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Abraham-Lincoln-battlegroup.jpg
The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group during 20 June 2000 RIMPAC exercises.

Sequestration and the U.S. Navy's fleet: What if we reduce the fleet size in general and the number of aircraft carriers in particular?

Speaking in September before a think tank in Washington DC, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert answered a raft of questions about the cost and duration of the Navy’s participation in the seemingly certain U.S. attack on Syria. 

While the CNO’s answers to these near-term operational questions were widely reported upon, little was said on what Admiral Greenert had to say – really for the first time -- about the potential longer-term future of the U.S. Navy fleet.  

Noting that the Navy has longed “manned its equipment” rather than the other way around as do the other Services, Admiral Greenert stressed repeatedly the imperative that the Navy field only the force structure that it can afford to adequately “organize, train, and equip.”  The Department of Defense has done otherwise in the past, he warns, and the consequences of that hollowing-out – poorly trained sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines operating inadequate equipment -- are must be avoided this time.

While the Navy fleet now stands at 285 ships – including eleven aircraft carriers that the CNO underscores “is the requirement” and “the number that he would like to have” – he noted that fiscal realities, not operational demands or international threats, are driving Navy Department “alternative POM” planning towards consideration of a significantly smaller fleet. 

As outlined by Secretary of Defense Hagel in last month’s unveiling of the Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR), the Navy – rather than having the 291 ships planned in 2020, is contemplating options for a greater than 12% reduction in fleet size to 250 ships and a prospective 20-30% reduction in the aircraft carrier fleet to nine or even eight carriers -- should federal budget sequestration cuts persist.  The CNO feels that reductions of this magnitude are required to ensure that the remaining ships in the fleet are adequately manned and maintained under the likely available budget.

As generally only 1-in-3 ships are deployed forward at any given time given home-port and maintenance lay-up, the result of such a cut to the 2020 fleet would be a deployed U.S. Navy fleet of considerably less than 100 ships and three (at most) aircraft carrier strike groups.

It is important to note that the CNO did not cite concerns over the efficacy or vulnerability of carriers in outlining the imperative for reducing their number in the current budget drills.  Indeed, he observed that “aircraft carriers remain a key and critical element” and noted that they are essential to waging the “asymmetric” battle, as only they can carry the future air wings, and their advanced unmanned ISR and strike assets to the fight. 

Implications

When asked to defend the need for the U.S. to maintain a robust Navy, the CNO asserted that “the life-blood of this world economy is flowing in the maritime crossroads of the world” and that it is the role the Navy to assure safe passage through these crossroads. 

The immediate question – with very difficult decisions with long-term consequences at hand -- is whether such an atrophied U.S. Navy fleet will be adequate to secure the maritime commons and advance America’s interests in an increasingly contentious international environment. 

As Seth Cropsey, who served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy during both the Reagan and Bush Administrations recently noted, a reduction of three aircraft carriers would mean that the U.S.’s current ability to keep about three aircraft carrier battle groups deployed around the world would drop to about two.  This would mean a single carrier strike group for the entire Western Pacific and a single carrier strike group for the Persian Gulf.  An unexpected event, such as a serious crisis in the increasingly unstable Mediterranean where we have no carriers today or a conflict in the West Pacific that required more than a single carrier would strain the diminished Navy beyond its ability effectively to respond.

Standing down aircraft carrier-based aviation assets, while seemingly an attractive near-term cost-saving move in austere time, will have long-term consequences. 

First and foremost, the U.S. will lose the ability, uniquely provided by aircraft carriers, to respond to crises and project power globally without a “boot on the ground” that has been the hallmark of the Navy – and indeed the U.S. military -- for decades.  And the U.S., the sole remaining superpower and, arguably the only responsible adult in the room, will lose this stabilizing touch at precisely the time – high instability in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Turkey while the U.S. is executing a “pivot” towards the Pacific -- when it is needed the most.

Second, and not unimportant, is the argument that nuclear-powered assets, once idle, cannot be readily reconstituted when needed.  A decision to stand-down one or more aircraft carriers would not be "reversible" in the way that standing-down other assets might be.