Alleged "Carrier Gap" is Out to Sea
The April 1999 re-routing of aircraft carriers to support operations in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans has inspired concern about the effect of the move on America's military presence in the Pacific.1 Some lawmakers argue that the redeployment opens a gap in America's Pacific defenses, risking the nation's ability to protect its interests in Northeast Asia. This in turn is supposed to show that US military capabilities are today grossly inadequate, stretched too thin, and in need of immediate repair. The suggested remedy is to add $7 billion to the $6 billion defense supplemental and earlier $12 billion budget increase already proposed by the Clinton Administration. However, the assertions of a serious gap in carrier coverage are groundless. Indeed, they betray a disregard for the feature of aircraft carriers -- their flexibility -- that is supposed to make them uniquely valuable. The alarmism about the redeployment misjudges the effect of the move on the military balance in Northeast Asia, and it misreads the two-war strategy that it purports to defend. In some versions, the alarmism flatly misrepresents US naval presence in the Pacific.
A pivotal proposition in this most recent readiness flap is that the United States now has no carrier plying the Pacific, thus leaving the ocean "unguarded".2 Another assertion is that the United States would be unable to respond effectively to situations like China's intimidation of Taiwan in 1996, when America sent two carriers to nearby waters.3 In fact, on 26 April 1999 there were two large-deck US carriers underway off the west coast of the United States. Under routine peacetime conditions these would not be considered available for action because, although at sea, they are in their inter-deployment phase. However, under emergency conditions (as postulated by the "carrier gap" alarmists), these or other carriers could be rushed into service. Given several days to prepare and assuming a top-speed transit, one carrier at least could be in the Far East within 12 days. A second could certainly deploy within three weeks.4 This does not include the small US carriers that serve the USMC, which are commonly left out of accounts of regional naval presence.
Apart from aircraft carriers, US and allied air power in the Far East is prodigious. Approximately 180 USAF combat aircraft stand ready in Japan and South Korea -- and these individually possess greater range, payload, and precision-strike capability than naval aircraft. Thus, the 50 carrier aircraft usually deployed in the Far East probably constitute only 15 percent of the US air power in the region. In addition, South Korea's 400+ combat aircraft on their own are not a bad match for the North's 600, taking both quality and quantity into account. Elsewhere in the region, Japan and Taiwan field air forces comprising almost 800 fighter and attack aircraft.
America's present fleet of 11 active-component and 1 reserve large-deck aircraft carriers is sufficient, given the Navy's deployment practices, to cover only 2.6 theaters continuously. This means an average annual gap of about four or five months in covering one or another of three theaters. We could squeeze more coverage out of our carriers, or do with fewer of them, if different employment practices were utilized -- for instance, rotating crews and planes rather than ships. However, an additional rationale for having a large fleet is that a substantial portion of it occasionally can be surged within a short period should an emergency require. During the Gulf War, for instance, when the United States (briefly) had 15 active carriers, six were on station simultaneously near Saudi Arabia. At one point during the war, a total of nine (or 60 percent of the active force) were either on station, in transit, or underway at sea for training or sea trials. Hence, the use of two today by no means exhausts the "emergency response" capacity of our present carrier fleet.
Generally speaking, aircraft carriers (with their attendant battle groups) are a very expensive way to generate air power; three dozen USAF aircraft could accomplish as much. The unique value of carriers is that they are floating, redeployable air bases. Part of the reason the United States home-bases one in Japan is that this posture reduces transit times to other areas, such as the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Thus, in criticizing the Kitty Hawk re-deployment, congressional leaders are inadvertently challenging the fundamental rationale for relying as much as we do on carrier-based air power.
Some critics of the recent redeployment of the Kitty Hawk charge that it violates the precepts of the Administration's two-war strategy by subtracting capability from a key theater. However, the strategy does not entail keeping all forward-deployed assets tied continuously to two particular theaters. Instead, what the strategy implies is that should two major regional wars suddenly erupt in areas of vital interest to the United States, these would get priority over lesser contingencies, perhaps requiring a re-shuffling of assets. Intentionally or not, the "carrier gap" alarmism effectively promotes a rigid, inefficient approach to the use of America's military capabilities -- precisely at a time when increased flexibility and "adaptiveness" are what our military most needs.
1. Floyd Spence, Military Readiness Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, April 1999; available at: http://www.house.gov/hasc; Richard Newman, "When Two Wars Are Too Many," US News and World Report, 19 April 1999, page 26; Bradley Graham, "Balkans Action Begins to Strain US Forces," Washington Post, 7 April 1999, page A15; Otto Kreisher, "Top Army, Marine Commanders At Odds Over Use of Carrier," San Diego Union-Tribune (Copley News Service), 3 April 1999, page 19.
2. Editorial, "Elasticity: Military Forces Being Stretched Thin Around the Globe," Houston Chronicle, 24 April 1999, page 44; Rep. Floyd Spence, "Limits to Our Leadership," op-ed, Washington Post, 22 April 1999, page 27; Laura Myers, "US Going Without Pacific Carrier," Associated Press, 21 April 1999.
3. David Wood, "Cost of Maintaining World Influence Mounts for US," Cleveland Plain Dealer (Newhouse News Service), 23 April 1999, page 4A.
4. For background on carrier deployment rates and surge capacity see, Government Accounting Office, Navy Carrier Battle Groups, The Structure and Affordability of the Future Force, GAO Report to Congress, Washington DC: GAO, February 1993; Ronald O'Rourke, Naval Forward Deployments and the Size of the Navy, CRS Report for Congress, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 13 November 1992; O'Rourke, Aircraft Carrier Forward Homeporting, CRS Report for Congress, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 2 October 1992; and, O'Rourke, Aircraft Carrier Force Levels and Deployment Patterns: Issues and Options, 28 June 1991.
Citation: Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, Alleged 'Carrier Gap' is Out to Sea, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #15. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, April 1999.
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