The Pentagon’s latest Defense Planning Guidance identifies four weapons programs as candidates for cutbacks in the 2004-2009 spending plan. The Navy’s candidate is its next-generation aircraft carrier, CVNX (“CV” for carrier, “N” for nuclear, and “X” for experimental). Prior to mid-summer, most people assumed the only reason CVNX was on the list was so there would be one program from each service. But on August 5 the Navy gave an inept briefing of why it needed a new class of carriers to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and the program has been in jeopardy ever since.
The Navy’s plan is to begin building a transitional carrier dubbed CVNX-1 in 2007, and then complete the transition to the new class with CVNX-2 in 2011. But large-deck carriers take eight years to build, so CVNX-2 wouldn’t join the fleet until 2018. Senior policymakers think that is too long to wait. They want to skip the transitional carrier and move the “transformational” CVNX-2 forward by two years so it begins building in 2009. (They are also looking at other options like small carriers and an oversized amphibious assault vessel that can host more vertical-takeoff jets, but these have no hope of surviving serious analysis).
The Bush Administration’s eagerness for a better carrier is understandable. The current Nimitz-class carriers were designed in the 1960s, when manpower was cheap and information dear. But conscription has disappeared and the information revolution has arrived since then, making Nimitz a dated design. The Navy needs a new carrier with the energy and architecture to handle torrents of information, but also automation to cut manpower. CVNX-1 would achieve part of this with a new nuclear reactor — more power, fewer sailors — but CVNX-2 would save billions by cutting crew size in half. It also would assimilate the full benefits of cutting-edge technology.
The problem with skipping CVNX-1 is that it would reduce the number of the carriers in the fleet from 12 to 11, because aged carriers currently limping toward retirement would not be replaced in a timely fashion. CVNX-1 is supposed to replace the USS Enterprise in 2014, at which time Enterprise’s nuclear fuel would be depleted. Refueling costs a billion dollars and takes years. Because Enterprise is a costly ship to operate (40 years old, 8 nuclear reactors), nobody will be willing to spring for that bill and the fleet will lose a carrier.
The Navy can’t do another Nimitz carrier, because the industrial base for its outdated reactor has already shifted to working on the new powerplant for CVNX. Given these constraints, policymakers look likely to let the fleet shrink to 11 carriers rather than build CVNX-1 on schedule. But the resulting fleet can’t meet the administration’s “4-2-1” planning guidance of being able to deter forward in four theaters, halt aggression in two, and decisively defeat in one. That requires at least 12 carriers, even with gaps in coverage of Europe. With America preparing to confront Iraq, North Korea and global terrorism all at the same time, cutting back the carrier program sounds like a less-than-timely idea.
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