Monday, May 21, 2012

Carrier Numbers - Where's the Revolt of the Admirals?

How many carriers does the United States have? Seems like a simple enough question. Currently, we have 10 active carriers plus one (10+1) in long term refuel and overhaul (RF/COH). So, we have 10 active, available carriers. Since one carrier is always in RF/COH, the active carrier force is always one less than the total in commission. What does the near future hold for carrier numbers?

USS Enterprise - Gone in 2012
When Enterprise decommissions at the end of this year, the U.S. will have only 9 active carriers until the Ford is commissioned in 2015-16 (optimistically, given the number of new, unproven technologies and resulting potential for delays as seen in the LCS program) . Roosevelt will finish RF/COH in early 2013 and Lincoln will begin hers so they'll essentially swap places which has no impact on the overall numbers. Given that various national security analyses have determined that 12-15 is the ideal number, depending on which study you want to believe, a drop to 9 is pretty significant.

As an aside, the Navy had to obtain a Congressional waiver to drop to this level since the U.S. carrier level is mandated by law, 5062(b) of Title 10, United States Code.

There is another aspect to this issue and that is the number of Carrier Air Wings. A carrier without an available Air Wing is useless. As of May 2012 the Navy has 10 Air Wings. The Navy had planned to deactivate Carrier Air Wing 14 which would have dropped the number of Air Wings to 9. However, CNO Greenert has temporarily halted that action due to Congressional pressure as reported by Navy Times, 28-Mar-12. The deactivation will occur around Mar 2013 if a new plan is not formulated in the meantime.  And, of course, the quality of the Air Wing is an issue but that has already been covered

Also, consider what will happen when Enterprise retires at the end of this year. We will be down to 9 active carriers and 10 Air Wings. That's certainly not going to be allowed in this time of budget cuts. At least one An Air Wing, if not two, will be deactivated, dropping the count to 8 or 9.

What about the longer term? Well, assuming that no carriers are early retired, the force will be back to its current level around 2016. However, given the budget problems and national debt it is quite likely that one or more carriers will be early retired. For instance, the Washington, which is due for RF/COH after Lincoln, is a likely candidate. In fact, rumors have been posted on various blogs suggesting that early carrier retirements are coming though no details or sources have been provided.

USS Roosevelt Undergoing RF/COH
Also, consider the impact of construction schedules on carrier numbers. With a nominal 50 year lifespan per carrier, a new carrier must join the fleet every 4.5 years in order to maintain a force of (10+1) carriers. Current construction schedules have been stretched beyond that point and are going to be stretched even further. Here are the delivery (commissioning) dates of the last several carriers.

Stennis 1995
Truman 1998   interval = 3 yrs
Reagan 2003   interval = 5 yrs
Bush     2009   interval = 6 yrs
Ford      2015?  interval = 6 yrs?

The Navy has gone to a five year construction schedule with talk of seven years. What does this do to future carrier force numbers? Again, using a nominal 50 year life, a 5 year schedule equates to a force of 10 carriers while a 6 year schedule equals 8 carriers and a 7 year schedule yields a force of 7 carriers.

It's quite likely that the long term carrier force is going to be 9 (8+1) in the moderately near future and 8 (7+1) beyond that.

What's the point of all this discussion? Well, if you believe the studies that defined a requirement of 12-15, we are well below that requirement and are going to drop even further. A drop to 8-9 carriers from a requirement of 12-15 is enormous. Either the studies are outdated and need to be revised or the carrier force is in the midst of a crisis. Personally, with the likelihood of conflict with China, I'd be more comfortable with a force closer to 15.

Is there, then, a crisis? I believe so. But if so, where is the crisis mentality from Navy leadership? Where are protests and outcries from Navy Flag ranks? Where is the modern Revolt of the Admirals? Why aren't Admirals resigning in protest over this threat to national security?

So what is the official Navy view? Well, voluntarily dropping the force to 9 for the next few to several years and stretching out new construction to a 5-7 year cycle says that the Navy is comfortable with a force of around 8-9 carriers. Navy leadership seems unconcerned. This, and the comments from SecNav and CNO, lead me to believe that the Navy has no coherent strategy, has not realistically wargamed a conflict with China, and is playing fast and loose with national security.

It is possible to make a valid and logical argument against the carrier and many people have done so. It is possible, I suppose, that Navy leadership has internally decided that carriers, while useful for the foreseeable future, are not the answer in a war with China and are pursuing other routes. If so, they're not talking about it and I can't see an alternate route reflected in the procurement programs.

For the time being, I believe carriers are vital to our national security, there is a crisis of numbers in the carrier force, and Navy leadership is abdicating its responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there

    Just stumbled upon your blog from a comment on ID, am very impressed, always great to see such coherent writing.

    Have you on my feedlist now

    I know you are US centric but many of the issues tend to have a crossover with the UK for example.

    We are just discussing the UK Type 26 over at Think Defence if you fancy popping over, always looking for guest authors as well if you ever get the urge to comment on UK naval issues from your US viewpoint.

    I expect we will disagree on many things but that's good.

    Anyway, thanks for a good read