The 2020 budget season has barely begun, and the Navy has already run into fierce opposition on Capitol Hill over its plan to retire the USS Truman a quarter-century earlier than expected. Truman is one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, operating 85 combat aircraft on a flight deck measuring over four square acres. Large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are key enablers of U.S. maritime supremacy, so Navy support for retiring one before its time is a big surprise.
The first thing you need to know about this foolish move is that it wasn’t the Navy’s idea. Navy leaders will have to work hard to conceal their glee if Congress refuses to go along—just as it deep-sixed an Obama administration proposal to retire the USS George Washington prematurely in 2014. The Navy only recently stated that it needed a dozen large-deck carriers to support national strategy, and federal law (10 U.S.C. 8062) requires that it maintain a fleet of at least 11.
So why would the sea service propose a move that will reduce the number of carriers to ten for decades to come? The reason is that it was under pressure from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to free up money for other activities, especially development of unmanned warships and other advanced weapons deemed necessary to cope with the growing military power of China. Skipping Truman’s mid-life refueling and complex overhaul would save billions of dollars, not to mention the billions of dollars in additional savings over 20+ years that comes from operating one less carrier.
However, here’s what gets lost in the bargain. The number of carriers that can be kept forward-deployed in places like the Persian Gulf on a typical day falls to three, and all the remaining carriers get overworked—so they wear out sooner. It was not so long ago that trying to meet all the demands of U.S. combatant commanders with only ten carriers resulted in half the carriers stuck in maintenance due to over-use. Just because you cut the number of carriers doesn’t mean you cut U.S. overseas commitments.