Is US Navy's international presence shrinking? Is Pentagon mulling over new plans to counter rivals?

May 9, 2020 - 11:36

An inevitable new world order, rise of new military, economic and political powers in key regions worldwide as well as the idea of vulnerability of the US Navy's supercarriers in a possible military confrontation with international rivals have pushed the Pentagon to come to the conclusion that it must conduct structural reforms in arrangement of its forces overseas.   

Steve Cohen, an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York, and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute has drafted a report on the possibilities of a new approach adopted by the US Navy to replace its supercarriers with the smaller but more operational warships.

"When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that many people ask is, ”Where’s the nearest carrier?” former President Bill Clinton made that remark in 1993 while visiting the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt — the same ship at the center of another crisis today. But disturbingly, while the Navy has 11 carrier strike groups, only three are actually at sea.

"With its 70 planes, six to 10 cruise missile-equipped destroyer escorts, a supply ship and an attack submarine lurking beneath the surface, the carrier strike group has been the Navy’s core asset for the past 75 years. It is therefore surprising that a recent story coming out of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s office — that the Navy was considering cutting two carriers from the fleet — didn’t generate more news. Moreover, the report also suggested that the two mega-warships be replaced by 65 small “corvettes,” some of them unmanned," Cohen explained in his report published by The Hill.

Three concerns undoubtedly drive the secretary’s trial balloon: 1) Supercarriers are incredibly expensive; 2) Reports of a new Chinese cruise missile suggest that carriers are more vulnerable to attack, and 3) World threats are changing, and carriers may not be the best platform to meet coming challenges.

It is understandable that the Department of Defense (DOD) would want to consider the savings generated by cutting two carriers. The USS Gerald Ford — the first ship in the new class of supercarriers replacing the Nimitz class of carriers that entered the fleet in 1975 — cost about $13 billion. That includes about $2.4 billion in cost overruns to work out kinks in the ship’s launch, landing, and weapons elevator systems. Future ships in the class — currently being built, but not estimated to be fleet-ready before 2024 — cost about $12 billion each.

The cost of these individual ships is a constant sticking point with defense planners because of the need to increase the size of the fleet. The past few presidential administrations have agreed that 355 capital ships is the minimum number the Navy needs to carry out its assigned missions. With the Navy’s current inventory of only 297 battle-force ships, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Navy would have to spend at least $26 billion per year just on construction for the next 30 years to reach that 355-ship goal by 2048. But that investment level is 80 percent more than what the Navy has spent over the past 30 years — and 50 percent more than it has spent over the past six years alone.

But cost isn’t the only concern. There has been a rash of news stories about new Chinese anti-ship “stand-off” missiles whose range and ballistic speeds exceed the combat radius of American carrier aircraft and cruise missiles. Navy strategists worry not only that our fleet will be pushed so far from potential conflict zones as to be inconsequential, but that the carriers will themselves become inviting and vulnerable targets.

The third main issue is what roles the Navy will be expected to play, and what foes we will likely encounter. The composition of the fleet must, of course, emerge from those assessments. The mix of “high-low” — large/sophisticated ships and smaller vessels — is and has always been subject to constant reassessment and debate. The general consensus is that we should plan for “near-peer” conflicts with China and Russia, and place less emphasis on the need to respond to non-state actors engaged in regional or terrorist activities. To counter such emerging threats, military planners agree that we need presence, capability, and survivability/sustainability.

That is why the suggestion to replace two giant nuclear-powered carriers with a swarm of small, fast, lightly-armed frigates and corvettes — neither of which now exist in the American Navy — seems so disingenuous. The Navy’s last attempt at small, fast, lightly-crewed ships with the theoretical potential to quickly swap out mission packages was the LCS. And that has proved to be a disaster. The real debate should be between building more Ford-class supercarriers versus smaller, non-nuclear “lightning” carriers based on existing, in-service America-class ships.

These smaller carriers, the first of which was USS America, is an 840-foot vessel that was originally designed to transport and support Marines in amphibious and projection operations. Unlike the 1,106-foot Ford or similarly-sized Nimitz class carriers, America cannot launch or recover traditional jet aircraft; it has no catapults or arresting wires. Instead, it was designed to deploy helicopters and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor hybrid planes. But with the introduction of the F-35B fighter/attack jets — the Marine Corps’ version of the next-generation plane that can take off and land vertically — the America class ships could have a pivotal new role. Even with the added expense of reinforcing America’s deck to withstand the extreme heat of the F-35’s engines when they point downward during take-off and landing, the cost of such smaller carriers is about $4 billion each, or one-third the cost of the Ford-class ships. 

An America class ship can typically house 12 F-35B’s and could support up to 20 by excluding other types of aircraft. A Ford-class carrier will typically deploy 44 F-35s and carry an additional 30 other aircraft at the same time. Such a trade-off, while economically appealing, is not simple. Are three smaller America class carriers deploying a total of 36 F-35Bs truly the equal of one Ford-class ship deploying 44 F-35s? Or, in the face of emerging (or multiple) threats, is it better to have more ships of lesser individual capability available?

As one retired three-star admiral — a former carrier strike group commander — said to me, “One of the things CSGs provide is deterrence. To do that, they need to be ‘there’ — they have to be deployed and in the area of potential hot spots. Today, with 11, the Navy still can’t meet the demand of COCOMs. Going to nine will only make that worse.”

Such questions of defense strategy and power projection merit broader debate. The technical issues of operating range, defensive countermeasures, staffing, maintenance, and operating costs should be the province of Navy planners. But the larger questions of strategy require serious bipartisan consideration. These are questions of national purpose and security, and ought not to be dominated by whatever party controls the White House or Congress at the moment.

Defense budgets are not unlimited and are unlikely to grow dramatically in the coming years, making tough decisions even more daunting. But they must be made now because as recent events have demonstrated, the future can ambush us at any time. And when it does, all presidents — hawks and doves alike — inevitably will ask, “Where are the carriers?”

"We had better have enough," Cohen concluded.

MJ

Leave a Comment

6 + 1 =