File this one under QDR rumors, although senior OSD officials thought about cutting a carrier from the very beginning of the QDR. Now, sources tell us that OSD may actually chop an additional carrier from the Navy’s battle fleet, a move that would take the force down to nine carriers from the current total of 11.
The Navy plans to retire the CVN-65, the Enterprise, in 2012. The resulting 10 carrier force would be further reduced by one if DoD’s rumored reduction is enacted. Skipping a future carrier purchase doesn’t save money now. Cutting one flattop from the existing force would.
The Navy’s latest shipbuilding plan – that’s the FY-2009 30 year plan for a 313 ship fleet, the Navy did not submit a shipbuilding plan with the 2010 budget – calls for a total of 12 carriers by 2019. As CRS Navy analyst Ron O’Rourke pointed out in a July report on Navy shipbuilding, the Navy added a 12th carrier to its proposed 313 ship Navy in 2007.
“The Navy’s February 2008 report on the FY2009 30-year shipbuilding plan states that the 313-ship plan includes 11 carriers and does not include a reference to “eventually 12” carriers, but the long-range force projection in the report continues to show a total of 12 carriers in FY2019 and subsequent years,” O’Rourke writes.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the Navy’s plan to shift procurement of the new CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class carriers from one every four-and-a-half years to one every five years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost to build a Ford class carrier at $11.2 billion each; the Navy plans to buy 7 by 2038.
To be sure, there are plenty of obstacles to cutting a carrier from the fleet. For one, the Navy is required by law to maintain 11 carriers. The Navy has an outstanding request for a legislative waiver from Congress so it can retire the Enterprise, which would drop the carrier force to 10 for 33 months between the retirement and the scheduled entry of the first of the Ford class into service in 2015. Lawmakers have yet to act on the request.
Interestingly, when former CSBA naval analyst and now Navy under secretary, Bob Work, gave his shipbuilding brief earlier this year, he said that if forced by a constrained shipbuilding budget to trim the planned build, he would cut the carrier force to 9.
Work said that 9 carriers was the minimum number needed to handle a strategy that keeps one carrier strike group forward deployed in the Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean. He said that during wartime, a 10 carrier force could generate six strike groups in 90 days. I’m guessing then that 9 carriers could generate 5 strike groups.
Work’s former boss at CSBA, the influential Andrew Krepinevich, wrote in the July issue of Foreign Affairs in an article titled, “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets,” that carriers risk “operational irrelevance” as nations develop improved submarines and increasingly accurate, long-range anti-ship missiles that put the big flattops at risk. Krepinevich is part of the “red team” that is examining the QDR.