Budget Crisis May Portend Smaller Navy Carrier Fleet
These decisions have been blamed on Congress’ failure to pass a 2013 budget and on looming automatic spending cuts of 8.8 percent across the Defense Department that are scheduled to begin March 1.
Officials predict the budget crunch also will have cascading effects on future construction of aircraft carriers and other ships that escort the carrier in a battle group. “We will be compelled to delay the start of construction of John F. Kennedy CVN-79, the completion of America LHA-6, as well as cancel procurement of an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer and hundreds of weapons,” said Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson.
“Without congressional authority, the carrier Abraham Lincoln must remain moored at Naval Station Norfolk, rather than start her overhaul, and we will not be able to complete the current overhaul of the USS Theodore Roosevelt,” Ferguson told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 12.
“Over the long term, the discretionary budget caps under sequestration will fundamentally change our Navy,” he said. “We'll be compelled to reduce our force structure, our end strength and investments.”
This fiscal turbulence could not come at a worst time for the Navy’s fleet of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, naval experts said. These enormous ships, which are modern emblems of American military power, have created afinancial burden that the Navy cannot sustain much longer, warned Norman Polmar, senior aviation and naval analyst at the U.S. Naval Institute.
The current budget crisis, he said, should precipitate decisions to downsize the fleet.
“The situation will only get worse,” Polmar said. Of the 11 carriers in the fleet, only one — the USS John C. Stennis — is deployed on operational duties in the Persian Gulf, he noted. “This is unprecedented.”
The Navy’s ability to deploy more than one or two carriers at one time is going to be diminished, Polmar said. A scheduled mid-life overhaul and refueling of the USS Abraham Lincoln has been postponed pending the resolution of the budget sequester. The upshot would be a delay in the scheduled mid-life overhaul of the USS George Washington.
The George Washington is forward based in Yokosuka, Japan. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower returned from deployment in December and is scheduled to relieve the Stennis in the Persian Gulf. The Navy has kept two carriers on duty in the Gulf since 2010: one inside the Strait of Hormuz and the other patrolling waters outside the gulf.
Polmar faulted the political establishment for allowing its dysfunction to cause these problems. But he also blamed Navy leaders for having failed to prepare for a fiscal crunch that has been in the making for years. The Navy for 37 years during the Cold War was able to keep one-third of its carriers forward deployed. But as the cost of building, maintaining and operating the fleet soared over time, the Navy put off maintenance work and remained in denial for years about the readiness of the fleet, said Polmar.
Canceling the Truman deployment helped to draw attention to the problem, but it could also lead to a reevaluation of whether the Navy needs two carriers in the Gulf, he said.
Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the decision appears to be partly propaganda aimed at demonstrating to Congress the real consequences of budget cuts. There is also a legitimate justification for not sending the ship to the Gulf if there is not going to be enough money to pay for fuel and logistics support, he said. The crew of 4,500 sailors has to be paid regardless of whether they go out to sea or stay home, as they are legally exempt from furloughs.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., of the House Armed Services Committee, decried the Truman deployment cancellation as a stunt. In a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Hunter said the decision to keep the ship docked was only intended to “add drama” to the sequestration debate.
The larger predicament for the Navy is that carrier readiness has been in decline for years, said Polmar. Given the current budget climate, there is little the Navy can do “other than stop ships from sailing,” he said. “The Navy’s leaders have not thought out how to handle the problem,” he said. “It’s pathetic that from 10, 100,000-ton nuclear powered carriers in commission with 70 aircraft, we can only get one forward deployed.”
Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, raised eyebrows last month when he lamented the shortage of available carriers. He called out the retirement of the USS John F. Kennedy in 2007 as an example of a ship that could have stayed in service longer had it been properly maintained.
Polmar said Gortney’s concerns should motivate the Navy to find lower-cost alternatives to big-deck carriers.
Polmar is a proponent of buying more amphibious LHA and LHD class ships, which cost $2 billion to $3 billion apiece,compared to $12 billion-to-$14 billion for a big-deck carrier.
Four or five LHA/LHDs can be operated for the cost of one CVN, he said. Amphibious ships are obviously not equivalent to a nuclear-powered carrier, but a combatant commander who needs ships to patrol waters might not care, he said. Within the Navy leadership, however, the suggestion has been strongly rejected. In the future, though, admirals might have to reconsider, said Polmar. “We have reached the point where we can’t afford the big carriers.”
Photo Credit: Navy