Fixing the Navy’s Carrier Gap
For almost two months, the United States Navy has operated without its required aircraft carrier in the Middle East and Europe. These continual carrier “presence gaps” should not surprise us; they represent a voluntary choice by a Navy asked to do too much with too little for too long. And while Pentagon leadership and combatant commanders have agreed for years that the Navy requires at least twelve carriers to keep three deployed at any one time, appropriators long ago failed to fund a carrier fleet of that size. Today, President Trump and the Republican Congress have signaled their intent to repair the U.S. military, but no easy or quick fixes exist for America’s aircraft carrier fleet. Reconstituting a healthy carrier force requires an understanding of the real problem, followed by several short-term actions and a generational commitment to America’s premier power projection force.
Continual carrier gaps result from a fundamental mismatch between what is asked of the Navy and the means provided to it by senior decision-makers and appropriators. The Navy stretched to meet its mission needs during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the situation has worsened as the natural maintenance delays that followed were exacerbated by inadequate funding after the 2011 Budget Control Act. To cope, the Navy pushed its sailors harder and harder, until its senior leadership could no longer endorse such a strategy. Absent new funding or a decrease in operational tempo, in 2014 the Navy delivered an ultimatum to senior decision-makers in the form of a second revised deployment schedule: suffer continual carrier gaps or break the force.
Policymakers accepted this ultimatum, otherwise known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, and its built-in presence gaps, but this revised deployment schedule remains risky — everything must go perfectly to achieve it. Yet all plans live under Murphy’s Law, particularly when those plans involve 150,000 tons of warships, tens of thousands of sailors, and dozens of aircraft. Late last year, the USS George H.W. Bush suffered significant maintenance delays, forcing the Pentagon to accept a carrier presence gap over the past two months rather than extend the deployment of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before that, the Eisenhower itself experienced unexpectedly long maintenance stemming from extended deployments, but the Pentagon extended the tour of the USS Harry S. Truman beyond the new deployment schedule’s seven-month limit to avoid a carrier presence gap. We should expect the next few carriers in the shipyard to suffer maintenance delays, too, given years of extended deployments and maintenance funding shortfalls. Worse yet, the planned commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) continues to be delayed, as often happens with first-of-class ships.
Policymakers could begin to mitigate the current problem by including margins of error in the carrier maintenance and deployment schedule, instead of setting impossible-to-meet expectations. While such a plan might change little on the ground, it would put an end to continued outrage and surprise when utterly foreseeable maintenance or construction delays occur. Combining political cover with an immediate infusion of funding would give the Navy a fighting chance to improve its maintenance planning process and complete long-deferred maintenance. Simultaneously, to ensure that the new USS Ford makes its first deployment as soon as possible, Secretary of Defense James Mattis could cancel the unwise full-ship shock trials. These options will relieve the immediate pressures facing the Navy in the next few years, but returning to a 12-carrier fleet will take more time.
New aircraft carrier construction can only accelerate so much; it is essentially too late to change the scheduled delivery of the Kennedy (CVN-79) in 2022 and Enterprise (CVN-80) in 2027. President Trump and Congress can compress future carrier construction from five to four years or slightly less — a worthy and cost-saving endeavor recommended by former seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA). Even a four-year carrier construction pace would only provide minor relief, preventing the carrier fleet from dropping from 11 to 10 until a true 12-carrier Navy sails again in the early 2030s. Additionally, the Navy can mitigate the shortfall in naval strike capacity before then by accelerating procurement of a third aviation-focused America-class amphibious assault ship from 2024 to 2021.
Lastly, the Navy could change how it bases and uses carriers, both of which should be explored, despite their inherent difficulties. It could pursue a long-term expansion of basing carriers overseas, including in Japan or Australia. Such a plan mitigates carrier gaps, but requires extensive political and financial negotiations, plus placing a second carrier within range of long-range Chinese missiles (in the case of Japan). The Navy could also change the way it employs carriers by removing the current carrier presence requirement in favor of holding carriers back and deploying them in larger groups when their combat power is truly needed. Yet the presence mission has underpinned the nuclear aircraft carrier force since the Cold War, and changing that would require overcoming both service culture and the expectation among senior decision-makers that carriers will be immediately available to signal American resolve.
This mismatch between what we ask of the Navy’s carrier force and what we provide it to get the job done is an old problem. The answers, too, are well known. Yet with the prospect of increased defense spending on the horizon, it’s even more important to set expectations about how fast the Navy can make its aircraft carrier fleet healthy again.