The other day FP carried a standard carriers-are-great piece by a trio of admirals. A friend of mine, appalled at what he regarded as the ostrich-like views of the high-ranking authors, sent a corrective note to me:
Key questions to be considered would be:
- To what degree will China be able to impede our ability to freely use carriers in the Pacific in the future?
- How willing would U.S. political leadership be to commit carriers in a high-threat environment where China would view a negative outcome for them as a threat to the survival of the Party (recognizing that in that culture every defeat, even small ones, are a threat to the survival of the Party)?
- Would POTUS commit a carrier if there was a 10 percent chance it would be hit?
- How about 20 percent, or 30 percent?
- How many of the vertical launch tubes on the destroyers and cruisers are committed to defending the carrier vs. carrying Tomahawks to carry out power-projection missions?
- When does the Navy come in a la Bay of Pigs and say that it can only operate carriers forward to accomplish the mission if it is allowed to hit targets on the mainland, placing CONUS at risk to reprisal, and how does the president respond?
- When does the POTUS realize that for years we have built platforms that we cannot afford to lose, either in monetary cost or the cost of lives? That is the key question. Rule number three of war is never build a weapon that you cannot afford to lose or have defeated. We seem to proceed on an assumption that no one will ever attack our carriers. I think the Chinese will see themselves as being in a position that they cannot afford NOT to attack our carriers.
- How does this all affect our position vis a vis Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India? All of those relationships will be at risk if we don't have an alternative.
Final thought: The Navy has already accepted that the fleet is going to shrink to 270 ships, and I am here to tell you that it will go smaller than that, probably 230 before this is all done. This is largely because all of those ships that were built by Reagan are all retiring at the same time and we are not building replacements at the same rate right now. That will be the price of maintaining 10-11 supercarriers at $12-13 billion with an annual shipbuilding budget of $15 billion. The price will decrease overall naval presence, and raise questions as to the U.S. commitment to local security concerns.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.