On the surface, the Navy’s cherished fleet of 11 active aircraft carriers seems safe from President Obama’s budget slashers.
Conventional wisdom says the requirement to cut $488 billion from the Pentagon within 10 years will not necessitate banishing a single carrier because the president’s military strategy focuses on two carrier-dependent regions: Asia, where China is building a robust navy, and the Persian Gulf, where Iran threatens to block international oil shipping.
As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta prepares to introduce the strategy’s first budget next month, the Navy has been in a furious fight behind the scenes to protect only 10 carriers, sources familiar with the issue told The Washington Times.
The sources say that, while the fiscal 2013 budget may well continue 11 carriers, the Navy will be down to 10 or even nine carriers within in the next five years.
A carrier typically transports about 80 aircraft and leads a battle group comprising 7,500 sailors, a guided-missile cruiser, two guided-missile destroyers, an attack submarine and a supply ship. Eliminating one carrier battle group would save billions of dollars.
In addition, the Navy complements its carriers with amphibious-ready groups of warships, helicopters, fighter jets and Marines for sea-land operations. Some of those groups also might be scrapped.
A scenario discussed inside the Navy: Reduce the carrier fleet by retiring the flattops short of their 50-year life spans, and continue to build more advanced carriers at the Newport News, Va., shipyard at seven-year intervals instead of launching one every five years.
Reducing one carrier would set off a fight in Congress, which under law has required the Navy to maintain 11 active flattops. A source familiar with the discussions said the Obama administration would not want to take up that fight until after November’s presidential election, given the importance of Virginia and its 13 electoral votes.
In general, the Navy has three carriers at sea, three returning from six-month deployments, three preparing to be deployed and two in some type of overhaul. For example, the USS Ronald Reagan, commissioned less than 10 years ago, is going into dry dock this month for a year of extensive repairs.
Under Mr. Panetta, the Pentagon has clamped down on the release of any details about the budget — following the model of predecessor Robert M. Gates, who forced senior officials to sign nondisclosure forms.
But sources say a $488 billion in mandated savings will come from two principal sources: cutting the Army and Marine Corps ground forces by more than 100,000 troops combined and reducing the purchase and delaying the procurement of big weapons systems, such as the F-35 fighter.
Cutting back to 10 carriers would save the Pentagon additional billions of dollars. A carrier’s payroll for a crew of officers and sailors, not counting its air wing, is about $225 million annually.
“I think the United States will continue to operate at least 10 carriers over the next five years,” said Loren Thompson, who heads the Lexington Institute defense think tank. “But over the long run, it’s likely the cost and operating concept will gradually shift the Navy away from carriers.”
In fact, the Navy will soon undergo a 10-carrier trial. When the USS Enterprise is retired in November, 10 carriers will be active until the USS Gerald R. Ford becomes operational in 2015. Congress granted the Navy a waiver for the 33-month breach of the law.
“They’re going down to 10 for programming reasons,” Mr. Thompson said. “It is supposed to be temporary, but I think during the period the Enterprise is gone and the Ford class has not arrived, the Navy may grow accustomed to operating with only 10 carriers.”
Mr. Thompson said carriers face three basic challenges.
“First of all, they have become extremely expensive to build and operate,” he said. “Secondly, some countries, such as China, are developing the capacity to target and disable them from long distances.
“And, thirdly, the advent of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and unmanned aircraft will make it easier to accomplish air missions from other sea-based platforms.”
Mr. Obama’s strategy echoes that of his first defense chief, Mr. Gates. At the U.S. Military Academy in February, Mr. Gates said: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Indeed, the strategy announced this month downplays the chances of a big land war, saying that active forces will be shaped to fight a limited ground conflict of a short duration.
The Gates imprint may well show itself when it comes to carriers.
“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Mr. Gates asked during a 2010 speech to the Navy League, a naval support association.
“In my view, Gates was right the first time,” said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a military reform group. “We have too many for show-the-flag exercises and strikes against incompetents like Iraq.
“If ever we encounter a competent military with an air force, a navy with ultrasilent diesel electric submarines — and both with superfast, superlow anti-ship missiles — I suspect carriers will quickly be extinct if they go into unsafe waters. At $13 billion-plus each, more are an unwise investment for the future.”
Advocates of aircraft carriers note that the White House often asks in crisis, “Where are the carriers?”
“China is going great guns to develop a maritime superiority,” said Jon Ault, a retired Navy pilot who served on eight carrier deployments. “Imagine 20, 30, 40 years from now, when the U.S. is down to its last two or three battle groups. A fatigued 40-, 50-year-old carrier gasping for breath and a nuke shipbuilding industry that no longer exists. Works for China, perhaps not so well for us.”