Even as China moves to quadruple its carrier fleet, the U.S. is seeking to reduce the number of aircraft carriers it fields and deploys.
Earlier this week, Defense News reported that, while no decisions had been made, the Pentagon is actively considering eliminating one of the eleven aircraft carriers the U.S. Navy currently fields as part of its 2015 fiscal year budget request. The report, which cited numerous unnamed sources “in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, [and] in the defense industry,” said that a carrier air wing could also be eliminated as part of the FY 2015 budget.
The report came just days after the U.S. Fleet Forces released a detailed outline of its new Optimized Fleet Response Plan (O-FRP). The plan calls for reducing by at least one the number of aircraft carriers the U.S. would have deployed at any given time. Under the new O-FRP, the Navy’s carrier strike groups will operate under a 36 month training and deployment cycle. Within each 36 month cycle, each carrier strike group would be deployed for eight months.
Under the previous carrier strike group operation schedule, which ended January 13 due to fiscal constraints, each CSG is deployed for 14 of every 36 months. This allows the U.S. to have three to four CSGs deployed at any given time. Under the new plan, which will begin with the USS Harry Truman in November of this year, the U.S. will deploy just two aircraft carriers at sea. It does enable the U.S. Navy to have a surge capacity of between one and two additional CSGs in case of national emergencies, assuming the U.S. maintains its current 11 carriers.
Although the outline described the new O-FRP as part of an effort to create greater stability for sailors and their families, it also admitted that it was being driven by the need to absorb defense budget cuts. The new plan would also provide for more maintenance and repair time for the carriers, allowing the U.S. to extend their service lives.
While fewer CSGs will be at sea at any given time under this new O-FRP, these CSGs will be comprised of more ships. In particular, they will have additional missile defense escort ships that are likely being added to the CSGs in an effort to protect the carriers from China’s growing anti-ship missile arsenal.
The new O-FRP appears to be in keeping with one of the two strategic options U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. military had in absorbing defense cuts. Specifically, Hagel said that under option one, “we would trade away size for high-end capability … This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crisis occurred at the same time in different regions of the world.” Under this plan, Hagel said the U.S. would reduce CSGs from 11 to eight or nine.
The second strategic choice Hagel said the U.S. could make would be to maintain a larger but technologically inferior military that delayed most modernization programs.
The reported potential cuts to the size and deployment time of U.S. aircraft carriers comes on the heels of news that China has begun building its first indigenous aircraft carrier and is ultimately aiming to deploy as many as four aircraft carriers.
Many in Congress are already objecting to the potential cuts in the size of the carrier fleet. Specifically, a group of eleven members of Congress from both parties have sent a letter to Defense Secretary Hagel objecting to any reductions in the size of the carrier force. The letter explicitly names China’s budding carrier force as one reason for their opposition to the reduction.
“Such a reduction in the Navy’s carrier force would profoundly damage U.S. national security, limiting our ability to deter aggression around the world and respond to crises in a timely manner,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is unacceptable to pretend that the United States lives in anything less than an 11 carrier world given China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, rising instability in the Middle East and the persistent danger of global terrorism.”