WASHINGTON — With the US Navy stretched beyond its means to meet worldwide commitments, planners are looking at ways to get more operational time out of the ships, aircraft and sailors on hand. One solution, says an influential analyst, is to consider basing not just one, but two aircraft carriers in Japan.
A second carrier in Japan would solve all western Pacific carrier needs, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said Tuesday, a day before presenting his findings at a Capitol Hill press conference.
"Not having the transit time from the West Coast saves about 20 percent in the deployment length," Clark said, adding that his research shows a two-carrier force would result in a 1.4 presence factor, meaning at least one carrier would be available every month of a year, with both carriers available an additional four months.
Time offline includes maintenance and overhaul periods.
The US has maintained a forward-deployed naval force (FDNF) presence in Japan for many years, including one aircraft carrier. That ship is currently the Ronald Reagan, having relieved the George Washington late this summer. Cruisers, destroyers, mine countermeasures ships and a four-ship amphibious ready group also are based in Japan, operating from Yokosuka or Sasebo, along with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa.
Carrier Air Wing Five, based in Japan at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, would probably need to be "augmented" to serve both carriers, Clark said, but he does not see the need to add another complete air wing. The wing is moving to expanded facilities at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni — a larger field that could handle more aircraft, he noted.
"Instead of two full wings, you could have a single augmented air wing — or two partial air wings," Clark said. "You could also look at alternative ways to equip the air wing." One possibility, he said, would be to outfit each wing with only three strike fighter squadrons rather than four, due to an ongoing shortage of F/18-C Hornet and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet strike fighters.
Clark does not see the need to beef up the surface forces in Japan, other than to send an additional cruiser to provide anti-air commander escorts for the carriers.
Clark also acknowledged there are numerous political, logistical and budgetary issues with the idea.
The recommendation is included in a report released Wednesday, "Deploying Beyond Their Means," on the effect of continuing high operational requirements on the US Navy and Marine Corps.
In addition to adding a carrier in Japan, Clark would also forward-deploy an additional amphibious ready ready group to the western Pacific, possibly in Guam, and restore carrier rotations in the Sixth Fleet’s European theater of operations — a Cold War staple that fell off with the end of that conflict and the shift in focus to the Persian Arabian Gulf region.
The Navy is required by law to maintain an 11-ship carrier fleet, although a temporary, 10-ship level is in effect until the carrier Gerald R. Ford is commissioned next year.
While the two Japan-based carriers could handle normal Western Pacific duties, Clark said, the five west-coast based carriers would rotate in and out of the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean region, while the four carriers on the Atlantic coast would rotate in and out of the European theater.
Beefing up carrier presence in those regions, he said, would be "indicative of American resolve. It shows that the US is not walking away from the Asia-Pacific, and it would restore some presence to the European theater."
There is no indication, however, that the US Navy is considering moving another flattop to Japan.
"There has absolutely been no conversation related to forward-deploying an additional carrier in Japan," a Navy official said curtly when asked about the report.
But some on Capitol Hill might be considering the idea.
"Deploying an additional forward-based carrier to the Pacific is not a new idea, but given the demands on the carrier fleet it is an option that's time may have finally come," one Senate staffer said.
"Along with the benefits identified in the report, perhaps the most important one is that deploying a second carrier in the Pacific on a permanent basis would offer a real demonstration of our enduring commitment to our allies and partners in the region. We need to take a hard look at the peacetime and war-fighting benefits, associated military construction costs, and the propensity of an ally like Japan to consider a deployment like this."
The full report is available at http://csbaonline.org/publications/2015/11/deploying-beyond-their-means-americas-navy-and-marine-corps-at-a-tipping-point/