Flanked by lethal warships and home to the advanced fighters jets parked on their expansive decks, the Navy's aircraft carriers are perhaps the most impressive demonstration of America's military might. But these ships are also the single most expensive piece of equipment the military buys, making them a prime -- and perhaps even necessary -- target in this era of fiscal belt-tightening.
Today's carrier fleet stands at 10 ships and will return to a congressionally mandated 11 ships when the first of the new Ford-class of carriers is ready for operations in early 2016. Those plans have long been considered sacrosanct by Navy officials and their backers on Capitol Hill, who view an 11-carrier fleet as necessary to meet commitments and respond to crises around the world.
Within the Navy, however, there is growing acknowledgement that they may have to make do with less if budget caps remain in place over the next decade. In detailed written testimony in September, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert told Congress that a carrier fleet of nine or 10 ships might be more realistic for the cash-strapped force. But such a change, he warned, would make his force a one-war Navy -- a consequence that many on Capitol Hill are simply unwilling to accept.
Hawkish lawmakers from both parties see aircraft carriers and their associated battle groups as the crown jewel of the military's arsenal, allowing the United States to project air and sea power quickly around the world without depending on foreign support for a mission. Moves by China to boost its own naval fleet, including commissioning its first carrier last year, have heightened the desire of lawmakers to protect the carrier fleet.
India, meanwhile, this year joined an exclusive club of countries that have built their own carriers.
Even some of the Navy's toughest critics in Congress are bucking any effort to cut back on carriers. Arizona's John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, has repeatedly blasted the Navy for cost increases on its next carrier, the first of the new Ford-class ships, whose price tag has grown by 22 percent to $12.8 billion. But McCain sees controlling costs on future carriers and other ships -- not reducing the size of the fleet -- as the answer.
"When you look at the presence that is required across the world, I agree with that," McCain says of the 11-carrier requirement. "In fact, I could make an argument for 12."
Some influential Democrats are equally unwilling to consider a smaller fleet, even as budget pressures mount. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan says he would have "big concerns" about cutting a carrier or two. "You want a robust fleet because you've got a unique capability," he says.
Not everyone agrees that a smaller carrier fleet would be a strategic or operational disaster for the military. Indeed, a group of former military leaders and other defense experts signed off on a September report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center recommending the Navy dip to nine carriers in fiscal 2014 and then permanently maintain a fleet of 10 carriers starting in 2016.
The savings, they wrote, would total a tantalizing $2 billion or more annually. What's more, a smaller fleet would bring only "minimal operational risk," according to the report, whose many signatories include Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations.
The Stimson Center report acknowledges the benefits of a sizeable carrier fleet, but also suggests that there are other and presumably less costly ways to signal American leadership, assure allies and deter adversaries around the world. Skeptics also note that no other country has more than one carrier deployed, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Frank Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University and a former Navy official, advocates a strategy dubbed "Forward Partnership" that focuses on maximizing naval presence at the expense of fixed bases and forward-stationed Army forces. But even though that strategy would benefit sea capabilities -- and presumes a higher share of a smaller defense budget pie for the Navy -- it doesn't necessarily require 11 carriers.
"Carriers would be central to our overall naval power, but not necessarily always forward deployed," says Hoffman, who supports the Stimson report recommendation. "I'd save that for critical areas like the Pacific, and only in the Med or Persian Gulf when crises arose."
The Navy typically has two or three carriers deployed at a given time, including one battle group that is always home-ported in Japan. Today, the USS Nimitz and the USS Harry S. Truman are deployed to the Middle East, while the USS George Washington is in Japan. But until the Truman arrived in August, there was only one carrier in the Mideast.
In its report on the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee made clear that reducing carrier operations or numbers isn't an option.
"The United States should construct and sufficiently sustain a fleet of at least eleven aircraft carriers and associated battle force ships in order to meet current and future requirements and to support at least a two aircraft carrier battle group presence in the Arabian Gulf, in addition to meeting other operational requirements," the committee wrote.
With three carriers currently deployed, that leaves seven of these enormous ships and their associated equipment, fighter jets and personnel back home -- a number that would appear, at least on the surface, to be more than adequate to respond to a hot spot elsewhere in the world.
But the general rule of thumb for the Navy has been that it needs three to four carriers at home for every one that is forward deployed. The non-deployed carriers are being used for training or undergoing routine maintenance. And at least one carrier is going through a mid-life refueling of its nuclear core, which is a years-long process.
"Eleven doesn't mean you have 11 available at all times," says Jan van Tol, a retired Navy captain who now works as an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It's not like Stratego or Risk pieces."
Greenert's written testimony, delivered to the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, asserts that the Navy needs 11 carriers -- and a host of other ships -- to conduct one large-scale operation while also fighting an "opportunistic aggressor" in a second theater.
The Defense Department as a whole, and the Navy in particular, have many options to get their budgets below mandated spending caps. But the scenario Greenert illustrated in his testimony would ultimately cut 30 ships from the fleet, including one or two carriers. That would mean the Navy would be able to engage in one large-scale operation -- but that's all.
Over the long run, however, the assumed savings might be too big to ignore. Aside from the costs of operating and maintaining the ships, a smaller carrier fleet would allow the Navy to reduce its force by thousands of personnel. The Navy could also cut an air wing, a move that would ultimately reduce purchases of the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter -- with an estimated price tag of about $140 million per jet for early models -- by between 36 and 40 planes, according to Hoffman.
Like many analysts, retired Navy Capt. Robert C. Rubel, now dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, believes the country could probably get by with a 10-carrier fleet. But Rubel, who served on carriers during much of his Navy career, says Congress must commit to keeping the remaining carriers ready for service through a steady stream of operations and maintenance dollars.
"A carrier just sitting there decays," Rubel says. "It's not a matter specifically of the number of hulls you have."
But there are consequences to a smaller fleet, beyond even the strategic concerns.
Fewer carriers would mean longer deployments for sailors, which might, in turn, have negative effects on recruiting and retention. A smaller fleet might also mean stretching out maintenance cycles for carriers to keep as many as possible operational at a given time, a risky proposition for any piece of military equipment.
"The nation will retain as many aircraft carriers as it can afford, given the strategic circumstances that it finds itself in," Rubel says. "Whether the ability to respond to crises become a strategic luxury or not, I don't know."