Toward a Sustainable US Defense Posture: Rethinking the demand for aircraft carriers

Carl Conetta. Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #42, 02 August 2007.

Among US air power assets those that are carrier-based have a special role. Where access to land bases is limited, aircraft carriers can bring tactical air power within reach of enemy bastions. Together with other sea-based strike assets and long-range bombers, carriers can help overcome the anti-access challenge. But this fact should not exclude them from consideration for reduction. In fact, the United States has more of this asset than it reasonably requires. And, it is important to remember that sea-based air power is relatively vulnerable and expensive. Indeed, sortie for sortie, it costs more than twice as much as land-based tactical air – all things considered.

America’s requirement for big-deck aircraft carriers can be divided into a “surge” requirement for crisis response and a peacetime requirement for continuous forward presence. Relevant to the surge requirement is the actual experience of recent wars. Three or four aircraft carriers were directly engaged in Afghan operations at any one time during October-December 2001. During the first phase of the 2003 Iraq war, four or five were engaged. During the 1999 Kosovo war, one.

In none of these wars were the engaged carriers employed to their fullest, however. For instance, during the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom, naval fighters flew an average of 0.8 sorties per day. They are capable of flying two, at least – and the Navy claims they can do more, in a pinch. Looking to the future: The target attack capability of each air wing will increase significantly with the addition of smaller, longer-range, and more accurate PGMs. In 2005 Senate testimony, then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, asserted that the number of targets that a carrier air wing could attack per day would increase from 700 to more than 1,000 by 2010 – having already risen substantially from 200 in 1997. Implicit in this is the option to reduce the overall number of carriers and wings.

In its FY 2007 budget, the Navy asserts that, given an 11 carrier fleet, it can surge six carriers for war within 30 days and another within the next 60 days. This, as a result of its new Fleet Response Plan (FRP). This implies an emergency or “surge” utilization rate of 63 percent. A somewhat higher rate could be achieved through changes in homeporting arrangements, rotations of crews, further reorganization of maintenance schedules, and reduced utilization of carriers for simple presence missions. Some reform along these lines would allow a 9-carrier, 8-wing fleet to surge “five plus one” for crisis response. In 2010, these six carriers, fully utilized and equipped with weapons now being fielded or procured, should be able to strike well over twice as many targets per day as the five that deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Supplementing the future offshore strike capability of US carriers would be the long-range attack capability of America’s bomber force – able in the future to carry five times as many PGMs as today (on average). Also supplementing carrier power would be the rest of the Navy’s surface fleet and the four Trident submarines that have been reconfigured for conventional missions. The surface fleet is equipped with approximately 8,000 Vertical Launch Systems, which can fire Tomahawk missiles – as can the Tridents. The Navy is building its stock of conventional land-attack Tomahawks up towards a total of 6,000 or so. (Approximately 800 were used in Operation Iraqi Freedom.) Finally, the Navy will have mini-carriers to call on as well, once the new class of LHA(R) amphibious assault ships are commissioned. Among other aircraft, these will carry 20 F-35s.
With only eight active and one reserve big-deck carriers in the fleet, the Navy would not be able to keep more than 2.5 of them continuously “on station” during peacetime – even given recent FRP innovations. However, homeporting one more overseas would increase this number, as would a crew rotation scheme. At any rate, peacetime naval presence abroad need not center on aircraft carriers. This much is recognized in the Navy’s new Global Concept of Operations, which allows for greater flexibility in assembling naval groups. Today, these include not only Carrier Battle Groups but also Expeditionary Strike Groups (built around amphibious assault ships), Surface Strike Groups (built around surface combatants), and independent operations by the Trident cruise-missile subs. These smaller, more varied, and more numerous groups allow for greater flexibility and more thorough coverage.

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