This Week at War: Does the U.S. Need More Aircraft Carriers?
The Pentagon sure wants more $15 billion boats, but it may have to look for other options.
A May 21 article in the Daily Beast claimed that, in January, Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, requested that the Pentagon send a third aircraft carrier strike group (comprising an aircraft carrier and about five escort ships) to the Persian Gulf region. According to the article, Mattis’s request was denied, citing President Barack Obama’s desire to focus military resources elsewhere, especially in the Pacific.
Mattis’s appeal for a third carrier came at a time of heightening tensions — when Iran was threatening to attack U.S. warships near the Strait of Hormuz. According to the article, Mattis wanted to make a show of force to deter Iran from further escalation.
The January flare-up in the Strait of Hormuz subsided without conflict — and without the arrival of a third carrier strike group. In spite of that outcome, regional commanders like Mattis will certainly retain their affection for aircraft carriers, both as signals of U.S. power and as flexible and mobile bases for projecting power.
Mattis’s request for another carrier — a long-standing and seemingly reflexive response by commanders during crises — and Washington’s denial of this request, raises issues for policymakers and planners. If Mattis needed to make a strong show of force to Tehran, he should have had other options as effective, as responsive, and certainly more reasonably priced than a carrier strike group. Commanders like Mattis have long believed that when it comes to signaling resolve, there is nothing like parking an aircraft carrier and its attendant ships off an adversary’s coast. The high demand among U.S. regional commanders for aircraft carriers shows that these pricey ships are not yet obsolete. The Navy is currently building USS Gerald Ford, the first of a new class of carriers, showing its commitment to the very expensive platform. But this reliance on the carrier also exposes weaknesses in the Pentagon’s portfolio of capabilities, which its procurements plans, alas, are only just beginning to address.
With the aircraft carrier remaining the power projection tool-of-choice, the Navy is straining to keep up with demands made by regional commanders. According to the Navy, the Lincoln and Enterprise carrier strike groups are currently operating in the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which supports Mattis’s Central Command, near Iran. Central Command has regularly had two carriers assigned to it. But maintaining such an assignment indefinitely requires at least six carriers; keeping one on station at all times requires a second preparing to deploy, with a third recently returned from deployment and laid up for repairs. Having two carriers continuously in the Middle East theater requires the Navy to assign six to the mission. With 11 carriers in the Navy (soon to be 10 after the 50-year old Enterprise retires next year), Mattis’s Fifth Fleet requirements are absorbing more than half of the Navy’s carrier strength. It is little wonder that Mattis’s request for a third carrier was denied (the rest of the Navy’s carriers are currently either in their home ports receiving maintenance or are training for an upcoming deployment). And the unshakeable demands of the Middle East are leaving the Obama administration’s intended "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific theater sounding hollow.
Why do commanders typically first turn to aircraft carriers to either send signals to adversaries or reinforce their striking power? If Mattis needed to send a signal of resolve to Iran, he should have had more options that just a carrier strike group. One alternative would be a deployment of U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber aircraft. Indeed, on April 30, U.S. officials revealed the arrival of an unspecified number of F-22 fighter jets to the Al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The highly-advanced, but troubled, F-22 would play many important roles in a possible conflict with Iran. Perhaps this deployment provided the signal Mattis hoped to deliver with another aircraft carrier?
But as capable as the F-22s are, in a war against Iran they could have trouble getting into the fight, especially from vulnerable front-line bases like Al-Dhafra. In the future, Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles might be able to close down such fixed bases (an easier task than targeting an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Arabian Sea) leaving the aircraft stationed there either destroyed or trapped in their shelters. (In a previous column, I discussed how the short range of its aircraft and the lack of useful bases in the Western Pacific prevent the Air Force from being relevant in a hypothetical conflict over Taiwan.)
The U.S. and its allies plan to protect bases such as Al-Dhafra with missile defenses. But defenders may find themselves on the wrong side of a marginal cost imbalance — it is likely to be cheaper for the attacker to add more missiles than it is for the defender to add interceptors. In addition to the vulnerability of forward bases, political constraints, such as those faced by Saudi Arabia and others, may prevent the U.S. Air Force from getting its short-range fighters onto bases that will be useful in a conflict. As an example, we should recall the political friction caused by the U.S. Air Force’s presence in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s and how rapidly the Air Force departed the kingdom in late 2003, when it no longer required Saudi bases to patrol Iraq.
These shortcomings explain why aircraft carriers — mobile and unburdened by political constraints — remain popular with commanders like Mattis. But demand will continue to exceed supply. And at $15 billion a pop — not including aircraft and escort vessels — the new generation of aircraft carriers is simply too expensive to be an answer to all of the problems regional commanders will want them to solve. Aircraft carriers also concentrate too much firepower on a single (albeit well-protected) ship, adding greatly to combat risk. With the current grim outlook for its shipbuilding budget, the Navy will struggle to maintain a fleet of 11 flattops, let alone reach a higher number that would satisfy the demands of the regional commanders. Over the long-term, the Navy forecasts adding one new carrier about every five years, just enough to keep pace with the retirement of old carriers. With Mattis’s steady-state requirement effectively taking away six carriers, a thin reserve remains should a persistent presence of carriers be required for, say, the Korean peninsula or the South China Sea.
And so the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army must develop forces that can provide at least some of the same signaling and power projection capabilities provided by carrier strike groups. Such forces must be rapidly deployable, trained and ready for such missions, and able to either avoid an adversary missile threat or continue to function in spite of it.
For the Air Force, this mission implies a willingness to use its existing long-range bombers, its B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s, as signaling devices and to step up the urgency and resources toward building future long-range strike aircraft, which in current plans remains a "paper airplane" relegated to the next decade. The Marine Corps will have an opportunity to play a bigger role in the type of scenario Mattis faced in January when it is able to operate squadrons of its future F-35B fighter-bomber (which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed from probation) from large-deck amphibious ships like USS America. What remains in question is whether by going down such a path, the Marine Corps will be willing, or will be allowed, to encroach on one of the Navy’s principal roles.
Finally, the Army should consider expanding its arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles. The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union banned missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers and thus restricted the Army to short-range battlefield missiles. Just as Iran, China, and others are seeing the advantages of mobile, deployable, and concealable land-attack missiles, the Army could expand its missile role beyond the 300 kilometer range it currently possesses, up to the INF treaty limit of 500 kilometers. In the scenario that Mattis faced in January, the rapid arrival of a mobile Army missile force could have held Iranian targets at risk and thus provided the signaling and deterrence Mattis sought.
For the foreseeable future, however, U.S. commanders responsible for security in regions such as the Middle East and the Western Pacific will always look to get more aircraft carriers during crises. But it will cost too much to expect those hopes to ever be fulfilled. And there remain questions over whether it is prudent to concentrate so much military power in a single ship, regardless of how much expense is put into its protection.
There is an opportunity for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to show the contributions they can provide when a crisis demands a rapid and effective response. But to take advantage of this opportunity, leaders in these services will have to make some changes to their existing plans. And that will mean fighting more battles inside the Pentagon first.