Cut the Number of Aircraft Carriers to 10 and the Number of Navy Air Wings to 9

The Administration's 2011 budget called for maintaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and 10 active-duty naval air wings. For the 2013-2015 period, the number of carriers will temporarily fall to 10 as a result of the three-year gap between the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise in early 2013 and the commissioning of its replacement, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in late 2015. (The number of active air wings is one less than the number of carriers because, at any particular time, one of the Navy's carriers is usually undergoing a major overhaul.) Aircraft carriers are also accompanied by a mix of surface combatants (usually cruisers and destroyers) and submarines to defend against aircraft, ships, and submarines that might threaten the carrier. The Navy calls such a force a carrier strike group.

This option would permanently reduce the carrier force to 10 and the number of air wings to 9. It would do so primarily by retiring a Nimitz class carrier, the USS George Washington, in 2016, when it is scheduled to undergo various maintenance activities and have its nuclear reactors refueled, an expensive and time- consuming process. Those changes would save the refueling and overhaul costs that the Navy expects to incur between 2012 and 2017 (the Navy begins purchasing long-lead items several years before the refueling is scheduled), as well as the operating costs associated with the ship between 2017 and 2021 and thereafter. Overall, this option would save about $620 million in outlays over the 2012-2016 period and about $7 billion over the 2012- 2021 period.

The savings in this option reflect the assumption that the Navy would permanently reduce the size of its force by 5,600 sailors after the George Washington is decommissioned in 2016. Those savings would be partially offset, however, by the cost of decommissioning a Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which involves removing the two nuclear reactor plants from the ship and placing them at a permanent storage site, as well as dismantling the ship. Decommissioning a Nimitz class carrier would eventually cost a total of about $2 billion, although only about $1 billion would be spent through 2021.

Under this option, the other ships associated with a carrier strike group would be retained and deployed to support other Navy missions, so no additional savings related to other types of ships would be realized from the decommissioning. In addition, although the administrative structure of the retired air wing would be eliminated, the aircraft would be retained to reduce the shortfall between the Navy's goals and the number of planes in its inventory. About 8 percent of the savings from this option would come from smaller accrual payments to the military retirement and health care trust funds as a result of the reduction in Navy personnel associated with removing the ship from the fleet. Although those accrual payments are intragovernmental transfers that would not represent current savings to the federal government, they are shown in the budget as savings to the Department of the Navy and represent long-term savings to the federal government as a whole.

The rationale for this option is that the Navy could carry out its mission with fewer aircraft carriers. Recent experience suggests that the Navy mobilizes 5 to 7 carriers to fight a major war, and the 10 carriers remaining in the fleet under this option would still provide a force of at least 5 or 6 carriers within 90 days to fight such a war. In addition, although the Navy would lose some ability to provide a carrier presence overseas, 10 carriers would be enough to provide full-time coverage in the western Pacific and the Arabian Sea, as well as coverage in the Mediterranean Sea for two or three months of the year. Some analysts have argued that because the Mediterranean region is more secure than it was during the Cold War, it no longer requires the continuous or nearly continuous presence of an aircraft carrier. Should the need for a carrier arise in the Mediterranean, the one in the Arabian Sea could be sent there quickly via the Suez Canal, or a carrier could depart from Norfolk and arrive near Europe within 35 days.

An argument against this option is that having one less aircraft carrier increases the operational risk the Navy is taking because that carrier could be valuable in the event of a major conflict--in part because it has the flexibility to operate anywhere in the world without the permission of another country. Further, the U.S. military's European,

Central (Middle East), and Pacific Commands each have goals for full-time carrier presence in their respective regions. Under current crewing and operating practices, 15 carriers would be needed to achieve that presence, and having one less carrier would move even farther away from that goal. In addition, the two wars since 1990 in the Mediterranean area (Bosnia and Kosovo) that involved the support of carrier strike groups, and the political unrest in that area, may indicate that having a carrier presence there would be particularly valuable.