Since World War II, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers have uniquely served as the most flexible and effective tool in the nation’s warfighting toolbox.
Presidents from 1942 to today have used them to reassure friends, warn opponents, and, when necessary, fight and win wars. With the re-emergence of great power competition, coupled with fewer and fewer viable options to forward deploy land or air forces to defend our national security interests, large deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have been and will continue to be indispensable in providing quick response options and credible, visible deterrence. And with its fleet of large deck nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is the sole proprietor of the eleven most mobile and survivable airfields in the Department of Defense.
No other ship in the world can sustain operations at sea like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Capable of moving over 700 nautical miles a day and replenishing its weapons magazines while underway, aircraft carriers can generate sustained combat power over weeks and months at sea, protecting our sea lanes, shaping day-to-day peacetime operations, while continuously providing the mass of readily available combat power needed to deter aggressors. And as capable as a single aircraft carrier is, two or three carriers operating together dramatically increases their combat throw weight.
These mobile, floating airfields, with evolving and new aircraft, future combat systems and weapons, coupled with creative and innovative operational concepts all combine to keep aircraft carriers lethal and relevant from their first day in the fleet to the very last.
Although often criticized for its expense and questioned for its relevance in the 21st Century, we still haven’t found anything better than an aircraft carrier to uniquely conduct the wide spectrum of missions ranging from humanitarian relief to full scale conflict. Nothing demonstrates support to our friends and allies better than the arrival of an aircraft carrier and its strike group.
The last internal review of fleet size, (the Navy’s “Force Structure Assessment”, completed at the end of the Obama Administration in December 2016) called for a dramatic increase in fleet size, raising the goal from 308 ships to 355 ships, with an increase of large deck nuclear aircraft carriers from eleven to twelve. Although a revised assessment has been in work, it has not yet been released. However, it is appropriate for a new Chief of Naval Operations and a new Secretary of Defense to weigh options for future force structure, and with the return of great power competition, it is essential to get it right.
The United States is an inherently maritime nation, and it is important to understand the critical role aircraft carriers will continue to play in its defense. Each aircraft carrier being built today will provide future presidents with significant military options for the next fifty years. Continued investment into tomorrow’s fleet by building a path to twelve nuclear powered aircraft carriers is both prudent and wise.
Adm. Robert J. Natter is the former head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command and Adm. Samuel J. Locklear is the former head of U.S. Pacific Command.