The U.S. Navy is about to cut in half the number of aircraft carriers it keeps ready for combat. Starting in 2015, just two American flattops will be on station at any given time, down from three or four today.
The change is spelled out in a presentation by Adm. Bill Gortney, head of Fleet Forces Command. The U.S. Naval Institute published the presentation on its Website on Jan. 24.
The new “Optimized Fleet Response Plan” represents an effort to standardize training, maintenance and overseas cruise schedules for the Navy’s 283 front-line warships, in particular the 10 nuclear-powered carriers.
The OFRP is also meant to save money and keep the Navy functioning under budget cuts mandated by the sequestration law. But to be clear, even after the change the Navy will still deploy more, bigger and better ships than any other maritime force in the world.
Warships will adopt a 36-month calendar. In each three-year cycle, a ship will sail on patrol once for eight months. “All required maintenance, training, evaluations and a single eight-month deployment will be efficiently scheduled,” Gortney claimed.
That means less than a quarter of the combat fleet—possibly fewer than 70 ships—will be deployed at any given time, down from 81 today. The Navy keeps around two-thirds of its combat power in the Pacific, equal to around 45 deployed ships under the OFRP.
Fewer frontline ships will be on patrol under the new plan, but those ships—and their crews—should be in better condition, having spent more time at home for training and refit, Gortney claimed. “The Optimized Fleet Response Plan has been developed to enhance the stability and predictability for our sailors.”
Sailing less often also helps the Navy shift funding into ship maintenance, a traditionally under-funded but vital activity that ensures vessels can serve for their entire 30-to-50-year planned lifespan.
But the undeniable fact is that there will be fewer Navy ships near potential hot spots starting next year. Based on historical patterns, it’s likely the Navy will keep one aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific near China and another in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to watch over Iran.
U.S. flattops will be routinely absent from the rest of the world’s oceans, although the Navy will also be able to deploy two assault ships carrying helicopters and Harrier or Joint Strike Fighter jump jets—mini-carriers, in a sense.
Moreover, the OFRP standardizes and enlarges carrier strike groups, concentrating the smaller deployed fleet into fewer but bigger formations. “These CSGs will be composed of seven to eight, vice current three to four, surface combatants,” Gortney explained.
The concentration will be achieved in part by shifting ballistic-missile-defense ships—cruisers and destroyers fitted with missiles and radars for shooting down enemy rockets—away from independent patrols. Instead, many of the BMD ships will sail alongside the carriers.
The addition of missile-defense ships to the carrier groups could help the flattops defend themselves against Chinese-made DF-21D “carrier-killer” rockets in the event of a major war.
But Gortney stressed that some missile-defense patrols will need to be independent—most likely, those conducted by the Navy’s new four-ship destroyer squad in Rota, Spain. Those four ships are meant to patrol the Mediterranean, where American aircraft carriers will rarely venture.
The handful of destroyers carrying Scan Eagle drones and Fire Scout robot helicopters could also be exempted from carrier-group duty, Gortney added. These vessels frequently sail alone along the East African coast in order to gather intelligence for Special Operations Forces secretly working ashore.
The new plan will mean fewer but more powerful Navy deployments, but does not mean an end to routine, small-scale humanitarian and goodwill cruises. Rather, those “softer” naval missions are increasingly the purview of the quasi-civilian Military Sealift Command, which operates more than 100 lightly-armed specialist ships alongside the frontline Navy.
The Navy recently bought MSC 10 small, speedy catamaran transports and four Mobile Landing Platform “sea base” ships specifically so that those cheaper vessels could handle soft missions. Sealift Command ships might become a more common sight across the globe at the same time that aircraft carriers become rarer.