’s carriers were offered up on the chopping block in 1991, when the fleet shrunk from 14 carriers to 12. Yet Rear Admiral Moore’s 15-carrier requirement was recently confirmed in a Hudson Institute study by Bryan McGrath, Seth Cropsey, and Tim Walton that called for 16 carriers. This different type of Moore’s Law regarding carrier capacity derives from enduring American interests.

True enough, schedule slips on certain components of the Ford have occurred as a result of poor Navy acquisition management. Yet the carrier fleet as whole has been led remarkably well. There have been no major maintenance accidents, no nuclear reactor problems, and no derelict captains running ships aground. If the carrier shortage is not a problem entirely of the Navy’s creation, then the blame largely rests with Congress and successive administrations. And instead of relief or even a basic understanding and sympathy, the Navy is instead penalized by early-to-need shock trials not performed on other first-of-class ships.

The desire to delay shock testing should telegraph just how worried the Navy is about continuously trying to meet current demands with only 10 (okay, 9) carriers. While the perception in the press and politicians’ minds is that the Navy is acting like a small child who wants his toy now, the simplistic characterization is unfair. Less commented upon is the very real balancing of risk that the Navy had to conduct. The service decided it would rather accept the risk of operating a carrier that hasn’t been through shock trials rather than continue to operate under a carrier shortage for up to two more years.

Navy leaders asked and answered an explicit risk calculation. Now, Congress must answer whether or not nine aircraft carriers spread thin between the global areas of responsibility of five different regional combatant commanders is truly an acceptable level of risk.

To weigh the inherent risks, it is useful to consider the likelihood of events in each case.

Scenario One: Suppose the Navy prevails. CVN-78 enters the fleet in 2019 conducting normal operations and alleviates pressure on the current carrier fleet. Or, CVN-78 enters the fleet in 2019 without shock testing and ends up in a combat situation in which it is attacked; the lack of shock trials leaves the ship’s crew unprepared for damage control.

Scenario Two: Now suppose Congress wins and the Navy conducts shock trials on CVN-78, potentially causing it to join the fleet in 2021. On one hand, the Navy will know a great deal more about the vulnerabilities of the ship and how it holds up to direct missile or mine detonations. On the other, the delay could cause problems. Two more years of a nine-carrier Navy could force the current carrier fleet beyond its limits. Components might break or reactors might act up. Strike groups could be forced to return home early, and carrier gaps would become common and long-lasting from 2018 to 2021. Sailors could quit, unconvinced that their political leadership takes their service seriously.

The risk inherent in increasingly frequent carrier presence gaps is difficult to measure but quite real. The utility of the Carrier Strike Group to American presidents is well-documented, from conducting deterrent patrols in the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis to immediately available combat power against the Islamic State and signaling missions in the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea. Continued investment by partners (France, Britain, India) and adversaries (China, Russia) also speaks to the carrier’s value in signaling, reassurance, deterrence, and warfighting.

Many members of Congress and Pentagon bureaucrats will be out of office by the time the possible consequences of their decision to delay Ford’s fleet entry, but key Navy admirals will be left to answer for problems previous Navy leaders fought hard to avoid.

Moving Forward

The question for policymakers remains whether they want to accept risk in exacerbating carrier presence gaps around a planet in turmoil to 2021, or accept (arguably less) risk in getting the Ford into the fleet in 2019 and allowing shock trials and modifications later?

While a larger carrier fleet is the right answer to address near and long-term problems of risk and demand, it would be exceedingly difficult to expand carrier presence by 2021 or even 2030 absent strong presidential and congressional leadership. To do so would require an investment not only in the carrier fleet (~$12 billion per ship), but also in expanding the current U.S. shipbuilding industrial base.

Until that opportunity arises of robust political leadership and greater resources, policymakers need alternative solutions to address the yawning carrier gap, worsening readiness problems, declining morale, and growing maintenance backlogs. While the Navy’s new O-FRP deployment plan exemplifies the ingenuity of military leadership, it too is fragile. If conflict breaks out elsewhere, if an accident occurs, or if Congress “accidentally” delays CVN-78 further over its myriad concerns about the ship, O-FRP will simply not be enough to compensate.

Maintaining an adequate number of aircraft carriers now requires foresight and tolerance of risk built upon congressional courage and presidential leadership. There is a workable solution at hand to put Ford into the fleet in 2019 and shift shock trials to the second ship in class. To avoid saddling the next administration with an inadequate number of available carriers, the secretary of the Navy and secretary of defense should request waiver authority to skip shock trials on the Ford and put the ball back in Congress’ court. This model of deferred shock trials has worked in the past, and the risks of overusing an undersized carrier fleet loom large over the next five years.


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. Rick Berger is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: U.S. Navy