One of the key elements underpinning the United States as a global power is its power-projection capability. That capability is centered on the Navy’s ability to deploy and maintain maritime superiority at point of entry wherever required. Central to that capability is the Navy’s potent war-fighting capability, represented by its carrier strike groups. In any crisis situation, the first question from the White House is: Where are the carriers? However, the Navy now has only nine aircraft carriers available for deployment or power-projection missions. As described in The Washington Times last week, with the decommissioning of the Navy’s first nuclear carrier, the USS Enterprise, after 45 years of service, plus the planned four-year overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the Navy’s power projection is limited. To meet its current assigned missions, carrier deployment time must be extended from six to nine months.
Extending the deployment time by 50 percent places a tremendous strain on our ships, on the carrier air wing and, most of all, on our personnel. In an all-volunteer force, this can be a key factor. Required planned maintenance is being deferred, which eventually will affect the Navy’s overall readiness. About 50 ships currently have deferred major overhauls. The Navy has shrunk to about 287 ships. To put that number into perspective, that is about the number of ships I had under my command of the Pacific Fleet.
With these reduced numbers, it is understandable why the Navy is having difficulty meeting the Obama administration’s requirement to maintain a two carrier strike group presence in the Middle East. To maintain a forward-deployed ship, the Navy basically works on a 3-1 ratio. For every ship deployed, one is in overhaul or scheduled maintenance, and one is in training and work-up, getting ready for deployment.
The fundamental problem is that the numerous missions with which the Navy has been tasked require a force of about 350 ships, a point made eloquently by Seth Cropsey, a deputy undersecretary of the Navy under President Reagan. However, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said the Navy plans to increase its number of ships only to 292 by 2020. This number is understandable. Facing severe budget cuts, the Navy can support only an anemic shipbuilding program, which makes it questionable whether it could reach the force of 292 ships, let alone the 350 ships required.
Regretfully, we have fallen into the same trap as we did under the Carter administration, keeping two carrier strike groups boring holes in the North Arabian Sea in order to be ready to respond to any Iranian provocation. I agree with Adm. Greenert that the Navy needs relief from the requirement to keep two carrier strike groups in the Middle East. There are operational alternatives that still would meet required objectives.
First of all, I see no reason why the carrier air wing must be available for close air support missions in Afghanistan. This is a role that the U.S. Air Force should be able to assume with a modified deployment cycle using its Air Expeditionary Force along with the U.S. Marine Corps air wings. Also, it should not be overlooked that we have a coalition naval force in the Middle East. In addition to our two carrier strike groups, France and the United Kingdom are on occasion maintaining carrier and naval force presence as part of a larger Combined Maritime Force coalition in theater. While not as capable as our super carriers, they certainly provide a degree of flexibility.
As a matter of principle, potential enemies always should be kept off-balance. Forces need to remain unpredictable. This is particularly true for carrier strike groups. We do not accomplish that by keeping two carrier strike groups on what appears to be a static geographic location. This is because our potential enemies — in this case, Iran — and our regional allies get used to seeing them steam around in circles. When this happens, we lose the impact of having a carrier present with its deterrent effects and instead become part of the background.
To keep pressure on and raise the level of deterrence, movement of naval forces, particularly carrier strike groups, must remain unpredictable. In a deteriorating crisis situation, our Navy gains maximum impact by moving the carrier strike group into the crisis area. That sends a special signal of our intent to respond to our potential enemies and to our allies as well. Such a signal has a telling effect on our regional allies and encourages them to employ their air force and naval assets in a coordinated manner, which certainly should raise the deterrent equation.
Adm. Greenert is right. The Navy should be provided relief now on the two-carrier commitment to the Middle East. Further, flexibility of operations on deployed carrier strike groups should be instituted now so that their deployments can remain as unpredictable as possible, thereby remaining potent forces for deterrence or power-projection capability, ready to respond to a crisis situation when called upon.
Navy Adm. James A. Lyons Jr., now retired, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.