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Will the United States Base 2 Aircraft Carriers in Japan?

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Will the United States Base 2 Aircraft Carriers in Japan?

A new study suggests that basing more ships overseas will help the overstretched U.S. Navy meet its global commitments.

Will the United States Base 2 Aircraft Carriers in Japan?
Credit: U.S. Navy

Basing an additional aircraft carrier at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan would meet the entire demand for carrier coverage in the Pacific without having to build more ships to fulfill the U.S. Navy’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s the conclusion of a new study published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Despite being the most powerful naval force in the world, the U.S. Navy, given its global presence, has been deploying its forces at a pace it can’t sustain. “The central force structure challenge facing the Navy and Marine Corps today is that demand for naval forces exceeds the supply they can sustainably deliver,” the study notes.

“Both services have been maintaining a higher level of presence than they typically plan for by extending deployments, deploying more than once per readiness cycle, and basing more ships overseas,” according to CSBA.

All in all, the U.S. Navy currently operates 272 ships – the largest and most powerful naval force in the world – structured around its ten aircraft carrier strike groups. By 2028, the U.S. Navy will have a fleet of 321 ships on active duty. This number will decline to 305 vessels by 2045.

However, these number projections are based on the U.S. Navy’s current shipbuilding plan, which, due to budgetary reasons, might not be implementable, CSBA notes:

It is unlikely (…) that the Navy will be able to significantly grow the fleet. Its current shipbuilding plan requires $5 to $7 billion more per year than the historical average over the last 30 years. The Navy may be compelled to revise this plan to meet fiscal constraints.

The result is simple: Fewer available ships mean longer deployment cycles and less time for training and maintenance. A new so-called Optimized-Fleet Response Plan, once implemented, will allow the U.S. Navy to more effectively complete training and maintenance between deployments.

“However, it will also reduce the presence they can deliver overseas because it shifts from today’s eight-month (or more) deployment in a 32-month cycle for carriers and surface combatants to a single eight-month deployment in a 36-month cycle. This means each ship goes from spending about 25 percent of its time deployed to about 22 percent of its time deployed,” the study finds.

As a consequence, even fewer ships will be available. The solution: Forward basing naval forces. Transiting from the United States to the Western Pacific takes about 15 to 20 percent of a ship’s deployment time. This amount of time can be saved if the ship is already in its operating area. Additionally, the report points out two more advantages of ships operating forward:

  • They do not undergo deep maintenance periods such as overhauls. When an overhaul is due, the ship or aircraft is swapped out with a new platform. The crew generally swaps out as well and remains forward with the new ship.
  • They do not conduct extensive retraining between operational periods. Because they operate so often, forward based ship and aircraft crews are often able to maintain a higher level of proficiency than their CONUS[Continental United States]-based counterparts.

A ship based in the United States only spends about 25 percent of its time forward deployed in its area of operation. A carrier based in Japan would be operating forward 67 percent of its time. The advantage here is obvious. A carrier based in Japan would be able to spend the same amount of time in an area of operation as three ships based in the United States combined.

But it doesn’t appear the U.S. Navy is seriously considering this option. According to a U.S. Navy official interviewed by Defense News, “there has absolutely been no conversation related to forward-deploying an additional carrier in Japan.”