12:21 PM, Aug 26, 2013 • By SETH CROPSEY
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.
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