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The Navy's Sitting Ducks

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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With Iran testing ballistic missiles, the Russian military bombing in Syria, war grinding on in Yemen and Islamic State as deadly as ever, it may seem like a very dangerous time for the U.S. to find itself without an aircraft carrier near the Persian Gulf. Actually, it’s very unlikely to be a problem, and it's a good occasion to reconsider the Navy’s plans to build a new fleet of superexpensive “supercarriers."

The Theodore Roosevelt carrier turned for home last week, and the Harry S. Truman won’t arrive until late this winter, a rotation planned by the Pentagon long ago. This is unusual, as the Navy usually has one or two carrier groups in the Gulf region. But the Navy is rethinking its rotations, and some gaps will result. Under the latest plan, the 10 U.S. nuclear carriers are on 36-month schedules, which include two deployments overseas of roughly seven months each. This gives them nearly two years in port for maintenance and renovation. This year, the Navy has had just two carriers out on station at a time, down from three or four, largely to save money.

Even so, this all costs a fortune. A carrier strike group can have more than 7,000 crew members, and in addition to the flattop and its 60-plus aircraft, it usually consists of at least three large warships (missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates), a fast-attack submarine and a host of smaller support craft. It costs about $6.5 million every day to keep the armada afloat. This is on top of the $4.5 billion each current Nimitz-class carrier cost to build, which now seems like a bargain compared to the next-generation Ford class, the first of which is coming in at nearly $13 billion. (The Navy plans to buy up to 10 of them.)

So what do we get for all the billions? The goal is a hyper-capable, multipurpose combat platform that can react to virtually any expected crisis. The reality, increasingly appears quite different: a lumbering white elephant that’s easy prey for a Chinese rocket or a terrorist in a motorboat.

A Navy war game in 2002 that simulated a swarm attack by speedboats of the type Iran has in the Gulf had devastating results: 16 major warships would be destroyed, including one aircraft carrier. Anti-ship weaponry has only grown more potent since then. 

These massive ships were never intended to take on jihadists and other asymmetric threats. But it’s no longer clear that they would be useful in a war against a major power such as Russia or a middling one such as Iran. The Pentagon has spent billions outfitting aircraft carriers with air defenses that are unproven, and the relatively short range of their planes –- an F/A-18 Hornet has to turn around at roughly 500 miles -- leaves them vulnerable to land-based missiles that can travel twice that far.

Carriers increasingly seem like sitting ducks. And, if one was ever sunk, with 5,000 Americans on board, the blow to the military and nation would be almost unthinkable.  

Consider what could be done instead with that money. If you simply want to move aircraft around the globe, supercarriers aren’t the only option. The Navy has a number of smaller craft that can do that job, including the America-class amphibious assault ship. About half the size of the Ford -- and the same size as what most other countries call carriers -- it is significantly faster and can carry the new F-35 fighter as well as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor plane, plus attack helicopters and drones. An older but similar ship, the Essex, is filling the void in the Gulf until the Truman arrives.

For the price of a single Ford class, you could build three Americas and get a good start on a fourth. Modernization of the existing fleet of Eisenhower-class carriers is also a money-saving option. In the end, the flattop is nothing but a conduit for the real weaponry, the planes, and building gold-plated behemoths seems like outdated thinking.

We should also consider how great a need there is to ferry planes in the first place. Two decades ago, in the wake of the Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia, few Arab states wanted to host American military facilities, and the Pentagon wasn't crazy about the idea either. But the threat of Iran and the rise of Islamic State have changed things: Most members of the Gulf Cooperation Council would eagerly host U.S. fighter wings, and spreading them throughout the region would improve flexibility and reduce the risk of suffering a catastrophic attack. (Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates already host some U.S. aircraft, albeit mostly surveillance and transport planes.)

Similar concerns about China’s aggressive island-building in the South China Sea will undoubtedly lead to similar opportunities from its neighbors; the Philippines has already allowed the re-opening of long-shuttered U.S. air and naval bases.

You never know, of course, what technology the next war will demand, and it’s far too early to call the age of the supercarrier over. But plans to spend tens of billions on the Ford-class fleet seem like a big bet that an idea from the last world war will save us in the next one.

(Updates previous version of this story.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net