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The Navy’s Carrier Crunch: Even Without Budget Cuts, Deployments Will Drop

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

(FILES) This file photo taken on Septemb

The USS George Washington, which may be decommissioned to save money.

WASHINGTON: The Navy’s in a carrier crunch. US commanders around the world keep asking for carriers to cover trouble spots from SyriaIran, and Afghanistan to the Western Pacific and the South China Sea, but the Navy doesn’t have enough to go around. And they may well lose another.

In recent years, amazingly, the Navy has managed to increase the number of aircraft carriers deployed overseas at any given time even as the total number of carriers in service decreased. But the price was high: extra-long deployments, stressed-out crews, and overworked ships requiring extensive and expensive unplanned maintenance. Now the Navy has decided it just cannot get as much work out of the carriers it has — just as the budget cuts known as sequestration may leave it with fewer carriers.

“I don’t see any way you can cut a carrier and defend the country,” Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, told my colleague Colin Clark last night. “You would have to assume a great deal more risk than we have been willing to assume.”

“We currently are an 11-carrier navy in a 15-carrier world,” Forbes said, referring to repeated Navy studies that say only a fleet of 15 could meet global demand. But Forbes — a legislator — is citing the law, which requires an 11 carrier fleet: In fact, we’re down to 10.

To make certain the Pentagon knows how the HASC feels, Forbes, HASC Chairman Buck McKeon and nine other legislators sent an appeal today to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel not to shrink the carrier fleet.

The 10-Carrier Fleet and the $3 Billion Question

Congress was told the drop to 10 aircraft carriers would be temporary. It was supposed to just require a waiver of the statutory requirement between the retirement of the 50-year-old USS Enterprise last December and the 2016 commissioning of the high-tech and high-cost USS Ford. But if the president’s fiscal year 2015 request actually does cut a carrier, and if Congress actually approves that cut, then we would never get back to 11.

“Over the last two years, the idea of retiring a carrier [has] been in and out of the program several times,” said Bryan Clark,  until recently a senior advisor to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Johnathan Greenert. (Clark left government in October to join the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, CSBA). Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) even laid out options for an eight- or nine-carrier fleet.

The savings are tempting. Just operating and maintaining a single carrier costs about $300 million a year, said Clark, not counting its aircraft and escort ships. But the big bucks — and the big temptation in a time of budget cuts — sit in the near-term. The USS George Washington is halfway through its planned 50-year service life, which means it’s due for a major multi-year overhaul (including refueling its reactor) that will cost roughly $4.7 billion. And decommissioning a ship isn’t free, Clark said, especially when you have to take out top-secret electronics, weapons systems, and a nuclear reactor. So taking the George Washington out of service would cost “a couple of billion,” he estimated — but that still nets you almost $3 billion in savings.

But instead of getting rid of the George Washington, why not decommission the oldest ship left in the fleet, the 38-year-old Nimitz? “You’re going to get 10 years more life out of the George Washington than you would with the Nimitz,” Clark said. “If you amortize that out [over the long term], that might be the better option.” Unfortunately, if you’re paying both to take the Nimitz out of service and to overhaul the George Washington at the same time, he said, “you’re going to be spending more money in the near term.”

So if a carrier is getting scrapped, odds are it will be the George Washington, even though the long-term view — that is, looking beyond the 10-year period of sequester cuts — would suggest you’d do better to retire Nimitz. Either way, the fleet would stay at 10 carriers for a long time to come.

No More “More With Less”

If you can’t get more carriers — let alone if you lose one you already have — then you could try to “do more with less” by keeping each carrier at sea more of the time. Here’s the problem: The Navy already tried that and it hurt like hell. Now, in fact, the service is implementing a new “Optimized Fleet Response Plan” (O-FRP) to reduce the burden on each ship and its crew, not to increase it.

From the 1980s to 2002, the Navy went down from 14 carriers in the fleet to 12, of which at least two and more often three were deployed around the world at any given time. (The average wavered between 2.5 and 2.75). Since 2003, however, the Navy has shrunk from 12 carriers to 10. Yet the number of carriers at sea increased, to either three or four deployed at any given time. (The 2013 average was 3.5).

That wasn’t a grand plan. As demand rose, the Navy just kept extending planned deployments from the official seven-month standard to eight months or more.

“We’re averaging eight to 10 months” now, Adm. Bill Gortney told the Surface Navy Association two weeks ago, “and that’s not sustainable over the long haul.”

“The intent was to have a seven-month deployment in a 32-month cycle,” said Clark, the ex-Navy official. “Pretty much every carrier deployment has been eight months plus [and] we were deploying a lot of carriers twice in their 32-month cycle.”

The most obvious problem is unhappy sailors and families. The most expensive problem, though, is maintenance. When you work ships harder than you planned, it turns out, more things break than you had planned for, which means you have to spend more money and time on maintenance. From 2010 through 2013, Clark said, “every carrier maintenance availability ran longer than expected.”

This has become a vicious circle. If Carrier A can’t finish maintenance and deploy on schedule, Carrier B can’t come home on schedule. That means Carrier B spends more time at sea, which means more wear and tear, which means Carrier B also needs more maintenance work when it finally gets home — which in turn makes things worse for Carrier C. “It cascades,” said Clark.

Last year, before he left the Navy Department, Clark was one of the people who worked on the new Optimized Fleet Response Plan. The O-FRP goes into effect when the USS Truman comes back from what is (supposed to be) an eight to nine-month deployment ending in March or April.

The new plan keeps deployments at eight months but gives ships more time between them. Instead of eight or more months deployed out of a 32-month cycle (25%) — the de facto norm right now — carriers will deploy eight months out of 36 (22.2%). The extra time will be available for maintenance, training, and, if necessary in a crisis, a second “surge” deployment. But setting surges aside, the newer, slower schedule means that of the eight carriers currently based in the United States, only 1.78 will be deployed at any given time instead of the current 2.0.

Today Japan, Tomorrow Australia?

When you calculate US carrier presence around the world, however, you always have to add in the carrier based in Japan, which is effectively available for duty in the Western Pacific 100 percent of the time. (That ship is currently the George Washington but the USS Ronald Reagan will take over later this year).

Officially, the Japan-based ship is operational eight months of the year and in maintenance the other four, but in an emergency it could cancel maintenance and get going in a hurry. The official standard is no more than 30 days, but, said Clark, “it’s only in the deepest part of the maintenance period that it would take more than four days.”

So why not base more carriers abroad? That would get a lot more days-in-theater per ship than sending them back and forth from the United States.

One problem is American politics. The Virginia and California delegations have blocked sending the carriers based in their states anywhere else in the US, let alone overseas. The second problem is the expense of building facilities capable of maintaining a 1,000-foot-long nuclear-powered warship. And the final problem is figuring out who would take us.

The US is already building up its presence on Guam, which has the huge advantage of being US territory, but to build a carrier facility there would cost an estimated $6.5 billion. As for other countries, while both the Philippines and Singapore are increasingly friendly, neither wants a permanent US presence.

But then there’s our long-time treaty ally Australia. The US is already building up its Marine Corps presence there, and a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended permanently homeporting a US carrier at the Australian Navy base in Perth.

It would take years to convince the Australians and build nuclear carrier facilities, at a cost somewhere in the billions. In the long term, though, if the carrier fleet keeps shrinking and demand for ships in the Pacific keep growing, Down Under may be the one place we can square the circle.

The letter from HASC Chairman Buck McKeon and Forbes follows:

January 28, 2014





The Honorable Chuck Hagel

Secretary of Defense

Office of the Secretary of Defense

1000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, D.C. 20301


Dear Mr. Secretary:

We write to reiterate our strong support that the United States Navy should continue to require a naval fleet of no-less than 11 nuclear aircraft carriers.

The constant state of “surge” our Navy has operated at for the past decade is a testament to the growing demand signal from our Combatant Commanders and the shrinking size of our fleet. With the United States entering an era where our sea-services are likely to be called on to provide more presence, deterrence, and engagement throughout the Indo-Pacific littoral and across the globe, we believe now is the time to reinvest in our fleet, not look for ways to reduce its size and accept greater risk. Indeed, in a letter Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus sent to us in October 2013, he stated that a smaller nuclear aircraft carrier fleet would “deliver less forward presence, increased response time, and delayed arrivals to conflict. This force would be unable to execute the missions described in the Defense Strategic Guidance.”

Last year the House of Representatives expressed its strong support for the nuclear aircraft carrier fleet by voting overwhelmingly to maintain a statutory requirement to retain 11 operational aircraft carriers by a vote of 318 to 106. There is no doubt that there is enduring bipartisan support for a robust Navy supporting a capital fleet of 11 nuclear aircraft carriers. We strongly agree with Rear Admiral Thomas Moore who stated last year that “We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world…The demand signal is not likely to go down any time soon.”

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  We look forward to working with you on this issue and to strengthen our sea services in the years ahead.




HOWARD P. “BUCK” MCKEON                                       MIKE MCINTYRE

Chairman                                                                                 Member of Congress

House Armed Services Committee



J. RANDY FORBES                                                             SUSAN DAVIS

Member of Congress                                                               Member of Congress




ROB WITTMAN                                                                   RICK LARSEN

Member of Congress                                                               Member of Congress



SCOTT RIGELL                                                                    DEREK KILMER

Member of Congress                                                               Member of Congress




DUNCAN HUNTER                                                             SCOTT PETERS

Member of Congress                                                               Member of Congress





Member of Congress







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