Aircraft Carriers Are Crucial
Thursday, July 31, 2008; 12:00 AM
On May 22, a serious fire broke out on the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier George Washington as it sailed to relieve the forward-deployed Kitty Hawk in the western Pacific Ocean.
It might take all summer to repair the ship, so the planned decommissioning of the Kitty Hawk is on hold. Instead, it's now one of 40 ships from the United States, Chile, Canada, South Korea, Australia and Japan taking part in this year's Rim of the Pacific exercise.
In an age of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency operations, many U.S. officials appear content to overlook the importance of conventional weapons such as the aircraft carrier. That's a serious mistake.
For any U.S. president, the aircraft carrier embodies the ultimate crisis management tool. Continuously deployed throughout the globe, carrier-strike groups give our military unparalleled freedom of action to respond to a range of combat and non-combat missions. The recent George Washington incident only further emphasizes the significance of maintaining a robust carrier fleet, one large enough to meet all contingencies and "surge" in crises, no matter what may happen.
Carriers can move large contingents of forces and their support to distant theaters, respond rapidly to changing tactical situations, support several missions simultaneously, and, perhaps most importantly, guarantee access to any region in the world.
In a time when America's political relationships with other countries can shift almost overnight, aircraft carriers can reduce America's reliance on others -- often including suspect regimes -- for basing rights. A carrier's air wing can typically support 125 sorties a day at a distance up to 750 nautical miles. They also operate as a hub in the strike group's command, control, communications and intelligence network, playing an increasingly larger role in controlling the battlespace at sea.
Whether in a direct or support role, carriers have taken part in almost every major military operation the U.S. has undertaken since the Second World War. They also serve as first-rate diplomatic tools to either heighten or ease political pressure. When tensions with North Korea or Iran increase, a carrier, or sometimes two, is sent to patrol off their coast. And when an election takes place in a nascent democracy or country central to U.S. interests, a strike group typically is sailing offshore.
In March, when Taiwan held important presidential elections that will chart the future of that country's relationship with China, both the Kitty Hawk and Nimitz trolled nearby to ensure a smooth transition of events and deliver a psychological message of U.S. interest.
And at a time when policymakers expect to spend less on defense and where the services' lists of unfunded requirements continues to mount, we'll likely call on the aircraft carrier to perform an expanded array of duties, ranging from humanitarian relief to counterinsurgency support and temporary basing for Special Operations Forces.
As the Navy assumes responsibility for humanitarian missions in places such as Africa and South America, it will rely on aircraft carriers to provide immediate relief following natural disasters. During Operation Unified Assistance, following the December 2004 tsunami and during relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, for instance, they placed a central role.
For these enduring reasons, both the Congress and the Navy must work to ensure that a sufficient number of aircraft carriers remain in operation. During the Reagan years, the Navy maintained 15 carriers. In FY 2006, Congress required the Navy maintain at least 12 carriers.
However officials allowed this number to drop to 11 -- the current number -- in the FY 2007 budget to accommodate the retirement of the John F. Kennedy. Although the Kitty Hawk is expected to begin decommissioning in the coming months, it will be replaced later this year by the George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), the last of the Nimitz-class line.