Why US Navy Can’t Have 10 Aircraft Carriers
Sudden Impact – WENDEL SCHERER
Danger Caravan – V.V. CAMPOS
Graphite – MARTEN MOSES
Partial Fractions – WENDEL SCHERER
Code Translations – WENDEL SCHERER
No Living Thing – MARTEN MOSES
BALLPOINT – Wax Drip
MARTEN MOSES – City Surround
Aircraft carriers are so important to the US Government, that there is a Federal law
mandating the minimum number of operational carriers that the US Navy must have. That
number is 11. But how did they come up with this number, and why is there so much emphasis
on aircraft carriers, and not on other types of warships? The number of aircraft carriers,
the size of the US Navy fleet, and the size of the US Military as a whole, all follow
a simple formula that is based on two major wars, but it’s Not What You Think!
Being the most powerful is not the same as being powerful enough. You often hear how
the United States has the largest and most powerful Navy in the world, but just being
#1 is not necessarily sufficient. Just like how any MMA champion would be overwhelmed
if they faced multiple opponents all at onces, the most powerful military may also not be
able to defeat the combined forces of multiple nations. So the question is, how much power
The United States Military doctrine is based around power projection. Power projection,
simply put, is the ability of a country to deploy and sustain forces outside of their
territory. To accommodate this, there are currently about 750 US foreign military bases
spread across 80 nations around the world! But the United States’ primary means of
power projection, especially where permanent basing is limited, is the Navy. This is precisely
why there is so much emphasis on aircraft carriers.
“Where is the closest aircraft carrier?” They say that is the first question that US
presidents ask at the time of a crisis. But it is really the air wing assigned to the
aircraft carrier that the presidents are interested in. The carrier is just a … floating air
base. The primary role of an aircraft carrier is to enable operation of the air wing that
it carries. Kinda like how bread is just a vehicle for delivering butter! And the true
power projection that aircraft carriers are known for, is really enabled by the airplanes
in the carrier air wing, which can project tactical air power over long distances, including
airborne early warning, air interdiction and anti-to-surface warfare. In fact the same
law that currently demands the US Navy to have a minimum of 11 aircraft carriers, also
requires a minimum of 9 carrier air wings. But how did the US Government come up with
the number 11?
The US Navy’s 11 supercarriers are more than all other nation’s aircraft carriers
combined, and that’s just in quantity. Displacement aside, the American aircraft carriers are
all nuclear-powered, giving them unlimited range. But not all 11 supercarriers are deployable
simultaneously. At any given time, about ⅓ are in maintenance yards dealing with upgrades
and overhauls, ⅓ are undergoing training and preparation, and ⅓ are on deployment.
Even though if needed, more carriers could be rushed into deployment, the total number
of deployable supercarriers is far from the nominal 11. In practice, 2 to 3 supercarriers
are deployed at any given time and that is enough. Enough to fight two wars in two separate
regions of the world at once, and decisively win both.
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the US armed forces were sized to be able to fight
two wars at the same time. At some point even a “half war” was added to be fought in
the Third World. When Nixon took office in 1969, the formula was changed to accommodate
fighting one-and-a-half wars simultaneously. Each president after that has somewhat modified
this strategy, but the basic measure still seems to be defined as the ability to fight
in two geographically separated regions of the world nearly simultaneously. This is referred
to as Two-Major Regional Contingencies strategy or Two-Major Theater Wars strategy. The ability
to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping
time frames is key for the United States to remain a global power and maintain its worldwide
The most recent example of this strategy in action is the two overlapping major wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq war started in 2003, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and
the official withdrawal of US troops was completed in 2011. Although the mismanagement of the
power vacuum following Saddam’s demise gave prominence to ISIS in 2014, followed by the
re-involvement of US troops. In parallel, the war in Afghanistan started in 2001 and
went on for 20 years. In February of 2020, the US and Taliban signed an agreement in
Qatar, where Taliban agreed to take unspecified action to prevent other groups, including
Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to threaten the US and its allies, in return for the full
withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan. By August 31st, 2021, as the
whole world was watching, the US and allied forces had hastily departed from Kabul, putting
the Taliban back in control of the country.
But this idea of fighting two wars at once goes back to the late 19th and early 20th
century. The late 19th century was a time of territorial
expansion for the United States. In 1898 alone, the United States annexed Hawaii, acquired
Guam and Puerto Rico, and purchased the Philippines from Spain for $20 million dollars! With some
of those islands being in the Pacific and the rest in the Atlantic, Navy presence was
required in both oceans. The completion of the Panama canal in 1914 allowed the crossing
of ships from one side to the other, which meant the US Navy could be present in both
Oceans without having twice as many ships. But by the 1930s, with the rise of new regional
powers to the west, and the decline of the Royal Navy to protect the United States against
threats from the east, it became necessary for defense planners to consider the possibility
of confronting two threats simultaneously, from Germany on the east, and from Japan on
the west. The result was the 1940 Vinson–Walsh Act, also known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act,
which funded a 70 percent increase in the size of the U.S. Navy fleet. This was the
largest naval procurement bill in US history, authorizing $8.5 billion dollars at the time,
for a naval expansion program that put emphasis on aircraft and aircraft carriers. This resulted
in the construction of 18 aircraft carriers and expansion of air and naval facilities
across the Pacific.
Now, it’s one thing to come up with a concept, like one that allows for fighting and winning
two major wars simultaneously. But it’s a whole other thing to actually come up with
the numbers. How many Army divisions, how many Air Force fighter wings and how many
Navy carrier strike groups are required to support such a strategy? And within each one,
say the Navy, how many and what types of ships are exactly needed?
The US Navy’s goal is to reach 355 ships by 2034. Currently they have 298, at the rate
they are going, retiring 2 year old ships, it is debatable that they’ll hit that goal.
Remember that aircraft carriers are vulnerable on their own, which is why they never sail
alone. A variety of ships are needed to support the carriers when deployed, which is why Navy
ships like cruisers, destroyers, and at times submarines and supply ships accompany the
carriers, in a formation known as a carrier strike group.
But conservative public policy organizations, notably studies done by the Heritage Foudnations,
call for a much bigger military. For example, not a 355 ship-Navy, but a 400-ship Navy.
And not 11 aircraft carriers, but 13 … I mean 12 + 1.
The 1 accounts for a carrier that is almost always undergoing extensive mid-life overhaul.
The rationale for wanting the other 12 aircraft carriers is to maintain one aircraft carrier
at each of the 3 major regions of the world: Atlantic, Pacific and the Mediterranean/middle-east.
Then to have 3 additional aircraft carriers for each carrier deployed. This is to ensure
that the ships, the crew and aircraft onboard can remain healthy and effective. Less ships
could mean longer deployment times which may not be operationally realistic. The 340-day
deployment of USS Nimitz which ended in March of 2021, was the longest deployment of any
aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War!
Even though the proponents of the Two-Major Theater Wars strategy insist that no one has
been able to come up with a better and more robust solution for sizing the US military,
there are massive costs associated with maintaining and growing an even bigger military force,
something that has proven difficult, given that US military budget as a percentage of
the GDP has been declining over the past few decades.
In addition, other forms of threats, like cyberwarfare, could throw a big wrench into
the mix. Cyber attacks that can cause widespread disruptions to communication systems in the
United States, or even worse, in military command, control and communication systems,
could have devastating consequences to US national security.
The Two-Navy act of 1940 was written at a time when power projection required physical
presence, aircraft carriers and aviators. That’s why we love Top Gun. But would a
day come when Tom Cruise stars in Top Hack?