Small Wars Journal

Gates asks a question, Okinawans provide an answer

During his speech yesterday to the Navy League, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondered, "Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?" (Gates made the same side-by-side, navy-to-navy comparison earlier in the speech).

It's true, the Battle of Midway did occur 68 years ago. Ever since then the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers have employed their power almost exclusively in support of land campaigns, including the two current land campaigns that Gates so rightly wants his department to focus on.

But we also have an Air Force (and Army and Marine Corps aviation) supporting those campaigns. With money tight, shouldn't that bring some deserved scrutiny on the hugely expensive Ford-class aircraft carrier program?

Yes, it should. But today's New York Times also provided a reminder of why redundancy is a good thing. Fierce local opposition to the U.S. airbases on Okinawa may not only cause Japan's prime minister to lose his job, it may eventually create a big strategic hole in America's Western Pacific defense plans if (when) Kadena AFB falls to political pressure. After that happens, the Secretary of Defense (it won't be Gates) will be glad for the 7th Fleet's carrier strike groups.

Other reminders of the fragility land bases for tactical air power:

1. In 1986, the French decision to prohibit overflight by USAF F-111s launched from the UK and bound for Libya. Having to instead fly around Spain, aircrew fatigue contributed to a partially botched mission.

2. The final removal in 2003, due to political toxicity, of USAF basing rights in Saudi Arabia.

3. Political turmoil threatening, and sometimes closing, USAF bases in central Asia.

4. Saturation cruise and ballistic missile threats against USAF and USMC air bases in Japan and Guam.

5. The precision rocket, missile, and mortar threat against fixed tac-air bases which by necessity must sometimes be located in unsecure areas.

The fact that no other country, today at least, operates anything like a USN carrier strike group says nothing about their utility. I am surprised that Gates said this, especially to an audience of naval officers.

Is eleven the right number of carriers? Is $11 billion for a fully loaded Ford-class carrier the right price? Those are worthy questions. Gates had some good points in his speech and properly challenged his audience to come up with new ways of solving some of the Navy's problems. Gates mentioned some of his own ideas in his speech. Ironically, one of the reasons some of Gates's good ideas for the Navy (and Air Force) are not further along in their development is Gates himself. I will discuss this more soon.

Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, Gates's speech to the Navy League has opened up a timely debate over what America's grand military strategy should be over the next two decades. And how, within a tightening budget constraint, it should purchase that strategy.

(For an even more forceful critique of Gates's speech, see this post at the naval blog Information Dissemination.)


Curt (not verified)

Wed, 05/05/2010 - 4:38am

We build them at Newport News Virginia and a CVN is not a pair of shoes or even a super tanker, just ask the French about their experience. If you just look at aquisition cost, $11 billion is roughly double a Nimitz class CVN, but they will go down significantly after the first one as non-recurring costs go away. If you look at life-cycle cost, it is a lot cheaper.
1. about 1000 fewer sailors per ship. That works out to something like $7.5 Billion over the life of the ship. Pays for the difference right there.
2. Lifetime nuclear core and all electric. Figure at least $2 billion or so on reduced maintenance and no mid-life refueling. Not to mention potential life cycle reduction in the very expensive nuclear qualified workforce overhead.
3. New catapults and arresting gear should reduce the wear and tear on aircraft resulting in some savings or extended utilization of the aircraft.
4. With greater availability due to no midlife upgrade and reduced maintenance, 10 Fords can do the job of 11 Nimitz carriers. 3000 fewer sailors ($20+ Billion over 50 years) and one less ship with associated upkeep (probably $50+ billion).

The FORD is so expensive largely because it is designed to save money over the 50 year life of the ship. Much like LED lighting is expensive per unit to purchase, but may be much cheaper over the long run due to reduced maintenance and lower electric bills.

jr (not verified)

Wed, 05/05/2010 - 3:30am

$11 Billion for a carrier? Where do we build these things, Mississippi or even, god forbid, one of those nothern unionized labor states?

DOD gotta get with the program! Labor is much cheaper overseas, especially Asia. If we outsource the manufacturing of these ships, the costs will drop dramatically.

We live in a globalized world, just ask Tom Friedman. His new book should be named "The Earth Is Sooo Flat ... Now Even our our Flat Tops are made in China."