JERRY HENDRIX, a retired Navy captain with 26 years of service, recently published a 2,700-word article in the National Review on aircraft carriers. He looked at cost, capabilities and likely places for future battles.
His conclusion, stated near the beginning, is simply this:
The Navy “needs to stop building aircraft carriers.”
Hendrix’s article has sparked a debate in the pages of the conservative journal about the future of the Navy’s largest and most expensive warships, which represent a source of economic power and pride in Hampton Roads.
Sen. John McCain has raised the issue a different way. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked the Navy to study alternatives to aircraft carriers.
McCain has frequently criticized the rising cost of the Ford-class carrier program, which supports thousands of jobs at Newport News Shipbuilding, the state’s largest industrial employer. The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole US builder of nuclear-powered carriers.
Sean Stackley, an assistant secretary of the Navy, said the study will search for a “sweet spot, something different, other than today’s 100,000-ton carrier, that would make sense to provide the power projection that we need, that we get today from our aircraft carriers, but at the same time, put us in a more affordable position …” He spoke at a Senate hearing in March.
This week, a Navy spokesman said, “there is a historical precedent for these types of exploratory studies as we look for ways to improve our war-fighting capabilities.”
The study will look at projected threats around the globe and match those to current Navy capabilities. It will also look at “acquisition strategies that promote competition in naval ship construction,” said Lt. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman.
One of the most influential voices in Congress on shipbuilding is Rep. Randy Forbes. The Republican from Chesapeake welcomes Hendrix’s analysis and McCain’s study. Ultimately, Forbes – and a large majority in Congress – continue to have faith in the future of the US carrier fleet.
But he and Hendrix agree on one key point: the mix of aircraft that fly off carrier decks must change.
Cost and relevancy
During his Navy career, Hendrix deployed twice on carriers and served as a tactical action officer. Among his responsibilities was overall defense of the ship in the absence of the captain. He said a number of issues factored into his current view.
First, countries such as China are developing weapons that require carriers to operate farther from shore — beyond the range of carrier-based aircraft. That’s a different environment than the Persian Gulf, where terrorist groups lack high-tech, anti-ship weapons such as cruise missiles.
Second, the cost of aircraft carriers rose significantly from the Nimitz class to the new Ford class, but the annual Navy shipbuilding budget remained relatively constant.
“We’ve been buying more and more expensive ships with that budget, which means we have been buying less,” he said.
Another concern related to history. The aircraft carrier has been the dominant US platform since World War II. That has allowed military leaders in other countries to focus on a fixed target for many years.
A solution, he says, is to move away from the carrier and invest more in other platforms that can provide lethal striking power from long range. That can happen along with changing the mix of ships in the fleet. Money saved from not building Ford-class aircraft carriers could go toward more missile-launching submarines, guided-missile destroyers, frigates or multiple joint high-speed vessels.
The other option, he said, is make carriers more relevant by investing in unmanned, carrier-based strike aircraft that can operate over greater ranges.
The Navy is currently developing unmanned carrier-launched vehicles under its Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The program made history off the Virginia coast in 2013 when a computer-controlled prototype drone landed aboard the Norfolk-based carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
Key members of Congress — with Forbes in the front — have pushed the Navy toward employing the drone for attack purposes, as well as surveillance and intelligence gathering.
However, Hendrix said “it will be some time” before the Navy fields a strike version of the UCLASS.
Carriers still matter
The article sparked a rebuttal in the National Review by Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath. Cropsey directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. McGrath is the assistant director.
Just as Hendrix summed up his theme in one sentence, they did the same with their rebuttal, saying “his argument essentially boils down to this: The airplanes the carrier employs require it to operate too close to danger. Therefore, we should get rid of the carrier.”
They point out that aircraft carriers do not wage war alone. As any Hampton Roads native knows, carriers leave for deployment with other ships as escorts. An attack involving a carrier would be part of a larger battle force including submarines, other warships, long-range bombers and a cyber campaign, the two authors say.
They agree that Ford-class carriers represent a substantial investment. But even with the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford coming in at nearly $14 billion — 22 percent over original estimates — the Defense Department will have spent $3 trillion over the five years it takes to build an aircraft carrier.
“For less than one-half of one percent of all defense spending in those five years, the country gets the world’s most powerful and sophisticated mobile maritime power-projection and sea-control platform, one that is engineered for a 50-year lifespan,” they state.
They fault Hendrix for appearing to “want it both ways,” wondering whether he favors upgrading the carrier’s air wing with unmanned craft or moving away from carriers and investing in other ships.
However, they do agree on one point: Extending the range of the carrier air wing makes sense.
“If the Navy chooses to build the right airplanes, the carrier will remain central to US power projection,” they write.
Forbes weighs in
Forbes comes down on the side of Cropsey and McGrath. He says their piece refutes Hendrix “quite handily.” But he agrees on the need for unmanned strike aircraft that allow carriers to operate farther from hostile shores. He pushed against the Navy’s initial emphasis on intelligence-gathering drones.
“Two years ago, the Navy was headed exactly the wrong direction, and they would have told you it was a done deal,” he said.
Now he’s satisfied that the program is moving the right direction, albeit at a slow pace.
“It’s never going at a pace I’d like to see,” he said. “I’d like to see it yesterday.”
Forbes noted that policymakers and most members of Congress still believe in the relevance of the carrier fleet. When the Navy raised the possibility of retiring the USS George Washington instead of refueling it, lawmakers pushed back. Congress also soundly defeated an amendment to the most recent defense authorization bill that would have reduced the carrier fleet from 11 to 10.
He said Hendrix seems to “argue against himself” in proposing more investment in submarines, which would result in a less balanced force.
But the two men share a mutual respect. Hendrix calls Forbes “a brilliant leader in the area of sea power.”
Speaking of Hendrix, Forbes said, “I’m glad he’s putting those things out there. Look, Jerry is a smart guy. These debates are good to have. In the end, everyone wants the same thing.”
But Forbes simply doesn’t see how the carrier can or should be replaced. He welcomes McCain’s study on introducing competition to the aircraft carrier industry, but wonders where it goes from there.
“Competition is always good,” he said. “There’s just not too many alternative platforms out there.”
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