Navy Chief: Quality of Force More Important Than Number of Ships (UPDATED)
The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford will be christened in November.
The Navy is hoping to hang on to its prized fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, which stand as powerful symbols of U.S. military power. There is a strong chance, however, that steep cuts to the Pentagon’s budget will make that goal financially unattainable.
“Our requirement remains 11,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. But with the Defense Department facing deep spending cuts over the coming years, an 11-carrier force is becoming increasingly unrealistic.
Speaking Sept. 5 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Greenert cautioned that with a shrinking budget, it would be unwise to hold on to ships that cannot be adequately maintained, staffed and modernized. That thinking applies to all ships, including aircraft carriers, he said.
“When you look at the limited fiscal resources, you have to look at a balance: What kind of force structure can you sustain?” Greenert said. Naval combat forces, at whatever size, must be “organized, trained and equipped to deploy and to respond properly,” he said. Aircraft carriers demand an extraordinary commitment of resources as they require a fully trained air wing that typically consists of four F/A-18 tactical fighter squadrons, one S-3 tanker squadron, one EA-6B electronic warfare squadron, one E-2C airborne radar squadron, and one helicopter squadron.
Aircraft carriers are a “critical element” of naval forces, but unless there is enough money to fund the training and equipment for an equivalent number of air wings, they will not serve their purpose, Greenert said. “It's really about the air wing.”
During past defense budget downturns, he said, “mistakes have been made [to] hold on to the force structure [assuming we would later] recover.” He wants to avoid such miscalculations, he said. “I'm about having the right number of forces that I can organize, train and equip and maintain ready. It's a balance of procurement and people.”
The Navy in recent years has set ambitious goals to expand its fleet of 285 ships to 295 by 2020, and to reach 300 ships soon after. The sequester — across the board 10-percent spending cuts that slashed $11 billion from the Navy’s budget in 2013 and a projected $14 billion in 2014 — would halt those plans and possibly result in a 250-ship Navy.
Again, Greenert stressed that the strength of the fleet should be measured by its ability to deploy and be ready for operations, rather than by its size. “We need a force that is whole, not hollow,” he said.
With smaller budgets, it is simply unfeasible to maintain enough ships and aircraft at the standards required for deployment, he said. With a fleet of 250 ships, Greenert estimated, the Navy could keep 96 forward deployed, which is a higher ratio than the current 285-to-95. “This is really leveraging operating forward,” he said. It would be done by staging ships in key areas of the world and reducing the need to “surge” forces from the United States.
If sequester cuts continue in 2014, the Navy will have to cancel 34 of 60 scheduled shipyard availabilities for surface ships and maintenance for 190 of its 3,700 aircraft, said Greenert. That would be in addition to last year’s cancellations, he said. “We are getting a big backlog.” The Navy still would be able to fund enough combat forces to support one major regional conflict, and modernization programs would have to be pared back, he said. “We'll have to reduce procurement, there is no doubt about it.”
The Navy expects to offer voluntary retirement incentives next year to help pare back its workforce of 200,000 civilians. It has not yet decided whether it will downsize its active duty force of 320,000 sailors and 110,000 reservists. Greenert was emphatic that he would opt for quality over numbers of people, and said he worries about retaining and recruiting high-quality sailors.
Budget cuts would not hinder the Navy’s ability to support limited air strikes against Syrian forces if the president issues such command in the coming days or weeks, said Greenert.
The cost of the operation would not be “extraordinary,” he said, as ships already are deployed in the area. The only unbudgeted expense would be the extended deployment of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group in the Red Sea beyond September. The Nimitz battle group, which includes three destroyers and a cruiser, had been scheduled to return home this month. The USS Truman strike group is in the Gulf of Oman and would support air operations over Syria, too.
A protracted deployment of two carrier groups quickly could run up a big tab. If operations continue into next month, Congress would either have to advance the Navy funds from next year’s budget or approve an emergency war appropriation.
“A supplemental might be the order of the day,” Greenert said. If air strikes are ordered, the Navy would need funding to replenish its supply of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost about $1.5 million each. A carrier strike group conducting high-tempo flying operations costs about $40 million per week. Deploying a destroyer costs about $2 million per week.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this post said the Nimitz strike group includes two destroyers (instead of three) and said the cost of deploying a destroyer is $7 million per week (instead of $2 million). A Navy spokesman said the CNO misspoke and asked that his comments be corrected.