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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Military rethinking carriers

By Dave Moniz
USA Today

The USS John C. Stennis sits in Pearl Harbor. U.S. defense planners have been raising questions about the vulnerability of the Navy's 12 aircraft carriers, the most recognizable symbol of American military might.
RICHARD AMBO • The Honolulu Advertiser

NORFOLK, Va. — Since their wooden-decked ancestors swept across the Pacific Ocean and obliterated Japanese forces in World War II, aircraft carriers have been the centerpiece of U.S. naval power.

Sixty years later, the gigantic floating airfields are fighting a new war — for survival.

The Navy's 12 aircraft carriers, the largest warships in the world, are facing flak from their own shores. Civilians in the Bush administration and other defense planners are raising questions about their vulnerability to attack in a world where smart bombs can seek out a small building and anti-ship missiles streak to their targets at twice the speed of sound.

The most recognizable symbol of U.S. military might, the carrier is part of a larger debate over how the armed forces should fight 10 to 20 years from now. Critics say potential enemies such as China, Iran and Iraq could target carriers with long-range missiles and satellites. Disciples of naval air power say they are wrong.

An aircraft carrier can steam 700 miles in a day. Its arsenal is unrivaled for a surface ship: 50 bomb-dropping F-14s and F-18s that can fly more than 100 missions a day. And unlike overseas military bases, they do not require the permission of foreign nations to launch attacks.

Capt. Rich O'Hanlon, commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, describes the nation's psychological attachment to aircraft carriers this way: When crises erupt around the world, "the White House response is, 'Where's the nearest carrier?' "

The carrier's value as a symbol of American might has a downside that worries even its most ardent supporters, however. The giant ships are packed with as many as 6,000 sailors. A few well-placed bombs could trigger a catastrophic loss of life.

Rethinking role

One source of doubt is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's broad review of military strategy, which challenges long-held assumptions. The idea that Rumsfeld's staff is rethinking the carrier's 60-year reign as king of the high seas alarms Navy brass. In recent weeks the Navy has made a case that carriers are not as vulnerable as Rumsfeld's advisers say, and current thinking at the Pentagon is that they will survive the review largely intact.

"The aircraft carrier is the toughest, most robust ship ever built," said Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs. "Nothing is invulnerable," McGinn said, but the probability of a future enemy being able easily to sink one of the Navy's carriers "is very, very small."

Even some of the most vocal critics agree there are few threats to the ship in the open ocean. Once built, U.S. carriers typically keep going for 50 years, far longer than other Navy ships.

Navy officials say the Pentagon's new leadership team, led by strategy guru Andy Marshall, has considered cutting the number of Navy carriers. It also has explored building smaller, harder-to-target carriers. Rumsfeld could complete his review as early as this summer.

Politics inevitably will play a role in whatever decision is made. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is likely to fight efforts to reduce the role of aircraft carriers.

Bigger ships

Since World War II, Navy "flat tops" have been the United States' biggest stick when trouble erupts overseas. Other countries, including Britain and France, sail carriers to distant waters. But American carriers are at least one-third longer and weigh three to four times more, which allows them to pack more punch.

America's Nimitz class is the most modern. A 24-story building that floats, the nuclear-powered carriers cruise faster than 30 knots and carry 72 aircraft.

It's a challenge to staff and maintain such a metropolis, so no more than three of the carriers are typically deployed at once. They sail with crews of 5,000 to 6,000, patrol for six months at a time and are

accompanied by a carrier battle group — six to eight cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

The Navy says their main value is flexibility and independence. They eliminate the need to get permission from allies to use air space, ports or airfields. All that's needed to launch a strike is the order.

But Rumsfeld already has hinted that the kind of force he wants in the future is high-tech, oriented toward air power and space and agile enough to reach distant battlefields. So "older" weapons such as large artillery pieces, heavy battle tanks and perhaps large ships might be deemed antiquated.

Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author, says vulnerability isn't the critical question. "The real

issue is, can other systems do the same job?" Polmar favors a debate on whether the United States should buy smaller carriers that can use vertical-takeoff jets, and develop ships that might project power just as efficiently.

Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who left office with the change in administrations, proposed the Navy reduce future carrier crew size by 1,500 people, to a total of about 4,000, to reduce costs and allay fears of heavy losses.

Among the biggest threats is the availability of new weapons designed to take out a ship. The Russian-made Sunburn anti-ship missile flies at about 1,500 mph (twice the speed of sound) and a mere 60 feet above sea level, and can be from 155 miles away. Other potential dangers are a new generation of ultra-quiet diesel submarines and sophisticated underwater mines.

But carriers are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In addition to the dozen in service, two — including the USS Ronald Reagan — are under construction. The Navy is set to build four more to replace aging carriers between now and 2018.

Size matters

A giant Nimitz-class carrier is more than 1,000 feet long, costs $5 billion and takes seven years to build. The Navy says size matters in longevity and being able to defend against attack.

For several decades Navy admirals have discouraged building smaller, 600- to 800-foot ships, saying a fleet of smaller carriers would cost more to maintain and have fewer on-board defenses. Classified Cold War-era comparisons found large ships could survive direct hits from as many as 10 anti-ship missiles. Small carriers were far easier to sink.

British carriers, for example, cannot launch far-searching radar reconnaissance planes. In the 1982 Falklands War, the Argentine air force raced past air defenses of the British fleet to fire Exocet missiles into the destroyer HMS Sheffield and container ship HMS Atlantic Conveyor. Nearly 20 years later, many of the United States' potential enemies have acquired anti-ship missiles and modern submarines.

Battleship memory

Those who say giant ships present an inviting target point to the Navy's armada of battleships on the eve of World War II. Navy commanders who came of age when armor-plated dreadnoughts ruled the waves in the 1920s and '30s believed battleships were invincible.

The program from the Army-Navy football game of Nov. 29, 1941, showed the USS Arizona plowing through ocean swells, with the caption: "No battleship has yet been sunk by bombs." Eight days later, the Arizona was destroyed by a Japanese bomb at Pearl Harbor, killing 1,177 sailors.

Navy leaders don't view the battleship debate of the 1940s as comparable to carrier discussions of today. McGinn and other senior Navy commanders say carriers can operate far offshore if necessary, and targeting them on the move is exceptionally difficult.

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute of Arlington, Va., agrees debate over the future of aircraft carriers is "long overdue." But he says the Navy can make a good case the giant ships are not nearly as easy to find as many believe.

"If we can convince ourselves that carriers are vulnerable, we can convince ourselves we don't need to spend money on them," Thompson said. "The problem is we really don't know how we would do many of the carrier missions without them."