Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat

Christopher M. Lehman. Boston Globe, 14 October 2009.
http://defensealt.org/HcpOCe

Editor’s Comment:
It has been several decades since simply counting the numbers of weapon systems or platforms has been anything like a reliable measure of military power. In a modern military effective power is achieved by the combination of well-trained men and women, advanced communications, agile allocation of forces, precision controls and, of course, good weapon systems and appropriate platforms for this complex package.

Christopher Lehman’s op-ed in defense of the eleven carrier fleet (Boston Globe 14 October 2009) fails to mention, let alone assess, any of these crucial aspects of the modern Navy. Nor does he mention the numerous expeditionary strike groups, surface action groups, and missile-armed submarines that also project American power around the globe. And he does not mention that a term of preference in today’s Navy is “network-centric.”

Although the number of platforms (ships) in today’s Navy is considerably fewer than during the Cold War, the firepower on today’s collection of ships has more than doubled, and is still growing. And that is only a starting place for measuring the effective power of the Navy. Reducing the size of the carrier fleet by one or two flattops is not a high risk proposition for the national security of the United States.

References:

Reader Comment from a letter to the Boston Globe:

Isn’t it inappropriate for the Globe to publish an oped advocating the construction of aircraft carriers when the author works at a consulting firm that represents Northrop Grumman, the company responsible for carrier construction? In Christopher Lehman’s Oct. 14 oped, “Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat,’’ the Globe did not bother to disclose the author’s financial stake in the position he was arguing, which would have helped readers evaluate Lehman’s credibility (or lack thereof) as a dispassionate analyst.

Lehman doesn’t base his case on military or strategic grounds, conceding at the very beginning that “the United States does not need aircraft carriers to counter those of other countries.’’ Instead, he asserts that carriers are valuable as power projectors that the United States uses to affect crises “without releasing a single weapon.’’ In other words, while carriers might not actually do much militarily, they make us feel like we’re shaping outcomes. Proponents of building more carriers can then cite such shaping, which is impossible to prove or disprove, as evidence that we need more carriers.

Lehman also points out that carriers both act as “levers of American good will’’ and are being built by many other countries, including some considered potential future adversaries of the United States. On the first point, humanitarian missions are not sufficient justification to build $11-billion-per-ship carriers that spend most of their time floating around in the middle of the ocean. Other ships are more practical. A carrier is a weapon of war, and arguments that try to frame it as anything else are disingenuous. On the second point, Lehman implies that because other countries build carriers, the United States should build them, too. “Keeping up with the Joneses’’ is the antithesis of strategic thinking, particularly when the United States already maintains such a large advantage in military capability.

— Travis Sharp, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Washington, D.C.

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