June 1, 2008  

The case for carriers


Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) are useful but unlikely to undertake any significant operations without a Hawkeye overhead. Because carrier-based Hawkeyes are not part of an ESG, perhaps the Navy needs to expand its E-2C and E-2D squadrons to include land-based assets for ESG coverage. Are we really going to put a 2,000- or 5,000- or 15,000-man Marine Corps force on the beach without early-warning overhead coverage?

Aircraft carriers also have a near-monopoly of electronic warfare assets needed for joint air operations. The Air Force probably will not conduct any opening-day strike operations without Prowlers and Growlers in the package, and it is big-deck aircraft carriers that bring those electronic-warfare (EW) platforms to the fight. There is vague talk now about conducting EW from UAVs or F-35s, but no program of record that I am aware of.

Hendrix advocates forward-basing West Coast strike carriers at Guam to save transit time. But it is not clear that the main harbor at Guam can be dug deep enough to handle an aircraft carrier or that our huge carriers can even make the tight turn into the Guam harbor. Nor is it likely the California and Washington state congressional delegations (terrific Navy advocates) will let those assets leave their home ports.

Hendrix says he thinks we need a smaller carrier fleet. But we are already dipping down to only 10 aircraft carriers while waiting for the new Ford-class big decks to join the fleet. We clearly retired the Kitty Hawk too soon. Now we will wait for the first ship of a new class, and that almost always involves delays and unforeseen problems. We are already hearing noises about technological challenges on the Ford’s new aircraft launching system.

If we allow a power vacuum to open in the blue-water oceans, we will tempt some other emerging power to try to fill it. The reason we are fighting low-level, asymmetric wars now in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is because we have done an excellent job dominating the world’s oceans, air and space. It is in the interests of the global democratic order that America continue doing so, and taking our carrier force down to 10 or eight or six will put that dominance at risk.

Merrick “Mac” Carey

CEO, Lexington Institute

Washington, D.C.