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Lawmaker Calls for Study on Small Carriers
The time has come for the Pentagon to establish a working group to hold “meaningful discussions” on whether the Navy needs to begin building smaller aircraft carriers to meet future threats, an influential lawmaker told Inside the Pentagon July 19.
“I think we need to have a working group that's involved in a more deliberate consideration” of the issue of reducing the size of traditional aircraft carriers to enable procurement of more vessels that may be smaller, but can be distributed across the globe, House Armed Services projection forces subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) said.
The lawmaker's comments are in part based on discussions from a closed-door roundtable held last week where subcommittee members, Defense Department officials, Navy leaders and defense analysts discussed “the benefits and limitations of smaller carrier platforms as an alternative to the supercarrier,” according to a July 7 panel memo, obtained by ITP. The most recent commissioned carrier was procured in fiscal year 1995 for $4.5 billion and entered service in July 2003, according to a June 20 Congressional Research Service report.
Those attending the meeting included Bartlett; Ranking Member Gene Taylor (D-MS); panel member Rep. Thelma Drake (R-VA); Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Ship Programs Allison Stiller; Navy Program Executive Officer for Carriers Rear Adm. David Architzel; Navy Aviation and Aircraft Carrier Plans and Requirements Branch Director Rear Adm. Richard Wren; Office of Force Transformation Acting Director Terry Pudas; retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes Jr.; retired Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner; Center for Naval Analyses analyst Mark Lewellyn; Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O'Rourke; and Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analyst Robert Work, according to the memo and a source familiar with the meeting.
“This is not an easy thing to decide,” Bartlett told ITP. The lawmaker has asked participants to provide the panel input for a possible “course of action.”
“I just wanted a clean piece of paper to look at where we were and where we ought to be going,” Bartlett said.
Although there is no specific deadline set for when feedback is expected, the lawmaker said “we don't need to wait 14 years to do this.”
The issue of building smaller carriers has emerged periodically over the last few years, with the most recent instance coming last year when OFT, under the leadership of then-director Arthur Cebrowski released an Alternative Fleet Architecture Design study, which proposed building smaller warships and aircraft carriers to distribute Navy assets more widely across the seas.
Shrinking an aircraft carrier was also considered as part of an analysis of alternatives conducted in the late 90s before efforts to develop the Navy's next-generations carrier, CVN-21.
Bartlett believes it is time to revisit the issue because the increased used of precision guided weapons that raise the probability of destroying a target, may be reducing the need for carriers that in the past launched multiple planes to ensure a hit.
“I've been asking the question, with the vastly improved capabilities and weapons today, why do we need a carrier that is larger than the minimum size necessary to launch and retrieve a plane,” Bartlett said.
The lawmaker feels that a more widely distributed fleet “might serve us well” operationally and financially.
“When I note that half of the cost of keeping ships at sea is the manpower, and when I note that we now fly [unmanned aerial vehicles] over Afghanistan -- the Predator -- with the pilot in Idaho . . . I was asking how come we still have people on ships?” Bartlett said. “The answer I got to that question was pretty much . . . they need to be there for damage control.”
Today's platforms are “so large, so expensive and so few” that more sailors are needed to ensure their maintenance and survivability, the lawmaker said. Although the Navy does a “pretty good job” employing automated technologies to reduce manual maintenance on ships, Bartlett says he is most concerned for the future.
“I know it's very difficult to ignore what the present Navy looks like, and what the present industrial base looks like, but I just think we need to,” Bartlett said. “I don't want to have regrets that the Navy we have in the future was the product of momentum from what we have right now, when it should have been something else.”
Bartlett said he had no alternative designs in mind for smaller carriers.
A June 20 Congressional Research Service report notes, “Some observers have suggested procurement of smaller carriers such [as] the 57,000-ton medium-sized carrier or the 13,500-ton high-speed carrier proposed by DOD's Office of Force Transportation.” Another alternative could also be a “smaller ‘pocket' carrier proposed a few years ago by the Naval Postgraduate School under the project name Corsair,” it adds.
Some Navy representatives defended the procurement of traditional aircraft carriers citing heightened stability of the large ships in rough seas, Bartlett said. The Navy is developing a new class of big-deck aircraft carriers to succeed today's 97,000-ton Nimitz-class carriers. The service's next-generation carrier has a full load displacement of 100,000 tons, according to the June 20 Congressional Research Service report.
When asked if the roles of aircraft carriers should be modified to meet operations stemming from natural disasters or global war on terror missions, Bartlett said it is better to distribute these roles across smaller, more mission-specific vessels.
Large platforms like the Zumwalt-class DD(X) destroyer “is so capable . . . that it's hard to envision a single mission where all those capabilities would be needed,” Bartlett said.
There is “no reason these platforms need to be as big as they are, to the extent, where you can't distribute these capabilities,” he said.