Where are the Carriers?
By J. MICHAEL McGRATH, National President
This nation’s most visible, capa- ble and powerful military asset
— the aircraft carrier — provides a
presence that does not violate any
national sovereignty, yet assures any
potential adversary that the United
States can and will act when called
upon to do so. Designed for combat,
but equally capable in humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief missions, the flexibility of the aircraft
carrier is unmatched.
Only a few short years ago, the
Navy’s defined requirement was for
15 aircraft carriers and 15 air wings.
Today, we have 11 carriers and 10
These essential capital assets are stretched to the very
limit by operations requiring their presence in the waters
off Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Mediterranean Sea and
Western Pacific Ocean, and for continuing commitments
to coalition-building exercises around the world.
Additionally, carriers respond to humanitarian/disaster
situations on an average of one event per year.
Now legislation is wending its way through Congress
— at the request of the Department of Defense — to temporarily reduce that number to 10 carriers, beginning
with the inactivation of USS Enterprise in fiscal 2013.
Let’s look at some facts about carrier availability.
One or two carriers are usually in maintenance availability and unable to react operationally in anything
approaching a timely fashion. At least one, maybe two,
are just returning from a deployment and require some
limited maintenance to return them to full operational
status. Two are normally in workup to train the ship
and air wing to operate together as an effective team
and learn the new tactics and techniques that are continually being revised based on lessons learned from
previous deployments and missions.
So, of the 11 carriers, only five, on average, are actually
available for short-reaction tasking. Of those, in today’s environment, one is normally on station in the Persian Gulf
or Arabian Sea, one is forward-deployed to the Western
Pacific and one is committed to the European Theater,
usually in the Mediterranean, though this requirement has
been gapped in recent years. One is usually in transit to or
from a deployment. One also often is
committed to participating in or
planning for an exercise involving
coalition partners or allies, plus
humanitarian relief missions. These
exercises and missions are the foundation of the U.S. Maritime Strategy
goal of coalition and confidence
building and are essential.
The United States is able to just
meet these “normal” commitments
with the 11 aircraft carriers. Carriers
are “pulled” from a normal assignment to react to emerging events,
leaving a gap in the required deployment profile. If a major combat operation were to develop, the United
States would be hard pressed to meet the operationally defined requirements of our major war plans. Four to six carriers are mandated to prosecute those plans. Even with the
11 carriers available today, it would be difficult to get the
required assets on station within the required timelines.
Six aircraft carriers responded to the call during
Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it took months to get
them all in position. Aircraft carriers provided the only
initial airpower and 75 percent of the total airpower for
Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, again
proving that the oceans provide a base that does not
need assent from any national entity.
The Navy League firmly believes that 11 carriers and
10 air wings are barely sufficient to meet the foreseeable
requirements of combat, bringing relief to those devastated by natural events and providing the visible
American presence that builds coalition trust and confidence and deters conflict. This is the context in which
the carrier requirement must be examined during the
ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review.
When the President asks, “Where are the carriers?”
the Navy must be able to respond, “Wherever you need
them to be.”