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.)