Congress Questions Plan to Pay for 11-Carrier Navy

The USS George Washington isn't saved until the Pentagon figures out how to pay for the carrier's Refueling Complex Overhaul.

Plans to permanently retire the USS George Washington and bring the Navy’s carrier-fleet total down to 10 are still being debated in ongoing budget deliberations despite reports the White House has scrapped any plans to reduce the carrier total.

Some of the uncertainty centers around potential funding for the mid-life refueling for the USS George Washington in the upcoming 2015 budget submission, dollars which may still be uncertain or under review, Capitol Hill and Pentagon sources said.

The uncertainty comes amid widespread discussion about whether the Defense Department’s upcoming 2015 budget proposal will remove funding for one aircraft carrier and bring the fleet total down to 10. One possible avenue for accomplishing this could be the early retirement of the USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class Navy aircraft carrier in service since the early-90s and slated for refueling over the next several years.

The prospect of dropping to 10 carriers stirred much reaction, inspiring a bipartisan group of lawmakers to send a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking that the Navy fleet of carriers be kept at 11.

Subsequently, the White House intervened to ensure the number remains 11 and prevents the USS George Washington from being permanently retired, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

However, some officials on Capitol Hill who strongly support the need for at least 11 carriers, said they were still not sure if the funds would be restored.

“We are still watching this with concern,” a Congressional source said.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., one of the authors of the letter to Hagel and Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, told Military.com he feels strongly about maintaining an 11-carrier fleet.

“The centerpiece of American Seapower remains the aircraft carrier. Today, we are on track to have an 11-carrier fleet in a world that demands 15. While the debate to reduce the carrier fleet further will likely continue within the administration, I hope the White House and the Defense Department can come to the mutual realization that we should be preserving and enhancing our naval power, including an 11-carrier fleet, rather than debating dramatic and potentially damaging reductions to our Navy,” he said in a written statement.

The USS George Washington is slated to enter its mid-life maintenance and refueling, called Refueling Complex Overhaul, or RCOH. The RCOH overhaul is a massive mid-life technological boost and refurbishment for the ship, to include work on the hull, flight-deck, arresting gear, catapults and a rebuilding of the island house on the vessel.

RCOH, deemed essential to bring a carrier to its full potential 50-year life-span, can last up to 44-months and cost from $2.6 to $3 billion. Funding for the RCOH for the USS George Washington will need to be in the 2015 budget in order for the carrier to continue its service.

Pentagon officials have said the fiscal year 2015 budget request is slated to be released March 4. One official explained that there is often a back and forth exchange on budget items between the Pentagon and the White House. At one point in the process, the White House sends their input back to the Pentagon through a move described as passback, a Pentagon official described.

The discussion about U.S. carrier needs and requirements has inspired strong reactions from analysts and experts on all sides of the debate.

One expert believes the Navy actually needs 12 carriers in order for the US to properly project power and be ready in the event of crisis around the globe.

“We are now trying to shoulder more of the international security burden on the shoulders of the Navy. The Navy needs to get bigger to do that. We need 12 carriers to adequately service the needs for our forward deployed naval power,” said Bryan McGrath, managing director at FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consulting firm based in Easton, Md.

In particular, McGrath argues that the US needs to maintain a carrier presence in three distinct geographical hubs, the Mediterranean, Asia and the Middle East.

“In the last several years the maritime strategy enshrined a two-hub Navy in the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean and East Asia as a second hub,” McGrath said.

McGrath said events in recent years underscore the importance of having an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean as well.

“Libya, Benghazi and Syria all suggested that the presence of an aircraft carrier would have been helpful to achieve American policy goals,” he explained.

Another analyst suggested the U.S. could go down to as little as nine aircraft carriers through strategic use of amphibious assault ships and land-based fighter jets.

“We have 11 additional aircraft carriers in the form of the large deck amphib. There may be cases where we can use those as aircraft carriers or as the equivalent. That may require some re-examination of how and where the Marine Corps conduct missions but I think we should be flexible,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

O’Hanlon added that most countries around the world regard what the U.S. calls a large deck amphibious assault ship as an aircraft carrier. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ships have a large, approximately 830-foot, flight deck and are able to land Harrier Jets and a wide range of helicopters such as the MV-22 Osprey, AH-1W Cobra and CH-46 Sea Knight, among others.

The recently completed USS America, the first in a new series of big-deck amphibs being developed by the Navy, is built with even more deck space than previous ships of its kind. It has an 844-foot flight deck and is built with an aviation centric focus, able to accommodate the F-35B short-take-off and landing Joint Strike Fighter as well as the MV-22 Osprey.

While amphibs have a flight deck that is just over 800-feet and a width of just over 100-feet – they are considerably smaller than most Navy aircraft carriers which have a flight deck that is more than 1000-feet long and a width of more than 250-feet. Carriers are also built with catapult technology to launch planes. The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, for example, is built with a 1,100-foot flight deck and is able to launch fixed-wing aircraft such as an F-18 fighter jet.

O’Hanlon also suggested that the US might be well served to strategically base land-based fighter jets in various countries in the Persian Gulf region in order to counter the potential threat from Iran and achieve a daily presence without necessarily having a carrier nearby for day to day missions.

“I believe we can put Air Force fighter jets in some Persian Gulf countries. We obviously would want to do this with some political care and we would want to do it in more than one place so we are not hostage to the politics of just one country,” O’Hanlon said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.