Obama’s pivot to Asia will lack firepower

President Obama’s pivot to Asia will lack a crucial military underpinning next year, when for four months, the Navy will not have an aircraft carrier in the region.

Defense cuts have helped shrink the number of available carriers, alarming GOP lawmakers who are fighting the Pentagon’s plan to permanently cut the number of U.S. carriers to 10.

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They argue not having a carrier in the region for months at a time will send a signal of U.S. weakness, as China seeks to make territorial claims against several U.S. allies over the East China Sea.

“Symbolically, the worst thing we could do around the globe is to take one of those carriers out,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) told defense reporters on Tuesday. “We really need two or three carriers there.”

According to Forbes and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), there will not be a carrier in the region for about 130 days next year, between when the USS George Washington leaves its base in Japan, and when its replacement, the USS Ronald Reagan, arrives there.

They argue this would leave the U.S. with fewer options to respond to flare-ups.

Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nicholas Sherrouse said the Navy’s presence in the region would not be diminished. He said that, at “at any given time, there are 80 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft, and approximately 40,000 sailors and Marines in the region.”

Still, the U.S. would not be able to use a carrier if a show of force is needed against China or North Korea, or if a natural disaster strikes, which lawmakers say is a concern for U.S. Pacific Command chief Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear III. 

“He can’t do what he needs to do with 11 carriers. He sure couldn’t do it with 10 carriers,” Forbes said.

“He said whenever things flare up, he likes to send an aircraft carrier, and that sends a strong message. If you don’t have an aircraft carrier to send, you know, what do you do?” McKeon said earlier this month. 

Although there have been gaps in the past, they have been worsened by defense cuts under sequestration, which have slowed maintenance for ships and caused more to be sidelined for greater lengths of time, experts say. 

“You want that delay to be as short as possible,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired nuclear submariner. 

The situation would get worse if the Navy goes through with the plan to retire an aircraft carrier, bringing the permanent fleet down to 10, Clark said. 

Lawmakers alarmed by the situation are fighting to scrap the Navy’s plan. The Navy says the Congress should agree to a 10-carrier fleet, if it does not lift budget ceilings that were put in place by the 2011 budget deal, by 2016.

Current law requires 11 carriers, but right now, the U.S. has 10. This is legal under a temporary exception approved by Congress that allowed for the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012.

To keep the Navy at 11 carriers, Armed Services Committee members are working to prevent another carrier from being retired in 2016.

On Tuesday, the panel’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee released their markup of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which would provide money in 2015 for the refueling and overhaul of the George Washington, which would extend its life for 25 years. 

Although it does not guarantee that the carrier would keep operating in 2016 and beyond, it would ensure that it receives necessary maintenance in order to remain in the fleet. 

Cutting carriers down to 10 would be a huge mistake, said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute. 

“If you lose the George Washington, its air wing and those pilots, we will never get that back,” he said. “The permanent reduction is a very big step that we should not back into.”

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about a carrier shortage in the Asia-Pacific, given an increasingly assertive China. 

China is rapidly modernizing its naval forces, spending 12.2 percent more on its military this year than last year. 

China is also locked in a territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea with Japan, a U.S. defense treaty ally. 

In November, it unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone that prohibited other nations from flying aircraft through without prior notification. 

And South Korea, another U.S. defense treaty ally, is technically still at war with North Korea, and U.S. officials worry that provocative acts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could lead to a miscalculation and all-out war between the two countries. 

Lawmakers have also argued that reducing the number of U.S. carriers would be odd given the administration’s policy of “pivoting” its policies to Asia to counter China. The so-called Asian pivot is intended to beef up the U.S. military and economic presence in the region.

“Our presence is critical to ensure our allies that we can be relied on as a partner to protect our interest and theirs,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold. 

But Defense budget experts say the Navy has little choice but to retire a carrier if the budget cuts persist. 

“Sixty percent of every Navy budget dollar supports something to do with an aircraft carrier,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It goes to show the limited number of choices confronting the Department.”

Refueling the George Washington would cost about $6 billion, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  

“It takes a lot of money up front to do that refueling and overhaul, and they need to find savings,” Harrison said. “The cost of refueling the Washington is about the cost of buying two or three Virginia-class subs, so there’s a real trade-off in capability.” 

Harrison said the Navy is looking at doing things in the future to improve the mix of aircraft on carriers to make them more effective and relevant in a future threat environment, which could require fewer carriers. 

But Daly said there would be no way to make up for the lack of a carrier. 

“There will be more gaps and less bench strength. Your ability to deal with the things that come up as emergencies and unforeseen situations will be less than what you want,” Daly said.