“History,” it has been written, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Today it’s rhyming with Gen. Billy Mitchell. In the 1920s, Mitchell challenged conventional thinking by advocating air power at sea in the face of a naval establishment dominated by battleship proponents.
The hubris of the “battleship Navy” was such that just nine days before Pearl Harbor, the official program for the 1941 Army-Navy game displayed a full page photograph of the battleship USS Arizona with language virtually extolling its invincibility.
Of course, the reason that no one had yet sunk a battleship from the air — in combat — was that no one had yet tried.
In fact, Mitchell sank a captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland, in an aerial demonstration back in 1921, but the Navy said that the test proved nothing. Two of the observers that day were officials from Japan.
In addition, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a student at Harvard at the time and no doubt read accounts of the event that were widely reported in the newspapers.
The aircraft carrier decisively replaced the battleship as the Navy’s sea control capital ship, but its reign in that capacity was, in reality, quite brief. The aircraft carrier established its ascendancy in the Battle of Midway and was the centerpiece of five major sea battles between 1942 and 1944.
Yet, following the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the U.S. Navy repositioned the aircraft carrier as a platform to project power ashore. The United States did not lose a fleet carrier in the war after the Hornet went down in 1942, because Japan’s surface fleet had been devastated. Nor did Tokyo effectively use its submarines.
(This piece was first published last year in WarIsBoring here.)
That track record, just as the boast in the Army/Navy game program, however, is not an indication that a carrier cannot be sunk — or put out of commission — but rather the fact that since 1945, the U.S. Navy has never engaged another navy in battle that tried.
“Projecting the past into the future is risky business — especially when we’re unsure what that past was,” James Holmes, a naval warfare expert at the U.S. Naval War College wrote.
Which brings us to today. The U.S. Navy has fallen into a troubling pattern of designing and acquiring new classes of ships that would arguably best be left as single ship — or at most in limited numbers. It’s also building several types of new aircraft that fail to meet specifications.
The Navy is developing a new class of supercarriers that cannot function properly, and has designed them to launch F-35 fighters that are not ready to fly their missions. This is all happening during an era of out-of-control budgets, which bodes poorly for American sea power and leadership ahead.
That the Navy is concentrating larger percentages of its total force structure on large, high signature and increasingly vulnerable ships endangers America’s future. Fortunately, there’s better options to the status quo if the Navy moves now.
Before asking whether it makes sense to continue to invest in aircraft carriers, we must ask the question whether we can afford them.
The Pentagon commissioned the USS George H.W. Bush in 2009 at a cost of $6.1 billion. America’s most recent aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford , will cost more than double that in constant dollars. The carriers’ air wings cost about 70 percent again the cost of the ship itself.
In an era when personnel costs — including healthcare and pensions — are consuming the military from within, the fact that these craft require 46 percent of the Navy’s personnel to man and support places them in the crosshairs in an extreme budget-constrained environment.
The Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments stated that being the most expensive piece of military equipment in the world makes “them a prime — and perhaps even a necessary target — in this era of belt tightening.”
If 11 carriers — as required by legislation — is the minimal number required to have an effective supercarrier force, then carrier proponents are hoist upon their own petard.
“If our fleet of small numbers is so fragile that it cannot afford the loss of a single ship due to budgeting, how will it survive the inevitable losses of combat?” Commander Phillip E. Pournelle wrote in Proceedings.
That day has already come. As of early 2014, the Navy only has 10 operational supercarriers. Sequestration delayed the deployment of the Harry S. Truman and has the Navy scrambling to come up with funds to refuel the Abraham Lincoln , raising the question whether the latter will ever come back into service.
It appears dubious that the Ford will have overcome major development issues to come into service in 2016.
Furthermore, if sequestration persists, the Navy might have to mothball four of nine air wings, making the discussion of 11 carrier platforms moot. Due to these substantial constraints, the Congressional Budget Office and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel both floated the possibility of the Navy going down to as few as eight supercarriers.