Some of the cuts already are being considered as Defense Secretary Robert Gates rewrites the 2010 budget. You can expect to hear a lot of rumors about which programs are being targeted between now and when the Pentagon releases details of its budget request in April. But while most of the military services are scrambling to protect programs, at least one is getting ready to offer up a signature weapons system. The U.S. Navy will propose removal of one aircraft carrier and air wing from its posture, dropping the number of carriers to the lowest number since 1942.
Of course, today's aircraft carriers make World War II carriers look like toys. With nuclear propulsion, supersonic fighters and more than four acres of deck space, they are the biggest warships in history. But at any given time some are being repaired, some are being replenished, some are in training and some are in transit; if the fleet is cut to 10, then maybe half a dozen will be available for quick action on any given day.
The U.S. Congress didn't think that was enough, so it mandated in law that at least 11 carriers must be maintained in the force. But with big bills coming from the Obama administration and other items like healthcare costs pressuring Navy budgets, the service has repeatedly sought relief from that requirement. This year's quadrennial review is the likely venue for another such bid.
The issue is coming to a head now because the pace of new carrier commissionings is not keeping up with the rate of retirements. Kitty Hawk, the last carrier in the fleet powered by fossil fuels, was removed from the force last summer after nearly 50 years of service. The Navy plans to decommission the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise in November 2012, leaving the fleet with only the 10 flattops of the Nimitz class for three years, until the next-generation Ford class of carriers debuts in September 2015.
Going to 10 isn't supposed to happen under present law, but since the service hasn't made budgetary provisions for maintaining the Enterprise and its crew until the Ford class arrives, it looks like 10 carriers will be the total number in the fleet.
In the current budget environment, once the Navy gets used to having 10 carriers, that's probably where it will stay. Navy insiders think the service will decide to forgo the nuclear refueling of the USS Lincoln, which is scheduled for 2012. And when the decision to stay at 10 is formalized, the service also can move to eliminate one of its carrier wings.
That step would cut the Navy's projected shortfall in strike aircraft by half. So billions of dollars are saved by skipping the refueling, cutting the purchase of aircraft, and eliminating the need to sustain 6,000 personnel associated with ship operations and air-wing support.
There's only one problem with all this. It reduces the United States' capacity to project power from the sea at the same time that access to foreign bases is becoming doubtful. And why is such a move necessary? Because the Obama administration has decided to stick with Bush-era plans to grow the size of ground forces by 92,000 personnel, and the Navy must pay part of the bill for that.
Yet the administration is getting ready to depart Iraq, which was the main reason for increasing the size of ground forces in the first place. There are precious few other places where the war-fighting scenarios for the next QDR suggest a big ground force will be needed. Most of the scenarios envision reliance on air power for the big fights of the future -- the kind of air power delivered by carriers. So cutting carriers to build a bigger ground force doesn't make much sense.
(Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)