America’s Aircraft Carrier Challenge

The United States may operate 10 carriers, but it doesn’t do so at the same time.

America’s Aircraft Carrier Challenge
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adrian T. White/Released

Earlier this week I sat on a panel sponsored by America’s Strength, an organization associated with the Navy League, and that has argued for greater investment in the U.S. Navy. The panel was prompted by the “carrier gap” in the Middle East; in July, the USS Theodore Roosevelt will leave its posting in the Indian Ocean for repair and refurbishment.  This departure will leave the Navy’s anti-ISIS operations mainly in the hands of the USS Essex amphibious group.  USS Essex, a 45000 ton amphibious assault ship which carrier Harrier jump-jet fighters, cannot come close to approaching the sortie rate of a Nimitz-class nuclear carrier.

The panel successfully highlighted several problems that have recently become central to U.S. naval thought. The United States operates ten nuclear aircraft carriers, but only three of these are on post at any given time; the rest are in some stage of repair, refurbishment, and refit. Under surge conditions, the USN can restore most to service, but this can have severe consequences for the ships and their crews. What’s true of carriers is also true for the rest of the fleet, which is suffering from the same kind of over-employment problems.

Of course, Operation Inherent Resolve does not require the contribution of a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier.  The United States enjoys access to numerous land bases across the region, can rely at least temporarily on the USS Essex, and is part of a coalition of countries launching airstrikes (albeit the largest coalition partner by far). As such, it’s not entirely clear that the departure of the Roosevelt group really constitutes a “gap” in national capabilities, in the sense that the United States now suffers from a lack of access to intelligence, reduced command and control capacity, or the ability to drop fewer bombs on ISIS militants.

After the panel one questioner asked: “Can we make a case for a twelfth carrier?” As the panelists noted, the answer is, of course, yes; the only question is where and what the United States needs to give up in order to keep that twelfth carrier in service. And this leads to the deeply frustrating crux of the problem; the defense establishment of the United States is effectively incapable of sorting between different kinds of capabilities. The service triarchy in the United States, which continues to dictate the stable, three way division of procurement resources, means that the Department of Defense cannot simply borrow an aircraft carrier against the Long-Range Strike Bomber, or the F-35, or the personnel needs of the Army. Until the U.S. defense establishment figures out a way to break this triarchy, it will continue to run into bureaucracy-driven resource allocation problems.

Nevertheless, there’s little question that while the United States continues to have the world’s largest and most powerful navy, it has yet to successfully explore the limits of the capabilities of that force.  Sorting through those limits requires embedding them not only in rhetoric, but also in planning, procurement, and force structure.  Done well, determining what the Navy can and cannot do could provide reassurance for allies and adversaries alike.