The substantial military budget cuts of 1968, 1969, and 1970 have sliced deep into the force levels of the Navy. Along with other Navy forces, the aircraft carrier force has fallen under the knife. In these three years, while about 200 Navy ships have been turned toward retirement by funding reductions, the active force level of the older antisubmarine carriers (CVSs) has dropped by 50% (from 8 to 4). This reduction was the only logical means of maintaining the Navy’s younger, more capable, and larger (excepting the Hancock-class) attack carriers (CVAs) at a force level sufficient to meet national defense requirements under conditions of reduced Navy funding. It was a painful but necessary sacrifice at the expense of antisubmarine forces (which have been generally considered as primarily defensive) to preserve the offensive striking force of the surface Navy—the attack carriers—and to retain a balance of all forces for the primary Navy mission of control of the seas.
During the development of economic and political pressure for retrenchment in military spending, the present Navy carrier program for procurement of the three Nimitz-class nuclear carriers was promulgated and fully implemented in 1968. These carriers were intended to replace World War II Essex-class carriers which would range from 26 to 30 years of age when converted to the CVS role in antisubmarine warfare.
The first of the new carrier class, the Nimitz (CVAN-68), was authorized and funded by the Congress m fiscal year 1967, and her keel was laid in 1968 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia. The program plan schedule, which was approved by the Secretary of Defense, provided that the next two carriers, the Eisenhower (CVAN-69) and the unnamed CVAN-70, would be authorized and fully funded in the following alternate fiscal years of 1969 and 1971 as identical ships to the Nimitz. The plan provided for multi-ship, multi-year procurement from a single shipbuilder—a process which assured construction of this entire class of nuclear powered carriers at the least possible cost. Delivery and commissioning of the ships was planned to occur in calendar years 1972, 1974, and 1976 respectively.
Although Congress appropriated sufficient funds for procurement of long lead-time, nuclear propulsion plant components in fiscal year 1968, full funding was not appropriated for the Eisenhower in fiscal year 1969 as scheduled. As a result, the President’s fiscal year 1970 defense budget, as submitted to Congress, contained full funding for the CVAN-69 as well as funding for procurement of long lead-time nuclear propulsion plant components for the CVAN-70.
At that point in time (calendar year 1969), organized Congressional groups took the CVAN-69 and CVAN-70 under fire along with other major weapon systems which they considered to be questionable military acquisitions and therefore fair game for reducing the total defense appropriations for FY 1970. In spite of some concerted opposition, the Nimitz-class carrier funding, as submitted in the budget, was reported out of committee intact after extensive hearings, to be followed by floor debate and vote by the Congress.
In the end, full funding for the Eisenhower survived with a substantial “yea” vote, but the rumble of the opposition and the prevailing mood of Congress proved sufficient to curb the authorization and appropriation of long lead-time funding for the CVAN-70. The coup de grâce came in the form of the “Mondale Amendment” to the 1970 Military Procurement Authorization Act introduced in the Senate, which required that:
Prior to April 30, 1970, the Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives and the Senate shall jointly conduct and complete a comprehensive study and investigation of the past and projected costs and effectiveness of attack aircraft carriers and their task forces and a thorough review of the considerations which went into the decision to maintain the present number of attack carriers. The result of this comprehensive study shall be considered prior to any authorization or appropriation for the production or procurement of the nuclear aircraft carrier designated as CVAN-70 . . .”
What are the reasons for this costly delay and such a cautious approach to the construction of one capital ship? Is the aircraft carrier story a repeat of the battleship saga—a glorious production in its day, but now passé?
In the past year the aircraft carrier has been called an outdated behemoth of the seas, ineffectual in a nuclear missile age as an instrument of national power—an expensive toy of the “carrier admirals” who, like the “battleship admirals,” refuse to face the realities of change. The carrier has been alleged to be a “sitting duck” to missile attacks—unable to survive in a modern warfare environment. Some armchair warriors see no hope for the carrier when it is pitted against a huge potential enemy submarine force. The carrier force has been classed as an expensive “showpiece” force—useless because there is no potential enemy carrier force to fight—and too large and costly for the limited tasks it can still perform. Finally, in February 1970, the carrier was referred to in one bitterly scathing essay of denunciation (in which rhetoric abounds and facts are handily missing or mislaid) as “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Anachronism on the Sea.”
An orderly and factual refutation of the many inaccurate and misleading statements about the aircraft carrier is embodied in the Navy position presented in April 1970 at the joint hearings before the Joint Senate-House Armed Services Subcommittee For Study on Attack Carriers. The Navy position responded to the study requirements specified in the Mondale Amendment. The immediate objective of the Navy case was to gain approval of FY 1971 long lead-time funds for the construction of the CVAN-70 which had already been delayed from the previous year.
The strength of the Navy case for construction of the CVAN-70 did not really hinge upon a specific carrier force level but upon the need for continued modernity of its aircraft carrier inventory. The thrust of the Navy case may be briefly summarized as follows:
► The potential enemy threat to control of the sea for defense of the Free World is principally the powerful Soviet Navy. That Navy consists of modern (under 20 years old) surface ships, submarines, and aircraft principally armed with air-to-surface and surface-to-surface anti-ship cruise missiles which are specifically designed to attack naval and maritime surface ships at sea from beyond the range of any surface-to-surface tactical guns or missiles in the Free World navies.
► The major Free World naval force is the U. S. Navy. About half of the U. S. Navy ships are relatively old (over 20 years old). They have no long-range tactical surface-to-surface cruise missiles comparable to those of the Soviets. The only current tactical weapon systems in the U. S. Navy which can outrange Soviet cruise missiles anywhere on the oceans of the world are sea-based systems in aircraft carriers.
► In total numbers of major combatants, with the exception of aircraft carriers, the U. S. and Soviet navies are approaching parity because of the rapid and systematic Soviet ship construction program begun in the 1950s and still proceeding.
► In view of the foregoing facts, it is obvious that the margin of difference between the Soviet and U. S. navies is the U. S. Navy carrier force. Carrier air systems provide the range and firepower to outrange Soviet antiship cruise missiles, to destroy the launching platforms, and to attack the cruise missiles after launch. They provide the means to control the air over the sea-lanes for protection of airlift and shipping, to destroy enemy combatant forces at sea, and to support shore assaults and land battles where land-based air power is not available. No other weapons systems in the U. S. military forces can accomplish these tasks on a worldwide basis. Therefore, the carrier force must be of sufficient size and modernity to accomplish its mission within the framework of the national strategy.
► If the U. S. Navy were to maintain the 1970 force level of 15 attack carriers (CVAs) having a nominal useful life of 30 years—assuming a longer life would be acceptable for use as antisubmarine carriers (CVSs)—we should build a new carrier every other year. But, in reality, we are also faced with block obsolescence in our carrier inventory. The Essex/Hancock-class carriers still in operation are not capable of operating the most modern, sophisticated aircraft in the Fleet (such as the F-4, A-6, RA-5, and E-2). Three of these carriers are included in the present 1970 15-CVA force level. They are no longer capable of modernization. Only one of the three Midway-class ships has been thoroughly modernized. The result is that three Nimitz-class carriers will be required to provide an inventory of 12 modern carriers by 1977, at which time the CVAN-70 would replace the Midway, at 32 years of age and seven years beyond final modernization, if the carrier force level drops as low as 12. Therefore, the need for the CVAN-70 is not dependent on maintaining a 15-carrier-force level—the need is for modernity of a minimal inventory of carriers to counter the threat and to support the Navy mission in our forward “mobility strategy.”
The Navy won majority approval before the Joint Senate-House Sub-committee on the CVAN-70 Attack Carrier with the presentation of a comprehensive staff study on attack carriers and thousands of words of testimony from expert witnesses, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Secretary of the Navy; the Chief of Naval Operations; the Deputy Commander for Nuclear Propulsion; representatives from the Naval Ship Systems Command; and the CVAN Program Coordinator.
Notwithstanding the Subcommittee majority recommendation, the long lead-time funds for the CVAN-70 were not included in the fiscal year 1971 military procurement authorization bill enacted by the Congress. The initial reason for this exclusion apparently stems from the presidential budget message to the Congress, which specifically recommended authority to procure long lead-time construction items for the CVAN-70 but included the following qualifying statement:
. . . However, the advance procurement funds for the third carrier will not be obligated until completion of studies in progress to assess future requirements for attack carriers.
The “studies” mentioned in the presidential message apparently refer not only to the Joint Subcommittee Study on the CVAN-70, but also to studies being conducted by the National Security Council. This is substantiated in two places in the Joint Subcommittee report. Reference was made to the recommendations of the Secretary of Defense:
. . . the Secretary of Defense, while recognizing the necessity for completion of the National Security Council review, has reaffirmed his support of the CVAN-70 in a letter to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee . . .
One Senate member of the Subcommittee stated in his minority view:
. . . I wish to withhold my decision with respect to recommending the authorization of long lead-time items for the CVAN-70 until we have the opportunity to review the results of this report from the National Security Council with respect to overall national strategy for the 1975-80 period, including the proper attack carrier force level.
The Co-chairman of the Senate Subcommittee, who is also the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, then revealed his intentions in regard to the CVAN-70 in the authorization bill:
I fully support the concept of adding the CVAN-70 to our attack carrier fleet . . . I will not be in a position to make a firm recommendation for including this additional carrier in the fiscal year 1971 authorization bill until there is a firm request therefore from the executive branch.
From the above review of events, it appears that the immediate question of procuring the CVAN-70 in the next year or two and the general proposition of continued carrier construction hang on the recommendations of the National Security Council and the President’s decision thereon. Obviously those recommendations should reflect broad considerations of national interests and goals, the President’s expressed foreign policy and strategic guidance, and the risks involved in budget trade-offs between domestic and defense programs in the light of the assessed threat to national security. The recommendations should define the necessary elements of national strategy, the general balance of strategic and general purpose forces, and the degree of emphasis to be placed on mobile forces which will assure the national security within available budgets with minimum risk. Hopefully, recommendations on the constitution of forces will deal only in terms of quality and capability—not in specific force levels such as aircraft carrier force levels. Recommendations for specific force levels to execute the national strategy within the allowed budget and presidential guidance should be determined by the Secretary of Defense with the advice of the Service Secretaries and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under this set of conditions, the conclusions and recommendations of the National Security Council review and the Navy’s case for continued carrier construction should be highly compatible—especially if all the pertinent factors in the following discussion are considered.
Notwithstanding the tremendous expansion of air traffic across the seas, 99% of all tonnage transported to South Vietnam since 1965 has moved by ship. There is no other way presently practicable to transport such great tonnage. The effort is too prodigious (not to mention expensive) for air transport, and the idea of mammoth transport submarines is as yet an unapplied concept. Therefore, the economic, industrial, and technological might of this country is tied inexorably to the world-wide web of sea-lanes. At the terminal ends of this web are our allies—all maritime nations with the same basic dependence upon the sea.
Our major alliances are backed ultimately by either explicit or implicit military security arrangements involving at some point on the scale of confrontation a commitment of U. S. military force in the defense of our national interests. Contrary to the opinion of some, such a commitment is still a possible eventuality within the bounds of present national policy and below the threshold of nuclear war. President Nixon has recently reaffirmed U. S. fidelity to our allies—he has redefined only our strategic approach to the provision of overseas assistance to our allies. He has indicated that we will henceforth rely more heavily on their manpower (which they can more readily provide) and upon our mobile forces (which we can more readily provide) for military strength against aggression or intimidation.
The unmistakable implication is that our new national strategy is a mobility strategy. The implementation of this strategy has already begun in conjunction with the measured withdrawal from Vietnam. The implied objectives for smaller, more efficient, and more mobile “volunteer” military forces are in tune with the new strategy. The attention given by the administration to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) System for protection of our land-based nuclear deterrent and to the Undersea Long-range Missile System (ULMS) concept as a less vulnerable seaward extension of the nuclear deterrent directly relates to the concept of a mobility strategy. Our more compact, mobile, general purpose forces, operating under a more effective and less vulnerable nuclear deterrent umbrella, will be expected to support our national interests in a world in which recurring confrontations seem destined to persist. In essence, the mobility strategy, under which it has been indicated the reduction of deployed land-based forces and overseas bases will continue, re-emphasizes the importance of seapower to the United States. Our contribution to the NATO alliance depends upon the movement of vast quantities of materials and munitions. They must still be transported by sea. This will require control of the sea. Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover summed up this strategic situation recently:
The United States, being an island, has no contiguous land masses whence we can conduct military operations to protect our national interests or from which we obtain the fuels and materials necessary to sustain a large-scale war effort. From our island position the only way we can project our national power beyond range of our land bases is through the Navy.
The right to free use of the seas by all nations has been essentially uncontested since World War II. With the exception of a few flagrant violations of international law such as the Pueblo and EC-121 incidents (for which we took no retaliatory measures), the United States and the Free World have had free use of the seas for peaceful purposes as well as military logistical movement and military operations in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. This pax oceanus was no accident during this period of conflict and confrontation on land. It has prevailed simply because the strength of the U. S. Navy (and our intent to use it where necessary) has stood as a bulwark that no other nation or combination of nations could contest upon the sea with any substantial measure of credibility—politically or militarily. The world had little doubt of our capability or intent when U. S. Navy carrier task forces countered Chinese Communist challenges to control of the Formosa Strait in 1955, and 1958, when a combined carrier and amphibious force put U. S. Marines ashore to aid Lebanon in 1958, and when the might of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet established the quarantine to force withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba in 1962. These are straight-forward examples of politico-military successes made possible by the application of seapower in the nuclear age. They are also some primary historical reasons why the seas have remained free since World War II—a realization that, with the passage of time, seems more and more elusive to so many leading Americans in an era of nuclear stand-off.
Contrary to widely held views, the change in balance of nuclear forces since 1962 has not altered appreciably the strategic position of seapower in the scheme of world strategy. In fact, the Cuban missile crisis of that year may be considered the cause célèbre which at last fully convinced those in the Soviet hierarchy who had dragged their feet until then in supporting the technological and operational development of the Soviet Navy. In that instance, for the first time since the battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905, Russia found itself with a politico-military commitment of major proportions far beyond its territorial waters. It also found its navy not adequate in weapons, doctrine, logistics, and seakeeping expertise to exploit its position for a political solution more palatable than total withdrawal of its missiles. What concessions might the United States have been forced to make to avoid open sea conflict or nuclear exchange if the Soviet Navy had been present in strength then with large numbers of efficient surface-to-surface anti-ship missiles (which it now has) and its own sea-based air cover (which, thankfully, it still does not have)? As it actually was then (and as it would be today in the same circumstances), the dominant military factor was U. S. Navy air superiority over the sea which allowed full employment of surface and sea-based air surveillance, attack, and antisubmarine systems against the threat. Today, the margin of difference in on-the-scene military capability could indeed be narrowed to the capability of our aircraft carrier forces alone. Some recent remarks by Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller, then Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air, get straight to the point:
Because we haven’t been challenged on the seas for so many years, people have forgotten why we built carriers in the first place. We built them to sink other ships. Now there is another navy on the waters again. You can’t handle them with land-based aircraft alone. You can’t reach out far enough . . . The aircraft carrier is the one thing that gives us the edge . . . The carrier program that we have is the big equalizer . . . that still enables us to maintain a good control of the seas.
The capabilities and employment of the Soviet Navy have changed greatly in the last decade. By mid-decade it was obvious that development of the Soviet Navy was following a very definite and deliberate path. It is no longer intended only as a defensive force designed to operate primarily in home waters. It has been transformed rapidly into an offensive force designed to counter the U. S. Navy on the high seas. For the first time, the Soviet Navy is being used to project the political power of the U.S.S.R. Thus, we have seen a radical shift in mission and employment of the Soviet Navy, coupled with a prodigious application of technology to produce a balanced, modern, well-armed force with good seakeeping qualities and long-range operating capabilities.
It is not now unusual for strong, well-equipped Soviet Navy task groups with their logistical auxiliaries to operate and exercise for extended periods in the far reaches of the great oceans—even in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea as they did in 1969 and 1970. Soviet submarines now have a well-established pattern of long-range patrol off our coasts. The Soviet Mediterranean naval force has now become as much of an institution as the U. S. Sixth Fleet. Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean, in conjunction with its alliance with the Arabic nations, has brought with it a politico-military hegemony over the North African littoral without firing a shot in anger.
Considering the vast changes in capability and employment of the Soviet Navy, why has it not constructed aircraft carriers similar to those of the United States? The only complete answer to this question lies locked in the Kremlin, but the essential elements of the answer may be deduced.
In its previous, subordinated defensive role, the Soviet Navy had no requirement for sea-based air power, it was intended to operate under the cover of land-based air in waters contiguous to Soviet-controlled territory. Therefore, the development of aircraft carrier construction and operational technology was not undertaken. Now that a new, offensive, more aggressive, and far-ranging role has been adopted for the Soviet Navy, it would seem that the development of aircraft carrier technology should be underway. In fact, it is!
The construction of the two Moskva-class “helicopter carriers” is a very logical first step in carrier development considering the major problems involved in such a process. The Soviets have more than proved the high degree of pragmatism inherent in their system of applying technology to weapon systems. They move forward in steps of relatively low technical risk, as can be seen in the many constantly improving types and versions of submarines, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft, and missiles. Soviet leadership is well aware that the United States has had about 50 years of carrier development, construction, operation, and combat to attain its present carrier force and state of sophisticated expertise in carrier warfare. They also know that it requires a minimum of about seven years for the United States to move from the establishment of the requirement for a new nuclear-powered carrier design to the completion of that carrier. The new role of the Soviet Navy is not much older than that.
What, then, in today’s environment of complex aircraft and ship technology, could be more logical for a scientifically pragmatic navy than to move gingerly into the carrier business with a first generation “semi-carrier” class suitable for helicopter and other VSTOL aircraft mission applications? Whether the Soviet intends to build a second generation of aircraft carriers more similar to those of the United States is moot, but it could well do so, rapidly, in this decade under its quickly adjustable system of national priorities. In any case, the Soviet Union has not belittled our carrier force in implementing its expanded naval strategy.
For defense purposes, the United States must use the seas for importing strategic materials, projection of forces, and the transport of logistical support abroad. Therefore, the primary mission of the U. S. Navy is to control the seas. Control of the air over the seas and the land approaches is necessary to control of the seas. The primary U. S. Navy combatant weapon system for this purpose is the aircraft carrier system.
The U.S.S.R. does not need the seas for importing strategic materials, the projection of forces, or the transport of logistical support abroad for its defense purposes. It needs use of the seas only for political and economic aggrandizement and to oppose the United States and its allies in war. Therefore, the primary mission of the Soviet Navy in its new role is the antithesis of the U. S. Navy mission—to deny the United States (and its allies) use of the seas. For this reason, the Soviets have designed their modern navy to defeat the U. S. Navy (and the allied navies) in the critical areas of the high seas.
Recognizing the pre-eminence of the power and range of U. S. carrier forces, specific countering weapon systems have been developed by the U.S.S.R. in a period of time which was relatively short compared to the time it would have taken to build a counterforce of aircraft carriers. These naval systems have focused upon employment of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles as a primary weapon to defeat carrier task forces. Ballistic missiles would not meet the requirement because they cannot be fired to hit a mobile target moving at random. Anti-ship cruise missiles have now become operational in all types of Soviet Navy combat platforms including patrol boats (short-range missiles), submarines, destroyers, cruisers, and long-range land-based aircraft. The most modern of these cruise missiles is reputed to have a range of about 400 miles, but some means of over-the-horizon target detection and classification must be available to make them effective beyond the horizon. The long-range missiles also generally require mid-course guidance corrections by an intermediate vehicle prior to the homing phase of flight to the target. As a result, Soviet naval tactics against carrier forces rely heavily upon submarine-surface ship-aircraft teams, in which submarines and aircraft become intermediate guidance as well as primary firing platforms. Of course, submarine torpedoes and free-trajectory air weapons are included as secondary tactical systems in the Soviet Navy tactical scheme.
How do U. S. Navy counter-capabilities compare to the Soviet Navy anti-ship cruise missile systems? These missile systems obviously outrange U. S. Navy ships’ guns, and the U. S. Navy has no operational anti-ship cruise missiles of its own. Presumably, our surface-to-air missiles can intercept the cruise missiles and the aircraft launching platforms when they are with a relatively small radius of missile defense. It must also be presumed that our electronic warfare systems can detect, decoy, jam, and deflect the Soviet active search and detection radars of launching platforms as well as active missile guidance and homing systems. Our active electronic and missile systems are also subject to saturation and countermeasures to some arbitrary degree. But, we have carrier-based aircraft which outrange all of the known Soviet Navy cruise missiles. Carrier aircraft have capabilities for surveillance, reconnaissance, air combat, anti-missile attack, surface attack, and antisubmarine attacks at long ranges. Anti-ship missile-firing platforms can be detected and attacked beyond their firing ranges. The efficiency with which our carrier aircraft accomplish their missions is, of course, dependent upon the relative size of opposing forces and the combat scenario chosen, but the important point is that carrier air systems still provide the U. S. Navy a powerful “main battery” exceeding in range that of any potential adversary at sea. This is the purpose for which carriers were designed—it is still valid.
What of the now often repeated allegation of carrier vulnerability to missiles? There has always been some degree of vulnerability of warships as well as armies to enemy projectiles. Vulnerability is a relative term. For instance, any target hit directly by a nuclear weapon will be destroyed. A nuclear near-miss is academic because the amount of destruction will depend upon the hardness of the target. In any case, a nuclear war would bring widespread destruction to both sides. Tough, moving targets would probably stand a better chance of survival than fixed, pre-programmed targets. The modern aircraft carrier is a relatively tough, moving target. The range of usefulness of an aircraft carrier covers the spectrum of conflict from peace to general war—it is not built for nuclear war alone. Therefore, it is no more appropriate to write it off as a weapon system on the basis of vulnerability to nuclear weapons than it is to write off land armies and air forces for the same reason.
As to vulnerability of carriers to conventional weapons including missiles, Vice Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr., then the Navy CVAN Program Coordinator, summarized for the Joint Senate-House Armed Services Subcommittee studying carriers as follows:
If our carriers do sustain hits . . . damage will occur, but that does not mean that the ship will be put out of action or sunk. Modern carriers are extremely tough ships. No attack carrier built during World War II or subsequently has been lost to enemy action. The Essex class fought through the aircraft attacks, kamikazes [the most sophisticated of guided missile systems], and submarine attacks of World War II [none was lost]. Subsequent carrier designs have incorporated even more extensive protection features, such as armored flight decks, improved torpedo protection systems, and internal damage-limiting features . . . The hardness of the modern attack carrier is illustrated by the accident in the USS Enterprise early last year when nine major-caliber bombs detonated on her flight deck. This is the explosive equivalent of more than a half dozen cruise missiles. Yet the ship could have resumed her scheduled air operations in a matter of hours . . . .
Our modern carriers are heavily armored, redundant in vital systems, and honeycombed with compartmentation. They are the most survivable of all surface ships.
Granting that the requirement for aircraft carriers is fully established by the needs of our forward mobility strategy, the assessment of the threat, and the Navy mission to control the seas, why is it a matter of national urgency that construction of a third Nimitz-class carrier be authorized now? We have a present 1970 force level of 15 attack carriers and four antisubmarine carriers. Why do we need to build another carrier now? Can we afford it? Why can we not “rest on our oars” with what we have?
First, as the Navy stated in its case before the Joint Senate-House Subcommittee, three of the present 15 operating attack carriers are Essex/Hancock-class carriers which were designed in World War II. They have no potential left for modernization and cannot operate the modern sophisticated aircraft required to meet the threat. They have been retained in the active inventory operating older aircraft as a necessity—they have been sorely needed and extensively used to augment the newer, larger carriers during the Southeast Asia conflict. Not only are these carriers sub-marginal in capability, they are wearing out rapidly from over-employment and “expedient” maintenance (required by operational and fiscal priorities not fully controllable by the Navy in recent years) as they approach the end of their nominal 30-year useful life. The four antisubmarine carriers are also of the Essex/Hancock class and were reassigned as CVSs with some measures of capability less than those retained as CVAs. These four CVSs would logically be the first to be retired for any overall force level cut in carriers.
Of the other 12 carriers in the present active inventory, three are Midway class completed just after World War II. Only one of these, the Midway, has recently been fully modernized (insofar as her design will allow) to include installation of higher capacity catapults and other improved systems and arrangements. Therefore, the Midway (CVA-41) would logically be retained in the active inventory before her sister ships.
Of the nine modern carriers in the active inventory, the oldest, the Forrestal, will not reach 30 years of age until 1985. But it is noteworthy that seven of these carriers joined the Fleet within a period of seven years—from 1955 through 1961. This group will constitute a second edition of block obsolescence in the last half of the 1980s.
Figure 1 shows that the Nimitz class is intended to replace the Essex/Hancock-class CVAs to relieve some of the first edition of block obsolescence under a force level of 15 attack carriers. As the Navy has pointed out, if the CVA force level is reduced as low as 12, the Nimitz and the Eisenhower would replace the Roosevelt (CVA-42) and the Coral Sea (CVA-43) to relieve some of the upper end of the first edition of block obsolescence. The Midway would remain as the twelfth active CVA. Because of the delay in procurement of the CVAN-70, the earliest she could join the Fleet if authorized in fiscal year 1971 would be in 1977. And, as we have noted, at that time the Midway will be 32 years old and seven years beyond modernization—an ancient appendage to the carrier force. The CVAN-70 is needed to make up a minimal inventory of 12 modern carriers.
Status of Carrier Force 1970
NEW CONSTRUCTION ATTACK CARRIERS
PRESENT ACTIVE INVENTORY ATTACK CARRIERS
B. H. Richard
N—Nimitz 1(modernized 1970)
K—Kennedy 2(to be inactivated)
E—Enterprise 3(to be inactivated)
This is the crux of the Navy case for the CVAN-70. To fail, now, to continue the carrier construction program will aggravate the problems of obsolescence and total force capability.
Second, failure to continue a carrier construction program has national security implications beyond the immediate future. Our capacity to build combatant ships of the size required by modern aircraft has shrunk to a few shipyards. Only one shipyard can now build nuclear-powered carriers. The assembly of skills, production lines, materials, and fabrication facilities for construction of a nuclear-powered carrier class of ships is prodigious in scope, effort, and time. The program for construction of the Nimitz class was laboriously planned, justified, and implemented after exhaustive study in the Department of Defense to fully exploit the advantages and economics of multi-ship, multi-year construction by a single shipyard. Each delay in the program is not only costly in a financial sense, it also disrupts series procurement of major items such as nuclear power components, which, for the Nimitz class, are the largest ever constructed. A long delay or cancellation of procurement of the CVAN-70 will force the manufacturers of nuclear components to disperse the skills involved and convert manufacturing facilities to the construction of public utility nuclear power components, orders for which are now piled up in a vast backlog. Thus, if we fail to continue the carrier construction program, we cannot quickly regenerate it should a great emergency need for it arise in the future. This could constitute a grave abdication of responsibility by our nation for its own long term security interests.
Third, a possible reduction in the carrier force level has a number of major implications, the most important of which is that a smaller force should have the most capable modern carriers that can be provided. Such a reduction in the overall carrier force level has been strongly implied by the Administration and the Congress in connection with reductions in Department of Defense budgets.
From March 1965 to July 1969, the Navy was required to maintain, in a forward-deployed status, seven attack carriers and a varying number of antisubmarine carriers. Two attack carriers were kept in the Mediterranean and five in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. Since then, the number forward-deployed in the Pacific has been reduced. In effect, a surge effort has been maintained for five years without mobilization and with peacetime personnel policies and funding. The Navy stated to the Joint Senate-House Armed Services Subcommittee on CVAN-70 that the effects of this long-term effort are being reflected in the gradual lowering of the material condition of the Fleet which results from high tempo operations without compensatory major maintenance support. It follows that, with a reduced force level of carriers, the Navy would be hard put to match its recent long-term forward-deployment record under peacetime policies without more modern and capable carriers.
A smaller force can only retain the flexibility and effectiveness of a larger force through increased mobility. The Navy has already discovered that the secret of increased mobility for its ships in speed, range, and endurance is through nuclear power. Economically feasible conversion to nuclear power can only come through new construction. General Earle G. Wheeler, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized clearly the relationships between carrier capabilities, force levels, and nuclear power in his statement to the Joint Senate-House Subcommittee on CVAN-70:
I have recommended that the attack carrier force levels remain at 16 [15 CVA and 1 CVS operating in a CVA role] for the 1970s. . . . Nuclear powered attack carriers provide a more effective basing system for sea-based tactical air than conventionally powered attack carriers. They possess the capability to sustain high speeds during deployment and redeployment, to cycle at high speeds to and from less vulnerable replenishment areas, and to stay on station longer due to reduced fuel requirements. Because the nuclear carrier does not have to carry fuel oil for propulsion, there is more room in the ship’s hull for aviation fuel and other combat consumables. Therefore, the characteristics of a nuclear-powered carrier are reflected in improved survivability, operational flexibility and durability. . . . There is a definite need for the CVAN-70 and a ‘quality force’ of attack carriers for the future, especially if we must reduce naval forces due to budgetary constraints. The smaller the attack carrier force level, the greater will be the need for modern attack carriers.
Fourth, if continuation of the carrier construction program with procurement of the CVAN-70 is necessary to maintain the modernity of a minimal inventory of carriers, the United States can well afford it economically. A carrier, unlike any other air base beyond our territory, can move where and when we want, over 70% of the world, is useful for about 30 years, and is not going to be taken away from us as can be an overseas air base. If we buy a new aircraft carrier to replace an old one, we do not buy an all-new air wing for it. In fact, the air wing can be tailored in mix and size, from the existing aircraft inventory, to match any particular employment requirements for the carrier (provided the carrier is modern enough to operate them). If the carrier force level is reduced, the Navy has the capability to do just that. Various mission specialty types of aircraft can be assembled in a carrier air wing to cover all sea-based air missions to the extent required by circumstances.
The cost of a new carrier to replace an old one does not carry hidden costs of extra escort ships and auxiliaries with her. She simply takes the place of the older carrier and the escorts and auxiliaries remain. Her cost can be amortized over her normal 30-year useful life, and immediately shows as an infinitesimal annual procurement cost out of the total defense budget amortized on the same basis. The life cycle (30-year) cost of a carrier is only about 20% of the cost of the total carrier air system, which includes the acquisition and operating costs of the carrier and all the aircraft in her air wing during her life cycle. That is a relatively small percentage of total cost to pay for the mobility and base support portion of such a powerful, mobile, and versatile weapon system.
Once an aircraft model is developed, great numbers of that aircraft can be produced rapidly if an emergency arises, whereas, it takes a minimum of four years to build an aircraft carrier exactly like the last one. Until a few years ago, we had a reserve force of still-capable carriers in mothballs. We do not have them any longer. We will fight any future war upon the sea with the existing inventory of carriers. Perhaps this suggests the ultimate cost which we would be loathe to bear—the cost of not having sufficient modern carriers in being when we are faced with the urgent need for them.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff went on record through their Chairman in support of the requirement for nuclear carrier modernization, and they unanimously recommended the construction of the CVAN-70 to fulfill an objective force level of four nuclear-powered carriers in fiscal year 1977. There is no higher or more authoritative military source in the United States for a recommendation to continue carrier construction. The words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which are emblazoned on the keel-plate of the ship now building that is named for him, the CVAN-69, eloquently echo a plea for preparedness that should not go unheeded:
“Until war is eliminated from international relations, unpreparedness for it is well nigh as criminal as war itself.”
Captain Whidden graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1943 and served during World War II in the battleship Iowa. He became a naval aviator in 1946 and served in a tactical air control squadron during the Korean War. His aviation experience has been exclusively in carrier squadrons—attack and ASW. He commanded VS-32, CVSG-56, USS Aldebaran (AF-10) and USS Randolph (CVS-15) prior to assignment as Project Officer, Navy Carrier Study, in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He has recently been reassigned as Deputy Program Coordinator for Surface Ship Aviation Integration.