Navy chief: US needs to keep 11 aircraft carriers

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on Wednesday said the U.S. needs to have a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, siding with lawmakers who have sought to save the USS George Washington from budget cuts.

"We need 11 to have the constant presence that we need. We need 11 to get them into a more regular cycle of maintenance and training," he told reporters at a breakfast. 

ADVERTISEMENT
"There's a law that we got to have 11 carriers. It's like gravity — it's not just a good idea, it's the law. So that's the basis you have to go on," Mabus added.

Under a waiver from Congress, the Navy is now operating with 10 carriers. The USS Enterprise was retired in December and a new carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, will not be ready until 2016.

But Pentagon officials in March submitted a defense budget that did not include money to refuel and overhaul another carrier, the USS George Washington (GW), effectively retiring the ship.

Officials said the decision was necessary because of defense budget caps imposed by Congress under 2011 Budget Control Act.

Lawmakers have fought back against additional cuts to the carrier fleet, including measures to begin maintenance work on the USS George Washington in 2015 policy and spending defense bills, which are expected to pass after the election.

Mabus lauded that decision but said Congress had only provided money to begin work on the carrier, and that more funds were needed. That additional money would have to be included in the 2016 defense budget request, which Pentagon planners are working on and will unveil in March. 

"Congress has given us enough money to start on the GW. ... What we don't have yet is the rest of the money, which is several billion dollars, to not only do the complete overhaul and the refueling but also keep the air wing, the sailors involved in the carrier," Mabus said. 

Mabus defended keeping the number of Navy carriers at 11, saying it would ensure that existing carriers, accompanying support ships and crew members would not get worn out by long and repeated deployments. It also gives sailors, families and maintenance crews predictable deployments, he said.

Carriers, strike groups and crews have had to deploy more frequently, for longer periods and on irregular cycles due to the shortage of carriers, Mabus said, ahe Navy is strained by requirements that carriers be deployed to specific regions of the world.

"The Navy wants the GW, and the Navy wants the 11th carrier. It was a purely financial thing that it was one of the few places you could go to get that amount of money," Mabus said of the Pentagon's decision to retire the ship.

"But going forward, certainly our plan is to keep the carrier and that was unambiguous from Congress," he said.