Small Wars

This Week at War: Does the U.S. Need More Aircraft Carriers?

The Pentagon sure wants more $15 billion boats, but it may have to look for other options. 

A May 21 article in the Daily Beast claimed that, in January, Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, requested that the Pentagon send a third aircraft carrier strike group (comprising an aircraft carrier and about five escort ships) to the Persian Gulf region. According to the article, Mattis's request was denied, citing President Barack Obama's desire to focus military resources elsewhere, especially in the Pacific.

Mattis's appeal for a third carrier came at a time of heightening tensions -- when Iran was threatening to attack U.S. warships near the Strait of Hormuz. According to the article, Mattis wanted to make a show of force to deter Iran from further escalation.

The January flare-up in the Strait of Hormuz subsided without conflict -- and without the arrival of a third carrier strike group. In spite of that outcome, regional commanders like Mattis will certainly retain their affection for aircraft carriers, both as signals of U.S. power and as flexible and mobile bases for projecting power.

Mattis's request for another carrier -- a long-standing and seemingly reflexive response by commanders during crises -- and Washington's denial of this request, raises issues for policymakers and planners. If Mattis needed to make a strong show of force to Tehran, he should have had other options as effective, as responsive, and certainly more reasonably priced than a carrier strike group. Commanders like Mattis have long believed that when it comes to signaling resolve, there is nothing like parking an aircraft carrier and its attendant ships off an adversary's coast. The high demand among U.S. regional commanders for aircraft carriers shows that these pricey ships are not yet obsolete. The Navy is currently building USS Gerald Ford, the first of a new class of carriers, showing its commitment to the very expensive platform. But this reliance on the carrier also exposes weaknesses in the Pentagon's portfolio of capabilities, which its procurements plans, alas, are only just beginning to address.

With the aircraft carrier remaining the power projection tool-of-choice, the Navy is straining to keep up with demands made by regional commanders. According to the Navy, the Lincoln and Enterprise carrier strike groups are currently operating in the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which supports Mattis's Central Command, near Iran. Central Command has regularly had two carriers assigned to it. But maintaining such an assignment indefinitely requires at least six carriers; keeping one on station at all times requires a second preparing to deploy, with a third recently returned from deployment and laid up for repairs. Having two carriers continuously in the Middle East theater  requires the Navy to assign six to the mission. With 11 carriers in the Navy (soon to be 10 after the 50-year old Enterprise retires next year), Mattis's Fifth Fleet requirements are absorbing more than half of the Navy's carrier strength. It is little wonder that Mattis's request for a third carrier was denied (the rest of the Navy's carriers are currently either in their home ports receiving maintenance or are training for an upcoming deployment). And the unshakeable demands of the Middle East are leaving the Obama administration's intended "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific theater sounding hollow.

Why do commanders typically first turn to aircraft carriers to either send signals to adversaries or reinforce their striking power? If Mattis needed to send a signal of resolve to Iran, he should have had more options that just a carrier strike group. One alternative would be a deployment of U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber aircraft. Indeed, on April 30, U.S. officials revealed the arrival of an unspecified number of F-22 fighter jets to the Al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The highly-advanced, but troubled, F-22 would play many important roles in a possible conflict with Iran. Perhaps this deployment provided the signal Mattis hoped to deliver with another aircraft carrier?

But as capable as the F-22s are, in a war against Iran they could have trouble getting into the fight, especially from vulnerable front-line bases like Al-Dhafra. In the future, Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles might be able to close down such fixed bases (an easier task than targeting an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Arabian Sea) leaving the aircraft stationed there either destroyed or trapped in their shelters. (In a previous column, I discussed how the short range of its aircraft and the lack of useful bases in the Western Pacific prevent the Air Force from being relevant in a hypothetical conflict over Taiwan.)

The U.S. and its allies plan to protect bases such as Al-Dhafra with missile defenses. But defenders may find themselves on the wrong side of a marginal cost imbalance -- it is likely to be cheaper for the attacker to add more missiles than it is for the defender to add interceptors. In addition to the vulnerability of forward bases, political constraints, such as those faced by Saudi Arabia and others, may prevent the U.S. Air Force from getting its short-range fighters onto bases that will be useful in a conflict. As an example, we should recall the political friction caused by the U.S. Air Force's presence in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s and how rapidly the Air Force departed the kingdom in late 2003, when it no longer required Saudi bases to patrol Iraq.

These shortcomings explain why aircraft carriers -- mobile and unburdened by political constraints -- remain popular with commanders like Mattis. But demand will continue to exceed supply. And at $15 billion a pop -- not including aircraft and escort vessels -- the new generation of aircraft carriers is simply too expensive to be an answer to all of the problems regional commanders will want them to solve. Aircraft carriers also concentrate too much firepower on a single (albeit well-protected) ship, adding greatly to combat risk. With the current grim outlook for its shipbuilding budget, the Navy will struggle to maintain a fleet of 11 flattops, let alone reach a higher number that would satisfy the demands of the regional commanders. Over the long-term, the Navy forecasts adding one new carrier about every five years, just enough to keep pace with the retirement of old carriers. With Mattis's steady-state requirement effectively taking away six carriers, a thin reserve remains should a persistent presence of carriers be required for, say, the Korean peninsula or the South China Sea.

And so the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army must develop forces that can provide at least some of the same signaling and power projection capabilities provided by carrier strike groups. Such forces must be rapidly deployable, trained and ready for such missions, and able to either avoid an adversary missile threat or continue to function in spite of it.

For the Air Force, this mission implies a willingness to use its existing long-range bombers, its B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s, as signaling devices and to step up the urgency and resources toward building future long-range strike aircraft, which in current plans remains a "paper airplane" relegated to the next decade. The Marine Corps will have an opportunity to play a bigger role in the type of scenario Mattis faced in January when it is able to operate squadrons of its future F-35B fighter-bomber (which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed from probation) from large-deck amphibious ships like USS America. What remains in question is whether by going down such a path, the Marine Corps will be willing, or will be allowed, to encroach on one of the Navy's principal roles.

Finally, the Army should consider expanding its arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles. The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union banned missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers and thus restricted the Army to short-range battlefield missiles. Just as Iran, China, and others are seeing the advantages of mobile, deployable, and concealable land-attack missiles, the Army could expand its missile role beyond the 300 kilometer range it currently possesses, up to the INF treaty limit of 500 kilometers. In the scenario that Mattis faced in January, the rapid arrival of a mobile Army missile force could have held Iranian targets at risk and thus provided the signaling and deterrence Mattis sought.

For the foreseeable future, however, U.S. commanders responsible for security in regions such as the Middle East and the Western Pacific will always look to get more aircraft carriers during crises. But it will cost too much to expect those hopes to ever be fulfilled. And there remain questions over whether it is prudent to concentrate so much military power in a single ship, regardless of how much expense is put into its protection.

There is an opportunity for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to show the contributions they can provide when a crisis demands a rapid and effective response. But to take advantage of this opportunity, leaders in these services will have to make some changes to their existing plans. And that will mean fighting more battles inside the Pentagon first.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Small Wars

The Persian Gulf Needs Its Own NATO

And America needs to lead it.

This weekend, NATO will hold its 25th summit meeting in Chicago. Separated by a formidable security cordon from protesters, the heads of government attending -- including President Barack Obama back in his home town -- will attempt to tackle an agenda that includes the future of the military campaign in Afghanistan, implementing a missile defense plan for Europe, improving military cooperation inside the alliance, and addressing how the alliance should engage with outside partners.

Even as it struggles with its future, few would deny that NATO has been one of the most successful military alliances in history. In 1949, Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general, declared the goal of the alliance was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." After achieving at least the first two during the long Cold War, the alliance has hung together for another two decades, although not without questions about its future relevance.

Are there lessons here for other would-be alliance builders? On May 13, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted his own summit meeting of the Sunni Persian Gulf kingdoms (including Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman) with the hope of building a future economic and security union. At a preparatory meeting in December, Abdullah pointed to Iran's encroachments and the uprisings swirling in the region and said, "You all know that we are targeted in our safety and security." He then warned that those who failed to cooperate with his proposal "will find himself at the back of the back of the caravan trail, and be lost." Abdullah was hoping to inject some life into the moribund Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group the six kingdoms formed in 1981 and has achieved little since.

From Riyadh's perspective, Bahrain is an obvious place to start building the stronger alliance. For over a year, Bahrain's Sunni royal family, with substantial Saudi assistance, has struggled to suppress an uprising by the country's Shiite majority, a rebellion the leaders in both countries believe Tehran has catalyzed. Deeper cooperation leading to success against the revolt would both highlight the perceived threat and show the advantages deeper security and economic cooperation could bring to all six kingdoms.

Abdullah's bid this week failed. The Gulf royals, undoubtedly wary of ceding any of their authority to an already dominant Saudi Arabia, left Riyadh on May 14 wanting, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, "details, and the details of the details" regarding the Saudi proposal for a deeper alliance. Although the leaders undoubtedly fear revolution and Iran, for the moment they fear the House of Saud even more.

Can Abdullah learn anything from NATO's history? There seem to be some parallels to the challenges he perceives. In 1949, Western European and U.S. leaders saw an expansionist Soviet Union that maintained a menacing army and was simultaneously instigating internal subversion in Greece, central Europe, Italy, and elsewhere. Abdullah and his fellow Sunni royals worry about Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria and provocateurs in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The solution for Western leaders in 1949 was a military alliance based on the principle of collective security. Abdullah apparently wants something similar.

Yet Abdullah's scheme is crippled by rivalry among the potential pact's members and distrust of Saudi Arabia's dominance and intentions. Left to themselves, Western Europe's leaders might similarly have struggled to form an effective alliance after World War II, in spite of the motivation the Soviet threat provided. Just like the Sunni leaders today, rivalry, distrust, and incentives to hedge might have dominated their decisions. As one example of internal mistrust, Lord Ismay's 1949 mission statement revealed that Western leaders were still worried that Germany, despite being flattened and dismembered by World War II, might once again rise up to become the dominant power in Europe, just as it had so quickly after the last world war. In addition, Europe had no history of trusting any of its other constituents to lead it, nor did it have many examples of enduring cooperation against common problems.

But Ismay's statement also contained the solution, namely inviting in a powerful outsider, the United States, to lead the alliance. As an outsider that had no claims in Europe and was largely neutral regarding the internal squabbles among the other members, the United States was seen as a partner all the European leaders could trust and the sole force that could hold the alliance together against its self-defeating instincts. The U.S. claim to leadership was certainly aided by its overwhelming economic and military strength after the war. But Europeans also trusted the United States to lead the alliance because an ocean separated it from Europe.

The same principle explains the strength of the U.S. alliance system in Asia. U.S. allies in the Western Pacific shared an interest in deterring first the Soviet Union and now China. A major reason why they can trust the United States as a partner is because it must project its military power across the Pacific Ocean, a task that would become difficult to sustain without the allies' cooperation. With this control over the U.S. reach, these allies have little reason to fear America asserting its own claims in the region. China, by contrast, is a large continental power whose intentions will always be questioned by its small neighbors. It should be no wonder that Beijing has so few allies in the region when Washington is available as a partner.

The United States has a strong interest in seeing Abdullah's initiative advance. From the U.S. perspective, the most sustainable and cost-effective end-state for the Iran problem is the achievement of a stable balance of power across the Persian Gulf. Encouraging the GCC to develop into an effective military alliance is essential to achieving this balance of power. But after three decades of effort, the GCC has yet to live up to this potential, as Abdullah's pleading reveals. And the GCC has failed because its small members do not trust Saudi Arabia.

Just as NATO needed the United States to overcome Europe's history of mistrust and rivalry, the GCC needs the United States in order to convince the smaller Sunni countries to finally work with Saudi Arabia. As a member of the GCC, the United States would reprise the roles it has played in NATO and Asia -- the dominant outsider, with no claims in the region, and a player the rest of the teammates can trust.

Getting the U.S. Senate to ratify a collective security treaty binding the U.S. military to the Persian Gulf would be a very tough sell for a country weary of engagement in that part of the world. It would seem an insuperable task to round up politicians in Washington willing to commit America in advance to more Middle East wars.

But ever since the arrival of the Carter Doctrine in January 1980, the United States has made an expanding de facto commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf region. Converting this de facto commitment into a treaty obligation to the GCC could improve its credibility and thus reduce the probability of actual conflict, as has long been the case with the U.S. treaty commitments to Europe and Asia.

In any case, the U.S. interest in Abdullah's initiative will remain because it continues to be the best path toward stability across the Persian Gulf. This week's meeting in Riyadh, combined with the GCC's own sad history, shows that Abdullah's pleas and Iran's peril are still not enough to overcome distrust. As they ponder how to bring stability to the Persian Gulf at the most reasonable cost, U.S. policymakers should consider the model that worked so well in Europe and Asia.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages