It was little noticed in 2009, but the Obama administration and the 111th Congress decided to retire USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in fiscal year 2013. The decision would leave a two-year gap (at least) until the planned replacement, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), enters service — in 2015, if things go according to schedule. Several Navy shipbuilding programs, including the Littoral Combat Ship, have had problems and delays in production.
While the Obama administration’s successful push to halt production of the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft grabbed much of the media attention, the early retirement of USS Enterprise carries implications for our national security that are just as serious. While the United States Navy remains powerful, its strength has been dwindling since the end of the Cold War — and the carrier force is a classic example. At the end of the Cold War, the United States had 15 carriers and was able to surge six to support Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Today, the United States has eleven, a figure that will drop to ten when the “Big E” retires.
Surging six carriers to handle a crisis in the present day might be possible, but there would be no reserve, given the need to maintain the other carriers and to handle other operational requirements. Right now the United States faces two major potential crises. One is with Iran in the Persian Gulf region; the other is with China in the South China Sea. This does not include the need for a carrier to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan — or the need to keep an eye on North Korea. With all the talk about “first responders,” it is easy to forget that since 1941, America’s first responders in a global crisis are usually the sailors and Marines in a carrier strike group and a Marine expeditionary unit.
If you think having enough carriers is expensive, imagine the costs of not having one when it’s needed. When the Korean War started, the Navy recommissioned a number of Essex-class carriers, but that took months. The first troops sent to defend South Korea paid the price, in blood, for America’s unpreparedness in the wake of the post–World War II drawdown.
It takes five to seven years to build an aircraft carrier. The new John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) will take nine years to build. This is a long lead time. Does any of us imagine that a potential adversary will give the United States a heads-up about his intentions nine years in advance? Not if we remember our history.
When America had six months to gather its forces prior to Desert Storm, the American objectives were achieved quickly and decisively, with a minimum of casualties for the coalition. Adversaries took note — and the smart ones will do their best not to give us time to marshal an overwhelming force to counter their moves. Instead, they may want to try to engage early and score some casualties in a high-profile attack, hoping to force an American withdrawal even if we’ve secured a tactical victory.
Potential adversaries are already building up their navies. China has commissioned its first carrier, the Shi Lang, and is working on building others. Russia has bought the Mistral-class helicopter-carrier design from France. Any conflict will be fought with the navy we have, not the navy we wish to have. Time will not be on America’s side — and it may be an American ally that will pay the price, with a resulting loss of American prestige.