Secretary Gates is among those who believe the U.S. can get by with fewer ships, particularly aircraft carriers. At roughly $6 billion a copy (excluding the crew and embarked air wing), American nuclear-powered carriers are the most expensive capital ships ever built, capable of projecting power in the most distant corners of the globe. Formulating a response to almost any crisis, U.S. leaders begin looking for the location of the nearest carrier battle group.
But how many carrier battle groups does the United States really need? In a speech to the Navy League earlier this week, Dr. Gates suggested our nation "overmatches" potential foes in terms of our military capabilities. While our Navy maintains 11 carrier groups, he noted, no other country has more than one, suggesting the U.S. could reduce its number of carriers and still maintain military superiority. Gates also wondered aloud "how long" the nation could afford a Navy that operates multi-billion dollar destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers.
Now, the Navy is firing back. Testifying before Congress on Thursday, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Acquisition, Sean Stackley, said the service is "firmly committed" to maintaining a force of 11 carriers for "the next three decades." The 11-carrier force structure is based on "world-wide presence requirements, surge availability, training and exercise, and maintenance" needs, he said in an opening statement.
Gates' comments have also raised the ire of the Navy's allies in Congress. During yesterday's hearing, Virginia Senator Jim Webb (who served as Navy Secretary under President Reagan) took his own shot at the defense chief:
"I think it would be a very serious mistake to cut back on the defense budget in order to fund ground forces that are in Iraq and Afghanistan, hopefully temporarily," the Virginia Democrat said, "at the expense of these vital shipbuilding programs that take years and years to put into place."
As you probably know, Virginia is home to the nation's largest military shipyard. Guess where those expensive carriers are built?
In fairness, the SecDef has a point. Costs for the Navy's ship-building program keep rising, so the service must down-size the fleet. True, the new combatants are technical marvels (by and large), so you don't need as many. But when you consider the global responsibilities of the U.S. Navy, quantity has a quality all its own.
And what do we get when tax money is invested in a properly-sized--and capable--fleet?
-- The ability to influence, shape or deter events across much of the world.
-- Sustained delivery of combat power or humanitarian relief in support of U.S. national objectives.
-- Continued access to key global shipping routes and transit points.
-- The decisive engagement--and defeat--of adversary air, land, naval and missile forces.
Obviously, such capabilities don't come cheap and when you want them on a global scale, you probably need 11 carriers and the forces that support them. Yes, a carrier battle group is an inviting target for potential adversaries and advanced anti-ship missiles have the ability to sink multi-billion dollar warships. But that same carrier group has impressive anti-air, anti-missile and ASW capabilities, allowing them to operate in high-threat environments. And, with its own, impressive strike capabilities, the carrier group can take the fight to enemy threat systems and eliminate them.
We should also remember that carriers are an invaluable complement to land-based aviation assets and (if the situation dictates) a possible substitute. During the first Gulf War, the Navy sent three carriers into the Persian Gulf; attack aircraft launched from those decks played a vital role in the air campaign against Saddam Hussein's military machine. Carrier aircraft played similar roles in war against Serbia (1998), and more recently, during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Access to land-based airfields isn't always guaranteed; in future operations the carriers may be our only airpower option.
As the world's only super-power, the U.S. is expected to deal with the full spectrum of maritime threats, from the Panama Canal and the Straits of Hormuz, to the Sea of Japan and the Moluccan Strait. If China becomes a Jeffersonian Democracy and various rogue states disappear, the United States can probably afford to cut its fleet and put a few carriers in mothballs. Short of that scenario, we still need the military capabilities provided by the carrier groups and the rest of our fleet.
Secretary Gates' suggestion is extremely short-sighted and that raises another question: in the late 1940s, senior admirals staged a famous rebellion against plans to cut naval power in favor or air and land forces. With Mr. Gates (and his boss in the White House) now aiming for the one of the Navy's most sacred programs--shipbuilding--we wonder: can another revolt of the admirals be far behind?
One more thing: the public war of words on this matter is far from over. Dr. Gates is scheduled to deliver another major speech this weekend, at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas. The SecDef is expected to touch on similar themes in his speech at that complex, named for the President who warned, famously, of the military-industrial complex.