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Carrier cut could be back on table

Jan. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sources say that if an aircraft carrier is cut, it could be the George Washington, which is set to begin a midlife refueling and complex overhaul in 2016.
Sources say that if an aircraft carrier is cut, it could be the George Washington, which is set to begin a midlife refueling and complex overhaul in 2016. (MC3 Ramon G. Go / Navy)
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WASHINGTON — The reality of finalizing the fiscal 2015 budget submission is driving top defense officials and the White House to quickly make major decisions, and indications are growing that the elimination of one carrier and one carrier air wing could be among the defense request’s key features.

Pentagon officials would not confirm or deny the matter, citing the fluid nature of budget discussions. But numerous sources — in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, in the defense industry — agreed that the prospect is picking up steam.

“It’s quietly being socialized,” one source said, and others agreed.

Others emphasized that no decisions have been reached, and talks are being held in strict confidence.

“Stuff is in churn,” one source said.

That the Navy and the Pentagon, faced with the need to come up with drastic budget cuts, have contemplated reducing the fleet’s vaunted carrier strength is nothing new — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned as much last summer.

“We would trade away size for high-end capability,” Hagel said July 31. “This would ... reduce the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to eight or nine.”

Hagel was discussing one scenario put forth in the Strategic Choices Management Review, an internal Pentagon effort to identify budget-cutting approaches and tactics.

The basic tradeoff, he explained, would be one of reducing capacity for “our ability to modernize weapons systems and to maintain our military’s technological edge.”

The Navy’s top leadership has said repeatedly over the past year that “all options are on the table” to reduce costs.

Asked for comment, the Navy declined to address the carrier issue directly.

“There is no question that we continue to face tough decisions in this fiscal environment,” Capt. Dawn Cutler, the Navy’s top spokeswoman, said Jan. 23. “Work continues on the fiscal 2015 budget and, at this point, conversations on our budget submission are both premature and pre-decisional.”

And if it’s happening, no one’s saying so publicly.

“This idea has probably been in and out the budget so many times that nobody feels comfortable prepping the battlefield,” observed Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and, until last summer, an analyst for the Navy’s leadership. “If it’s in there, that’s certainly something you probably should be explaining — what’s the rationale, what are the tradeoffs.”

The carrier most often targeted is the Japan-based George Washington. Commissioned in 1992, GW is scheduled in 2016 to begin a three-year midlife refueling and complex overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia — where all active carriers were built — that is expected to cost well over $3 billion.

The Navy already has announced the carrier Ronald Reagan will replace the George Washington in Japan. Any move affecting the decommissioning of a carrier would have no effect on the American commitment to maintaining a forward-based carrier in Japan, Navy officials said.

Carriers are designed for a 50-year lifespan and undergo only one refueling overhaul, during which nearly every major system in the ship is rebuilt, renewed or replaced.

A reduction of the carrier force has been analyzed on many occasions. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report looked at a 10-ship, nine-wing fleet, achieved by decommissioning the George Washington.

The report noted the Navy could save “about $7 billion over the 2012-2021 period,” when GW would be returned to service. The report did not include anticipated savings over the 2021-2042 period, during which a refueled George Washington would be operating.

Decommissioning GW would cost about $2 billion, CBO estimated, although those costs would be spread out at least through 2021.

Numerous internal and external studies have concluded the Navy could carry out its missions with a reduced carrier force, although many of those same studies acknowledge that a 15-ship force would be necessary to meet most regional combatant commander requirements.

The carrier force has been slowly whittled down since it reached a Cold War high of 26 flattops in 1962, a number that included many smaller ships built in World War II. The Reagan-era buildup of the 1980s brought the level up from 13 to 15 ships — reached briefly in 1991 — reduced to 14 in 1992, 13 in 1993 and 12 in 1994.

It was further reduced to 11 ships in 2007 — the level where, despite a temporary reduction to 10 ships caused by the retirement of the carrier Enterprise before its replacement, the Gerald R. Ford, can be completed, it remains. That level is set by law. The ships have crews of about 3,000 or more.

The Navy maintains 10 carrier air wings made up of strike fighters, airborne command-and-control planes, electronic attack aircraft and helicopters combined into a single group that deploys onboard the carrier.

Since at least one carrier is always in long-term overhaul, there is no need to have an equal number of wings to ships.

While there is no set number, a wing generally consists of about 65 aircraft, with 1,500 to 2,500 sailors who embark the ship for exercises and deployments.

It is not clear how the carrier wing reduction would be managed. Squadrons could be disbanded, their aircraft redistributed among remaining squadrons, or some could be retained and added to the ever-rotating squadron-wing mix.

A reduction of as many as four strike fighter squadrons would help the service retire more F/A-18C “legacy” Hornet twin-engine jets, already being rapidly replaced by newer F/A-18 E and F Super Hornets.

Politics and fleet size

The Navy, like the rest of the Pentagon, is under great pressure to reduce spending, but proposing cuts and getting them approved by Congress present different prospects.

The service has been in a back-and-forth struggle for more than two years to decommission seven Aegis cruisers and two amphibious ships, saving money from operations, modernization and personnel reductions.

Congress, particularly House Republicans, have strongly opposed the proposal and, in the 2014 defense bills, the service is directed to continue operating the ships and to modernize them.

But, according to Clark, the $2.24 billion appropriated is less than half of what the service needs to comply with Congress’ direction, and it is not clear how the ships will be kept viable. Various internal discussions have included “shrink wrapping” some of the ships, essentially laying them up until money and assets are available to begin work.

In 2008, the Navy asked Congress for permission to temporarily drop the carrier force to 10 ships for the gap between Enterprise and Ford. The request, put forth in an election year, met with widespread condemnation on Capitol Hill and was soundly rebuffed.

The next year, however, the same request was sent over and — in a non-election year — virtually no objections were raised. In all four major posture hearings before the House and Senate, not a single lawmaker asked about carrier levels, and the measure was quietly approved.

If the carrier-cutting proposal goes over in 2014, an election year, it is likely to meet with widespread bipartisan objections. The timing, however, is not necessarily by choice — if George Washington’s refueling overhaul is to proceed on time, major funding is required in the 2015 budget submission.

A year’s delay would cause serious disruptions in other work scheduled at Newport News, likely raising costs on other projects. Even so, it is not clear whether the White House supports the move.

It’s also possible the carrier reduction could be something of a ploy, an effort by the Navy to show it’s doing its part by cutting something not only significantly expensive, but near and dear to a large segment of the service. If the carrier reduction is soundly rebuffed, it could be a major element — eventually — in modifying the march of annual budget reductions.

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