• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Gates: Do We Really Need 11 Carrier Strike Groups?

expeditionary-fighting-vehicleBob Gates continues to make his return to government service from the pleasant confines of College Station count.  He’s cut costly programs, ordered women to be allowed to serve on submarines, and is ending the ban on gays openly serving on his timetable.  Like these changes or hate them, they’re big.

Now, he’s going after the Navy budget.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been pushing to change the course of the US military, scrapping expensive programs he sees as marginal and arguing for cheaper, more relevant platforms — and now he has set his sights on the Navy and Marine Corps.
For years Mr. Gates has called out the Air Force for demanding expensive aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, a $140-million-a-copy stealth fighter that the defense secretary has now essentially discontinued. But in a time of tight budgets, even for the US military, Gates seems intent on spreading the pain. Now, it’s the sea services’ turn.

At a conference outside Washington hosted by the Navy League, Gates on Monday singled out aircraft carriers and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle as two examples that need Pentagon reevaluation.

The Navy’s aircraft carriers, he told the Navy-Marine Corps audience, represent an example of the US military’s conventional military might — power that is unmatched by any nation. But he asked whether the US needs to maintain 11 aircraft carriers and their attending ships — known as a carrier strike group — for decades to come.

“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other counry has one?” the Pentagon chief said. “Any future plans must address these realities.” The Ford class of carriers is being built now.

Likewise, the Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a tracked vehicle that looks like a tank for water, is capable of carrying marines ashore during an amphibious assault. But the star quality of the vehicle, which has been in development since the 1980s and won’t be operational for another year or so, has faded because of performance problems and cost overruns.

In his speech, Gates noted that the capability the vehicle provides was needed in the past, most recently during the first Gulf War. Today may be a different story, he said. “We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again — especially as advances in antiship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from ashore,” Gates said. “On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?”

While I study international security for a living, I’m far from expert on maritime strategy.  But Gates is asking the right questions here.

A few months back, I took part in the Navy’s distinguished visitor program, spending 24 hours aboard the USS Eisenhower.  Both the vessel and its crew were extremely impressive.  The amount of firepower and flexibility represented by a carrier group is enormous and likely well worth the cost, given our budget.  But I don’t know anyone who really thinks we need eleven of them.  My inclination would be to figure out how many we’ll plausibly need and add two.  But my strong guess is that would still leave us well short of eleven.  And, given the margin of advantage between us and the next strongest maritime power, the need for the Ford class is less than obvious.

And the likelihood of a massive amphibious landing akin to that on Omaha Beach is slightly less than that of a division-strength airborne landing.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. It is the right question, but it is premature. We don’t have a national security strategy in place. Our national defense and military strategy are empty, cliche-ridden documents that focus heavily on “winning the wars we’re in” which is fine, but not a basis for planning the force over a 25-40 year time period.

    I don’t mind looking hard at carriers. I happen to think we don’t need 11. BUT, you can only look hard at carriers as part of a disciplined process. Forcing the carrier fleet to justify itself, while giving COIN capabilities a free pass is problematic. And given recent developments, I don’t think there is any reason to assume this will represent a disciplined and rigorous process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. john personna says:

    I wonder how bad a fifty million dollar fighter would really be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Bernard: hear, hear!

    It doesn’t help that the “wars we’re in” are unwinnable. You can win a war whose objective is the unconditional surrender of Japan. No military on the face of the earth can win a war whose objective is a democratic, prosperous, and peaceful Afghanistan. At least not in a timeframe and at a cost that’s acceptable to the American people.

    You can’t develop an effective strategy for an unachievable objective.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. sam says:

    And the likelihood of a massive amphibious landing akin to that on Omaha Beach is slightly less than that of a division-strength airborne landing.

    Not arguing for the vehicle, but current amphib doctrine is centered on the MEU, whose ops nowhere approach the “massive landing” scope of Omaha beach, or indeed, any of the operations of the Corps in the Pacific.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Andy says:

    Bernard is right – the military capabilities we buy are tied to requirements based on strategy and anticipated military needs. Right now we have a requirement to keep at least two carriers at sea, on deployment at all times. We have other requirements, based on contingency war-planning among other things, that some number of carriers must be available on fairly short notice to help prosecute a war. These ships also need maintenance, so you have to account for 1-2 of them being in the yards for a refit at any point in time and therefore unavailable. These factors drive the 11 number, though the Navy would really prefer 12.

    We certainly can reduce the number of carriers (and it should be noted that early drafts of the 2010 QDR recommended cutting two), but such a change cannot happen in a vacuum.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. J.W. Hamner says:

    In what possible conflict would 11 carrier strike groups be necessary? Simultaneous invasion of Europe and China? I don’t mean to be snarky, but I can’t even begin to wrap my head around needing that many.

    Is there even a nation out there that could mount a credible threat to even a single carrier strike group?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. James Joyner says:

    In what possible conflict would 11 carrier strike groups be necessary?

    There has to be redundant capability, as all of them can’t be afloat at any one time. Indeed, one or two is usually in for yearslong retrofitting. But, even so, there’s no plausible scenario requiring that many afloat.

    Is there even a nation out there that could mount a credible threat to even a single carrier strike group?

    Actually, there’s a very real fear that asymmetric threats could do just that. Think kamikaze strikes but with dozens of fast, cheap boats.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. rodney dill says:

    …but the knob goes all the way to 11.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Brett says:

    Actually, there’s a very real fear that asymmetric threats could do just that. Think kamikaze strikes but with dozens of fast, cheap boats.

    Not that “missile boat” theory again. They’ll get chewed up and spat out by any fleet with decent air coverage and detection. Not to mention that missiles can be intercepted, and small missile boats tend to have limited range.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    In my opinion there are only two kinds of navy vessels … submarines and targets.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. [...] James Joyner gets it exactly wrong in asking if we need 11 carrier battle groups. He should be asking if 11 is enough. The carrier battle group is our main method of power projection and it gives us the ability to respond to incidents throughout the world. For every carrier that is deployed on is in work-ups for deployment one is returning to their homeport, In addition two are generally in drydock for year long repair and refits. That is how they manage to have a 50 year service life. With increased emphasis on brown water operations a new platform may be developed that allows one or two carriers to be retired but that is probably a long time coming. [...]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. tdd says:

    The amount of firepower and flexibility represented by a carrier group is enormous and likely well worth the cost, given our budget. But I don’t know anyone who really thinks we need eleven of them.

    How much do you think a carrier costs including fighter wing and operating cost? How do you weight the cost vs the mission requirements?

    Why do you think we have eleven now? How many are at sea at any given time?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. JKB says:

    In my opinion there are only two kinds of navy vessels … submarines and targets.

    Or more recently…submarines and things they run into.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Gustopher says:

    Having a large number allows them to be pre-positioned near not just the current hot spot, but likely and potential hot spots as well. It’s part of our ability to project force thousands of miles away at the drop of a hat.

    Cutting the number of carrier strike groups will impact our readiness somewhere. It may well be worth it, of course, but we shouldn’t pretend that they serve no purpose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Billions for tribute, not one penny for defense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. DC Loser says:

    The amount of firepower and flexibility represented by a carrier group is enormous and likely well worth the cost, given our budget. But I don’t know anyone who really thinks we need eleven of them.

    All the firepower is useless if the carrier is sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Wayne says:

    Carriers are pretty handy when your allies won’t let you use their airbases (Saudi Arabia) or their airspace (France). I prefer to have too many than not enough. It sucks not to have airpower when you need it and it amazing how quick 9 groups can be dedicated somewhere else.

    I agree we should look at where we can cut cost even in the military but the military seem to be the only place politicians are wiling to cut. Then they complain when a conflict happens and we don’t have the needed equipment or personnel.

    Amphibious capabilities come in handy in places like Haiti, evacuations of embassy and other task. Granted air evacuations are more common but not always feasible especially if you don’t have air support. Also time constraints usually prevent waiting for a task force to sail half way around the world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Franklin says:

    I agree we should look at where we can cut cost even in the military but the military seem to be the only place politicians are not willing to cut.

    FTFY.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  19. Wayne says:

    Franklin
    Thanks for correcting my typo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. reid says:

    We need to see a dollar figure associated with the cost of building and maintaining one of these groups. I’m assuming it’s a staggeringly large number.

    ZRIII: “not one penny for defense”? Really? What is that supposed to mean? I was thinking that the comments were quite reasonable, too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Gerry W. says:

    For what it’s worth. Some numbers and pie charts.

    http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. reid says:

    Gerry: Quite an interesting read, thanks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. tony says:

    Any money the administration can cut from defense doesnt have to be cut from popular programs.

    Gates needs money. Carriers are expensive.

    Gates uses buzz words of change and flexibility. Gates cites the esteemed boldness of some great commanders who had to stand up to established Navy doctrine to push their worthy cases. But note, this time its not grassroots Commanders spearheading change. Gates wants to manufacturer a grassroots rebellion. Can he convince ‘young Navy’ to give up its most precious possession, rally against those who have studied long and hard on how to deploy them properly, and to support the administration’s desire to cut funding and think its in their best interest.

    Remember this isnt because the carriers HAVE failed, only because Gates paints the picture that they might fail.

    I say don’t give up the ship just yet!

    The US DOES need to worry about $$. But what are we getting when we purchase 11 carriers: We keep the world’s oceans at peace in a large scale. Im not talking about pirates or local water disputes, Im talking about nations and navies.

    No one can build 1 supercarrier, so why do we need 11: Its a big world, and we want to protect all of it. I dont think the Navy ever planned to park 11 carriers on anyones door step at any one time. In order to keep the world’s oceans at peace and discourage nations from producing navies that could project power like ours, we want carriers that can be deployed far from our shores and on many shores. We want carriers that can defend both coasts. We want carriers to replace those undergoing maintenance or repairs. And we want to do this all simultaneously. Its expensive, but it keeps people worried about economic crisis rather than Naval crisis. It allows us to fight trade wars rather than real wars.

    Eleven seems too many? The Navy needs to present this case and better than I have done.

    It would be a shame if we loosen our grip on power projection and open the flood gates to competition on a military scale. Gates suggests our carriers are vulnerable. The fewer we have, the more vulnerable they will be!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. But if we are going to have the capability to punch back twice as hard we should raise it to 22.

    As to Dr. Schuler’s comment above, as Carver said (paraphrasing) on The Wire, “You can’t call this a war. Wars end.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. reid says:

    tony: Interesting points, though I missed where Gates was suggesting that the carriers might fail or be vulnerable. I thought he was just suggesting that we plain don’t need that many, which is a very sensible thing to bring up. Yes, the Navy needs to present its case, if it really believes it needs 11, but everything you described could probably be done by some number less than 11. If we’re talking about saving $50B per group (a number I made up), why not do so? That’s getting to be real money!

    Didn’t Reagan dramatically increase the size of the navy? I seem to remember a 600-ship fleet target; weren’t there fewer carriers then, too? And this was before the fall of the Soviet Union, of course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. The Q says:

    Hey to all you who think we need these floating airbases, a question:

    What about the 798 bases we have (according to Chalmers Johnson) around the world which project American power. What the frigg are they for?

    The absurdity of those who believe we need this overkill capability is stupefying.

    Didn’t you guys get the memo: There is no more Soviet Union.

    The fact we have spent trillions since their downfall (regardless of 911) proves yet again the pernicious effect of Ike’s military industrial complex.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. Drew says:

    Rodney Dill gets best comment……but

    I simply have no expertise or experience, so I cannot comment, only question.

    James, and Bernard, do you have a reasonable estimate of the savings available to “rightsizing” the carrier fleet, even if you disagreed plus or minus 1,2?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. The Strategic MC says:

    “Didn’t Reagan dramatically increase the size of the navy? I seem to remember a 600-ship fleet target; weren’t there fewer carriers then, too? And this was before the fall of the Soviet Union, of course.”

    At it’s peak in 1988, the Reagan-era “600 Ship Navy” had grown to 588 ships. In 1989, we peaked out at 14 CV/CVNs and supporting Battle Groups.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. For perspective, the United States had 99 aircraft carriers in commission at the end of World War II, though only about 20 of these are of the type under discussion here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Duracomm says:

    The military really is the only place politicians are willing to cut.

    Wars end entitlements don’t.

    The deterrent value of a strong military has significant value. We ignore this at our own peril.

    The Stubborn Welfare State

    The table shows the rise of the American welfare state.

    In 1956, defense dominated the budget; the Cold War buildup was in full swing. The welfare state, which is what “payments to individuals” signifies, was modest.

    Now everything is reversed.

    defense spending is only a fifth of the budget; so-called entitlement payments to individuals are almost 60 percent — and rising.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. reid says:

    Duracomm: Really, is spending “only” a fifth of the entire federal budget on defense something to be scared about? Maybe cutting it 90% would be enough to put us in some sort of peril (and even then, from who I don’t know), but no one’s suggesting anything like that. Enough with the scare tactics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  32. Duracomm says:

    Reid,

    The point is defense has been steadily cut, entitlements have not.

    Defense cuts are not going to fix the US budget problems because the scale of entitlements simply swamps military spending.

    Furthermore, people really underestimate the positive benefits those carrier groups provide to the US in particular and the world in general.

    Worse they neglect the risks not having those resources would cause.

    A Victim of Our Own Success

    For an island nation like ours, hugely dependent upon foreign commerce, unfettered access to the sea is and will remain crucial, and no one else is stepping up to the plate to ensure that access.

    When a carrier or expeditionary strike group enters the Western Pacific or Arabian Gulf, it not only provides that stabilizing presence without which rogue actors might be tempted to opportunism, it also becomes a potent display of capability and will.

    Allies are engaged through mutual self-interest, and absent a strong power to balance regional competitions, countries that now offer access to US ground and expeditionary air forces might be tempted to make alignments not in our interest.

    Finally, our humanitarian assistance in Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami (just for one example) — while not the “knife in the teeth” vision that some people think they are signing up for in recruiting offices — probably took more potential enemies out of the fight than any number JDAM deliveries or door-kicking expeditions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. Dave Schuler says:

    An excerpt from Galrahn’s response to Secretary Gates:

    This is a reprise of an argument Gates has made publicly several times. It is a line of reasoning that simply astounds me. Like the annual media story trumpeting a “Drop In Crime Even As Prison Population Surges”, the cause and effect nature of Gates statistics seem simply to evade him. The plain truth of the matter is that we have a world full of free riders, content to spend meager portions of their defense budgets on navies BECAUSE we have such a dominant one. That Navy—our Navy—performs a critical function in the global system, one performed at different times by the leading maritime nation of the world. The English, the Portuguese and the Dutch all provided a “global good” by being as powerful as they were and ensuring that others could safely and reliably conduct commerce across wide expanses. What is most dangerous of all about Gates riff here is where it could lead—and that is to a naval arms race. Our spending on a dominant Navy discourages virtually every nation on earth from building bigger more powerful navies (more on that in a bit). Should we begin to show signs of walking away from that dominance—other nations will see themselves has having no other option than to build more ships. While we may short-sightedly think that is just fine, in the long run, such a naval arms race would be destabilizing.

    Read the whole thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. The Strategic MC says:

    “What about the 798 bases we have (according to Chalmers Johnson) around the world which project American power. What the frigg are they for?”

    How many of the 798 can support sustained air operations? You know, as proxies for floating air bases.
    How many of the 798 are in geopolitically significant parts of the world? I don’t think that Army Supply Depots in Ecuador provide any power-projection capability.

    In normal peace-time operations, as many as 4 of the 11 will be deployed on out of area operations. The reminder are undergoing refit/maintenance or are engaged in training ops.

    In a crisis, carrier resources can be used up pretty fast. Major Operations Plans (OPPLANS) might require 6 or 7 carriers in the active theater (i.e., Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, etc). The reminder of the fleet would be left to cover contingencies in the remaining Areas Of Responsibility (AOR).

    A minor contingency would require multiple CVs in theater IOT support sustained (24/7) operations and to provide for a mutual defense capability.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. reid says:

    Duracomm: I’d like to see more data about defense budgets over the years, not just 1956 and 2006. The page Gerry listed shows that the defense budget went up through the 2000s, for example. I think that the budget has generally been fine for at least the last 25 years. It’s hard to imagine someone being concerned about our military readiness.

    No one expects defense cuts will fix the budget, but cutting unnecessary costs there (and other places) is certainly smart. 20% of the budget isn’t exactly pocket change.

    I can easily believe that going from 11 to 10 carrier groups will save a lot of money and not affect our security or standing in the world at all. But I leave that to the experts….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. just me says:

    My husband was in the Navy when they were cutting down carrier groups. Part of the problem is there is a lot of coast and a lot of sea to cover.

    It might save money, but it will save money on the backs of sailors who will have to spend even more time at sea. The last year my husband was in the Navy, he did not do a 6 month med run, but still spent over 6 months at sea doing various training, qualifications and intercepting the various Hatian boat refugees. That factored in with duty days, and he was gone 9 months of the year.

    I think the only way it really works is if they find a way to lessen sea time, because the Navy will have a hard time keeping quality sailors, if fewer carrier groups results in even more time at sea.

    So I guess my point here is that the Navy may save money, but is it going to be worth it to train sailors and lose them because the sea schedule stinks to high heaven.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. The Strategic MC says:

    just me-

    I lived La Vida Loca starting back in the late 70’s when what you describe was the norm. 300+ days a year sleeping in a bed other than your own.
    Carrier Battle Groups often did 9 month deployments due to an in-balance between commitments and available ships. This went on for years. Our personnel retention and ship maintenance rates suffered significant damage because of this.

    We still have lots of water to cover with greatly reduced assets. Underway days for surface sailors have started to creep back up, with exercise commitments, regular deployments and unscheduled contingencies (i.e., Haiti Relief) eating into days spent in homeport. Maintenance periods are also getting shorted IOT respond to operational necessities.

    Will penny-wise and pound-foolish once again become the order of the day?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. PD Shaw says:

    Galrahn’s got some good points. I’ll emphasize this line:

    Were we to be seen as diminishing our role, the shipbuilding competition wouldn’t BE against US—it would pit China vs. Japan vs. South Korea vs. Russia vs. France vs. England…etc. Our dominant Navy is what keeps a lid on all this. That said, the lid is beginning to over-pressurize, and the source of that pressure is China—who Gates blithely and obliquely refers to as a countries with a “…significant naval modernization program underway.”

    I personally don’t see an alternative to current U.S. global strategy that doesn’t increase reliance on the Navy.

    The free rider issue can’t be resolved simply by downsizing and letting someone else pick up the slack. The U.S. is the greatest beneficiary of the world order and whoever is second, third etc. can always depend upon us defending it in crisis, regardless if we have done so shrewdly and cheaply or not. The only practical alternative is to recognize formal or informal spheres of influence. Such as, letting China control the sea traffic around Japan, the Korean peninsula, and Indo-China.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. The Q says:

    Duracomm,

    Again, comparing defense spending of the 50s (cold war, russian menace)or the 60s (russian menace + Vietnam) to todays budgets is insane.

    THERE IS NO MORE SOVIET UNION. THE COLD WAR WAS WON 20 years ago.

    When will the right get over the fact that we are being destroyed economically by our defense expenditures?

    And by the way, as the Falklands war hath shown, fire about 100 exocet or other type of surface to ship missile and those mighty carriers are turned into artificial reefs.

    Our economic might is much more important in the age of asymmetric warfare than our military might.

    Or didn’t you conservatives learn that from the cold war as you constantly bitched about how many soviet tanks were in europe, or the size of the russian fleet and their submarine capabilities?

    The fact is our right makes might and our powerful message of hope, freedome and civil rights were stronger than 10,000 foxbat aircraft.

    You can’t just beat people up like the russians did in hungary or czechoslovakia or afghanistan.

    Brute force is no strategy as the Soviets learned to their great demise.

    Let us not make the same stupid mistake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  40. Juneau: says:

    Red China, Russian Naval bases in Venezuela, a nuclear Indian navy (as was just recently highlighted) . But THE SOVIET UNION WAS DEFEATED 20 YEARS AGO! Sorry, The Q is an idiot …I’m just saying

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  41. An Interested Party says:

    So, umm, when should we be expecting that attack from China, Venezuela, or India(!)? Hmm?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0