The British launched the opening attack of the 3rd battle of Ypres on July 31, 1917. The objective was to destroy a rail junction on which the German army depended for Western Front supplies. The plan included British naval as well as amphibious assaults on the nearby Belgian coast. The naval action was to have loosened Germany’s grip on continental ports whose danger to England—in the hands of an enemy—hearkened back to Napoleon and foreshadowed Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion both of which British dominance at sea decisively turned back. Ninety-six years later to the day after the attack at Ypres, Chuck Hagel offered up the possibility of cutting back the U.S. Navy from 11 to eight or nine carrier battle groups and reducing the Marine Corps from its current level of 182,000 to something between 150,000 and 175,000. Neither the French emperor nor the Nazi tyrant could slice the Royal Navy off at the knees, but Mr. Hagel created the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) this past spring to address sequestration. The SCMR raised the prospect that we will do to ourselves what our opponents in hot and cold wars have persistently failed at. Eliminating over 17 percent of the Marine Corps and 27 percent of the Navy’s carriers along with the surface and submarine combatants that accompany them would be a self-inflicted wound from which recovery would be difficult for the Marines and extremely difficult for the Navy. The Navy’s next aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, plus its air wing will cost far more the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for a single year.
The consequences are impossible to predict but the reduction in power is straightforward. Four aircraft carriers are needed to keep one permanently on patrol. Backing up the deployed carrier is one that is preparing to relieve it. This means re-qualifying pilots and refreshing the crew in the skills they need to operate the ship and look after its air wing. Meanwhile a third carrier is in port for intermediate maintenance: repairing, refurbishing, updating, and where needed replacing worn-out equipment. A fourth ship is also in port for refueling, a complicated and expensive procedure that takes four years for a nuclear-powered vessel. When the Navy is required, it can accelerate some of these processes but, sending pilots on combat missions who have not completed their qualifications or just barely met them is risky. The elimination of three aircraft carriers would mean that the U.S.’s current ability to keep about three aircraft carrier battle groups deployed around the world would drop to about two. Thus our allies could count on a single carrier battle group for the entire West Pacific and a single carrier battle group for the Persian Gulf. An unexpected event, such as a serious crisis in the increasingly unstable Mediterranean where we have no carriers today or a conflict in the West Pacific that required more than a single carrier would strain the diminished Navy beyond its ability effectively to respond.
During World War II the Navy had developed the fast carrier task force in the Pacific. A single one, for example Task Force 50, was composed of six Essex-class and six Independence-class aircraft carriers. Today’s carriers are indeed more powerful than their WWII ancestors but numbers still matter and the most powerful vessel cannot conduct operations in two places at once. The carriers that the Secretary of Defense has discussed eliminating would leave active duty with their accompanying air wings and submarine and surface combatants, about 6 vessels per carrier. This would at a stroke shrink the fleet by 18 highly effective combat ships or a net decrease from the Navy’s current 284-ship fleet of about 10 percent—and this does not count the decrement in amphibious ships that would accompany Hagel’s deep cuts in the Marine Corps.
The consequences flow outwards from the initial step. The Navy would save money but it would also lose many thousands of skilled sailors. The industrial base on which any technologically advanced naval force rests would contract as the number of ships that need to be maintained fell. The handful of remaining large defense prime contractors that build ships would probably survive intact, but many of their secondary and tertiary contractors would likely fold. Should their products be needed again, years must pass before abandoned manufacturing capability could be restored, or else we must depend on foreign suppliers whose lines of communication to the U.S. would become increasingly brittle as American seapower evaporates. The Navy’s goal of a 306 ship-fleet, recently reduced from its previous 313-ship target, is already a chimera with a $4 billion dollar gap between what the Navy has historically received for new ship construction and what naval leaders say is needed to reach its goal over the next three decades. The measures that Secretary Hagel suggests point to a fleet composed of fewer than 260 ships within seven years.
And reconstituting deactivated carriers is no small matter. Nuclear reactors cannot be turned on and off like the light in your kitchen. If they are turned off altogether changes in the core’s composition will require building anew. It takes four years to refuel a carrier under normal circumstances. No U.S. aircraft carrier’s reactor has ever been turned off, allowed to sit, and then reactivated. Even if the reactors of carriers that are withdrawn from the fleet are kept at a simmer, it would take years to bring them back to useful service life, hire and train crews. And then there is the issue of restoring to preparedness the planes from the deactivated carriers. Recruiting and training new pilots, ensuring their skills at sea in all weather conditions, and honing their combat abilities would take a couple of years. Updating support for combat aircraft’s complex electronics systems—everything from navigation to targeting, and more—as well as ammunition readiness and the helicopter support that carriers take to sea would also take time.
American seapower’s swiftness in responding to crises or projecting power on demand as it did throughout the Cold War, in the Balkans, in the Gulf wars, and Haiti in 1994 would become a memory or a Hobson’s choice between weak response and vacating, however temporarily, such strategic commitments as we maintain in the Pacific of the Persian Gulf.
This is a particularly inopportune moment for the U.S. to dismantle seapower, the most globally distributed and strategically influential element of its military. Civil war continues in Syria and threatens in Egypt. Turkey under Islamist rule is reviving the both the ideological and geographic ambitions of its Ottoman past. Fueled in part by the prospect of discovering additional large natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish naval violations of Greek sovereignty have increased four-fold since 2009. The sub-Saharan arc of Africa has become a nest of insurgencies. Iran approaches nuclear power status. And East Asia peers into the dawn of a naval armament competition as Australia, India, China, and now South Korea plan, build, launch and commission large new combatants.
For now the sequester that decreases American power by gutting its armed forces appears immovable. But events could change this, especially if voters sense danger in America’s inability to influence events or if they realize that half the sequestered funds are being diverted from a department that is responsible for no more than one-fifth of federal spending. Sensible policy would allow the Defense Department to divide its budget strategically—as Paul Ryan has proposed. Rather than the administration’s plan which requires cuts to be applied equally, the Ryan legislation would permit cuts to be apportioned so that, for instance, aircraft carriers—which take much longer to build or return to service than tanks or mobile artillery—could be kept on the list of active duty ships.
Hagel’s willingness to raise the possibility of reducing American combat strength at the strategic fulcrum of the nation’s ability to project power globally is deeply troubling. This possibility should never have been entertained. No strategic justification exists for diminishing the American fleet’s capital ships by over one-fourth. Every domestic political signal points against the large-scale use of American ground forces for the imaginable future. At the same time the active engagement required in such places as jihadists have decided to make their stands is best answered with special operations forces. Robust seapower offers the possibility to influence, deter, and if necessary intervene in such regional challenges as are growing in the Middle East and in the East Asia’s seas. Sequestration in its current shape is an advanced exercise in irrationality—similar to World War I’s pitting of unprotected men against machine guns. The practical effect of Mr. Hagel’s ideas would transform the irrational into a threat to America.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. He served as a naval officer for nearly 20 years and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, and is author of Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy.