The Pentagon wants the Navy to cut two of its 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. And, with the money it saves, buy dozens of frigates and robotic corvettes.
The Defense Department has not made the study public. The Navy in cooperation with the U.S. Marine Corps is conducting its own, separate force-structure analysis. That study apparently is not yet complete.
The proposed cuts to the world’s biggest force of flattops should come as no surprise to close observers of Defense Secretary Mark Espers’ comments in recent months.
Esper has said he values a carrier’s capabilities, but has also said that 12 carriers -- the Navy’s longtime goal -- could be too many. “This discussion often comes down to a binary: Is it zero or 12?” Esper told Defense News in February 2020. “First of all, I don't know. I think carriers are very important. I think they demonstrate American power, American prestige. They get people's attention. They are a great deterrent. They give us great capability.”
In the same interview, Esper outlined a plan to grow the Navy’s front-line fleet by trading big, expensive manned ships for smaller vessels with technology for remote or autonomous operations.
“We can go with lightly-manned ships, get them out there,” Esper said. “You can build them so they’re optionally manned and then, depending on the scenario or the technology, at some point in time they can go unmanned.”
“That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030,” Esper added.
The Pentagon’s naval force-structure proposal is consistent with Esper’s earlier comments. With the billions of dollars annually the Navy would by cutting the carrier fleet down to nine vessels, the fleet should buy 65 lightly-manned corvettes, the OSD study reportedly recommends.
The corvettes, or “DDCs,” would help the fleet to spread out and avoid Chinese missile attacks, according to a January 2020 report from the Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“By having small crews, DDCs could contribute to peacetime training, engagement, maritime security and deterrence,” CSBA experts Bryan Clark and Timothy Walton wrote. “DDCs would also have a lower risk compared to unmanned vessels of being captured or herded out of operating areas by adversary forces.”
The carrier savings also would allow the Navy to expand its force of new, normally-manned missile frigates. The fleet could buy an additional 15 frigates on top of the 20 frigates it already plans to buy.
Under the OSD proposal, the fleet would keep all or most of its 90 cruisers and destroyers. It’s not clear what changes the Pentagon envisions for the submarine and amphibious fleets. But the Navy and Marines already have signalled that they want to trade small numbers of big amphibs for a greater number of smaller vessels.