Day By Day

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Debate over Carriers

AP Reports:

WASHINGTON - The Senate blocked the Pentagon's plans to scrap one of the country's 12 aircraft carriers, voting Wednesday to keep the fleet intact — at least for now....

Lawmakers say the USS John F. Kennedy, based in Florida and commissioned in 1968, is the candidate because of its age and the fact that it's only one of two conventionally operated carriers left in a fleet of mostly nuclear-powered vessels. The plan to shut down a carrier was included in the president's budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The carrier plan has become a high-stakes, highly political fight on Capitol Hill.

Democrats and Republicans, mainly those with carriers based in their states, accuse Pentagon officials of wanting to scrap a carrier solely to absorb budget cuts, and they worry that the move could adversely affect national security. Pentagon officials say the Navy can perform the same functions with 11 carriers, although Navy officers have expressed reservations.

Read the whole article here.

So goes the course of military reform. Congressmen want to keep jobs in their states and districts; military officers want to keep career paths open; the Department of Defense wants to radically reconfigure the military; the White House wants budget restraint. All this is taking place against the background of radical change in the nation's defense posture.

For more than a century the US has depended primarily on the Navy to rapidly project overwheming force far from our shores. For most of that time the key element in this deployment has been the carrier group. Today, however, much of that capability has been assumed by the Air Force. So the importance of carriers has diminished to some extent.

At the same time advances in weapons technology and the proliferation of WMD's have made carrier groups more vulnerable to attack than ever before. Nuclear weapons are a major problem. There is probably no way to stop proliferation. We can slow its pace, but it is going to happen eventually. Defense officials are beginning to plan now for the emergence of a nuclearlized world. Part of that is an effort to find a substitute for the carrier groups that now dominate the seas.

And there are near-future problems. China is projected to be a major emerging challenge. In a previous post here I argued that many of the recent policy decisions made by the Bush administration were, at least in part, shaped by the need to prepard for the possibility of such a confrontation. One of the most disturbing developments has been China's developmnent of a blue-water navy that included nuclear submarines. These are not necessary for coastal defense, and their most probable strategic purposes would be to interdict international sea lanes and to impede the deployment of America's carrier groups.

In both the near and long term, therefore, a global strategy based on deploying carrier groups is problematic and their future utility is called into question. It makes little sense in this situation to continue to spend billions of dollars to maintain the most antiquated elements of the carrier fleet when that money could be spent more effectively elsewhere. Reducing the number of carrier groups from 12 to 11 makes sense. But strategic and budgetary considerations are just the beginning of the debate and the outcome is by no means certain.

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