News broke recently that the USS NIMITZ, one of 11 USN super carriers, has had her deployment to the Persian Gulf delayed by several months due to engineering problems. This delay will reduce the availability of carriers in the Gulf to just one active vessel for much of 2013.
This news, while in itself not exactly unexpected – after all NIMITZ is nearly forty years old now, and it is inevitable that vessels that age develop machinery challenges – does perhaps illustrate a wider concern about just how thinly stretched the USN is now, and how this is likely to get more challenging.
On paper from next week the USN will operate 10 aircraft carriers, all NIMITZ class, after the USS ENTERPRISE is decommissioned. In reality those 10 vessels are going to be thinly stretched across the globe. Right now, of the 10 hulls, Nimitz is undergoing repairs, three are forward deployed (two are in the Gulf, one is in Japan) and another is available for tasking in the US. One (Abraham Lincoln) is available, but is about to enter deep refit for refuelling, while two more are in deep refit or being refuelled, with a further two in minor refit. As of today, the US Navy has just three operational deployed aircraft carriers at sea, with a fourth available in the US if required, and this is unlikely to change before summer 2013. (A good source of information can be found here - http://gonavy.jp/CVLocation.html)
The worry is that these sorts of availability problems will continue to grow as the class gets older. Make no mistake, these are some of the most complex and capable warships on the planet, but they are also getting old. Three of the hulls have now been commissioned for over thirty years, and another two for over twenty years. Although designed for an optimised 50 year lifespan, it is likely that as they age, maintenance is going to be increasingly difficult and availability will suffer.
Although a replacement class is now under construction, only one has been ordered so far, and the deep budget cuts likely to hit the DOD over the next few years means that it is by no means certain that further orders can be guaranteed in time to generate replacement hulls on time. This is a grim situation and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
|Nimitz Class at sea|
While the USN currently remains the most capable navy in the world, it is facing an increasingly challenging future, with a wave of issues likely to cause it difficulty over the next twenty years or so.
The first issue is that of budgets and manpower. The full impact of the likely budget cuts to the US military are yet to become clear, but deep cuts to procurement, force levels, manpower and maintenance budgets are almost inevitable. At the same time though, there is a growing ‘bow wave’ of new construction required which has yet to appear in service, or even the builders yards.
Despite many years, and millions of dollars expenditure, the USN has not yet introduced a wholly new ship class since the DDG51s entered service back in the late 1980s. Although a couple of small ‘Littoral Combat Ships’ have entered service, the programme is delayed and it feels as if it is unlikely to ever yield large scale unit production. The USN surface fleet is getting a lot older though, with the Ticonderoga Cruisers, the older Arleigh Burkes and the residual Oliver Hazard Perry frigates all getting into their late teens through to late twenties. These ships have been worked hard for years, and yet no replacement is currently in site and likely to enter service within the next 5-6 years. The US escort fleet is increasingly reliant on the DDG51, which looks like it will remain in serial production for at least another twenty years. Of the replacement frigates and cruiser programmes, no signs of real progress seem to be occurring. While this situation drags on, funding is going to be needed soon for the next pair of CVNs to ensure serial production of the Ford class continues. So, the USN has a major problem in managing an ever more elderly fleet with ever fewer ships likely to be active. As spares budgets are cut, it will become harder to keep vessels at sea, while procurement of replacements seems ever more delayed.
Arguably, the USN is finding itself now in the position that the RN has found itself in since the end of the Cold War. The priority is to allocate funding and resources to high end capabilities like carriers, amphibious shipping and submarine construction – not only to replace older vessels, but also secure a drumbeat of construction to prevent yards closing and skills from being lost. This priority comes at a price, which is fewer resources to support the surface fleet, and ever fewer orders for escort ships. The situation todays USN is in is arguably no different to the Royal Navy, and perhaps shows that in both navies, the priority is to put resources in the complex capabilities and not the escort ships – no matter what impact that may have.
An additional challenge facing the USN is manpower – Carriers are hugely manpower intensive, with their crews alone totalling over 3000 personnel for the hulls without even considering the airwing. Even allowing for refits, it’s fair to say that the best part of 30,000 personnel are assigned just to operate CVNs in the USN, and that’s before you count the airwing crews. In other words, the USN has more personnel working on carriers, than the entire Royal Navy has manpower.
As budgets are cut, the inevitable temptation is to try to reduce headcounts in order to reduce salary and other associated costs. It’s much easier to reduce headcounts than equipment as the savings are significantly greater over the long haul. At present, the crews for the carriers account for some 10% of the USN manpower bill, but in reality with airwings as well, the figure is edging closer to 15-20%.
In a much smaller USN, the carriers are going to occupy a disproportionate level of manpower, which will cause challenges for recruiting and training. If the headcount is reduced, but carriers remain the same, then the emphasis on recruiting and training skilled personnel will be ever more focused on recruiting to fill the carrier force. This means a need to make significant savings elsewhere, and reduces the availability of personnel to man existing ships. In other words, a 10 carrier USN in a smaller sized navy is going to have significant structural challenges for the remainder of the navy.
The Royal Navy is experiencing similar issues – of the 30,000 people in the RN, by the time you discount the Marines, Fleet Air Arm, Submarine Service and so on, there are actually relatively few ‘sailors’. The USN is going to have the same challenge – discount the submarine service, naval aviation and so on, and it quickly starts to run out of sailors. Make no mistake; the USN of the future is going to struggle to keep 10 carriers at sea without making major cuts elsewhere.
|An increasingly rare sight - a pair of Nimitz class operating together|
What does this all mean?
At its most simple, the reality is that for all the good that carriers do, the USA as a nation is going to have to probably invest more time and effort than ever before in securing airbases and access. A 10 carrier navy, getting ever more elderly, is going to be unable to operate across much of the world – while a CVN can provide some capability, the days of a carrier permanently steaming in the Med, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere have probably gone forever. To be certain of delivery of airpower, the US will need to have access to landbases – and this comes at a significant political price.
The likelihood is that over the next 5-10 years, the sight of a US Navy carrier operating in Europe will be minimal, and that outside of the deployment to the Gulf and Japan, the USN is going to be deploying its vessels into theatres where they don’t have organic airpower, AEW or the benefit of air cover. In other words, the USN is going to be working with ever more elderly ships, where they won’t be operating under the traditionally assumed umbrella of protection from a friendly nearby carrier, and they will be increasingly vulnerable unless land based airpower is nearby. This of course does not consider the role of the LPH in all this, as it is not yet clear what roles LPHs will play and if rumours in the press are to be believed, it is still not completely certain they will have a STOVL jet to fly from them.
The reality is that the USN now is probably in the same place as the RN found itself in the mid-1960s – mid 1970s. Reduced budgets, elderly vessels still in service, while the new designs (T42s, 22s) were taking longer than planned to come into service, and yet operationally committed across the globe.
The ability of the USN to operate with impunity across the globe, steaming where it wanted on its terms, and able to stand its ground against almost any aggressor has gone forever. Todays’ USN remains a fiercely capable and strong navy, but its ability to exert unlimited and unchallenged control of the high seas has gone, probably forever. Instead it would be more realistic to judge that the future USN will provide a capability to deploy power into some areas, but only at the cost of reducing capability and influence in others.