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Navy Wins More Than a Football Game

The Navy’s 27–21 victory in last month’s annual Army-Navy game, the tenth straight win  for the Midshipmen, isn’t the only way Navy is beating Army these days. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s new military budget proposal envisions extensive downsizing in the Army, from its current 570,000 to a much leaner 490,000; the Navy, meanwhile, gets to keep all 11 of its aircraft carriers. The New York Times reports:

Military experts familiar with Mr. Panetta’s thinking said that Mr. Obama had opposed reducing the American carrier fleet to 10 from 11 because of what he sees as the need to have enough force in the Pacific Ocean to act as a counterweight to China.

America’s attention is slowly shifting away from the Middle East and towards the Great Game in Asia, as evidenced by Obama’s high-profile initiatives involving, among others,  Japan, India and Australia. This is good news for the Navy. In Iraq and landlocked Afghanistan, ground forces and air power were key, leaving the Navy to play a supporting role. Now the tables are turning.

Via Meadia is withholding judgment on these cuts for now. The devil is often in the details. There is certainly fat in the Pentagon budget; the end of combat in Iraq also creates a chance for savings.  Pentagon pension and health care programs need to be reviewed and updated, and it is possible that greater differentiation could be made in terms of compensation and benefits between combat forces and lifetime desk jockeys. As more detail comes out on this story, it will be possible to see just how risky or how smart the strategy is.

Sea power, and its close relatives in air and space, remain critical for American power and in general, the decision to spare the Navy deep cuts makes sense. Some threats in space and cyberspace appear to be growing; China and several other powers are looking for ways to counter US supremacy without matching our full buildup.  That means an embrace of disruptive technological innovation; we need to stay on top of that, and this kind of ability does not come cheap.

Via Meadia has its doubts about how long the Age of the Aircraft Carrier will last.  Carriers have been supreme at sea since World War II; technological advance is likely to ring the curtain down on aircraft carriers sooner rather than later. In general we are less interested in cutting the military budget than in reallocating funds within it.  The US cannot be doing too much R&D for our taste, and this applies to all branches of the armed forces.

It would be a shame if penny pinching and stand pat Pentagon inertia led the US to neglect the investments in new technologies that can maintain and increase our qualitative lead in so many branches of military technology.  We aren’t saying that’s what the new Pentagon budget plan does, but we are saying that that is the standard against which any defense plan needs to be judged.

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  • gs

    1. Via Meadia has its doubts about how long the Age of the Aircraft Carrier will last. Carriers have been supreme at sea since World War II; technological advance is likely to ring the curtain down on aircraft carriers sooner rather than later.

    Like the battleship, perhaps. (Carrier admirals with powerful support in the military-industrial complex may be difficult to supplant.)

    2. I don’t know what can replace the carrier. Its vulnerability may mean that overseas projection of American force will become more difficult, to the advantage of our adversaries. Per WRM, there’s a significant technological challenge here.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The Navy has not proven itself to be a good steward of the shipbuilding funds it has received in the past. The Ford, Zumwalt, LCS and San Antonio have all been examples of technology overreach and out of control spending. Things are so bad the Navy has had to resort to resurrecting the 20 year old Burke design. The shipbuilding problem lies in people and procurement. The people problem should be solved before further funds are spent on gold plating.

    And the carrier has been replaced by the submarine. Thankfully, the Virginia is an example of a program well managed.

  • Walter Sobchak

    We are agreed on Aircraft carriers. As combat aircraft roles are usurped by UAVs, we will need to change the aircraft carriers as well.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    It seems to me that Drones and not just UAV’s, but ground and naval Drones are the wave of the future.
    “Drones is Better” Ironman 2
    In particular I want to see an infantry Drone that can be air delivered and controlled by a unit in the US, as UAVs are. I also believe that the aircraft carrier is becoming vulnerable, and losing it’s utility as a floating airbase as planes become longer legged and air refuel-able. We could replace an aircraft carrier now at less cost, with the use of refuel-able UAVs and Tankers.
    At $9 billion for an aircraft carrier, billions more for a wing of aircraft, and more billions in support ships and annual operating costs, a carrier costs a fortune. Let’s assume that a combat UAV + tankage + state side control center costs $100 million each, so for $10 billion you can buy 100 (60 to a wing), that would sit safe in the US until needed, and if you lost one, so what no one even died. While losing even one aircraft carrier would be a disaster of monumental proportions, like losing a city.

  • Lexington Green

    Carriers are visible symbols, like a cop on the beat. But their increasing vulnerability means when deterrence fails some day and we lose one or more if them the shock will be magnified. That risk increasingly outweighs the utitlity of the visible symbol.

  • stephen b

    AN airfield that can reposition itself has incalculable value. Once unmanned aircraft can be successfully refueled in flight (coming soon to a NASA Global Hawk and Navy’s UCAS-D), carriers will re-emerge as more survivable tools.

  • bob sykes

    The chief problem with the Virginia class is that they are much too small and carry too few missiles. Aircraft carriers, vulnerable as they are, carry an enormous amount of ordnance, which is necessary if you are serious about fighting a war.

    The four converted SSBNs of the Ohio class point the way. They each carry 154 cruise missiles. We need a lot more of these, and they should be much bigger. A sub with 500+ missiles would be very useful. Especially if there were several dozen of them.

    The other alternative is the hypersonic hybrid plane/missiles which could be launched at targets anywhere from the US.

    However, if you’re going to put boots on the ground, you must have airplanes, manned or unmanned. How will they get to the battle? The alternative is to decline ground combat everywhere, as in everywhere.

  • Andrew Allison

    The decision was not about building more carriers, but about retaining the ones we have. I don’t think any more will be built.
    The real issues here are the stranglehold which the military-industrial complex has on the economy, and the ridiculously out-of-whack teeth-to-tail ratio in all three services. While the Army is clearly the place to start, we also need to take a hard look at the fleets-to-admirals ratio, etc.
    One could make a pretty good argument that our future needs for “feet on the ground” could be met by the Marine Corps and the only role for the Army is drones.

  • Tom

    Carriers have lost their strategic supremacy but they have other uses, especially in peacetime. Cruise missiles are only good for blowing things up; drones cannot exercise airspace control (yet); and sometimes (as in disaster relief efforts) what you need really is a massive resource with mobility.

    11 carriers (we used to have 12) is indeed a huge money sink. But that’s what we need to have 5-6 at sea continuously. How low should we go before it’s too low? Also, a decision to cut back today has to reckon with the future 10+ years from now; naval construction has very long lead times.

  • Corlyss

    The Navy is what keeps us relevant militarily, able to project power anywhere in the world. While we’re making up our minds how the next wars will be fought, better keep the boats in good working order.

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