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America's diminishing fleet of aircraft carriers

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Aircraft Carriers are the symbol and key portion of American power, and have been so for the past seventy-four years. Every president, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, has relied upon them to address international crises.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report notes that “Since World War II, the aircraft carrier has been the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy. According to the Navy, today’s Nimitz class ships can sustain 95 strike sorties per day and, with each aircraft carrying four 2,000-pound bombs, deliver three-quarters of a million pounds of bombs each day. That firepower far exceeds what any other surface ship can deliver.”

Now, there are less of them than military experts say is the minimum needed for safety.

With the retirement of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the United States Navy will have only ten aircraft carriers, below the generally accepted absolute minimum number of eleven. That situation will continue until at least 2016, when the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is scheduled to be completed. The 2016 date is not guaranteed.

Budget restrictions under the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act place a maximum $12.8 billion price tag on the vessel, with a further reduction to $11.5 billion for future fleet carriers. The effect on the Ford’s development remains to be seen.

Naval experts are concerned that even if the 11 carrier force is restored, it will be inadequate. A Breaking Defense article quotes Rear Admiral Thomas Moore noting that “We’re an 11-carrier navy in a 15 carrier world.”

The future for America’s fleet of aircraft carriers beyond 2016 may be further endangered. Under one concept being discussed,the Navy, to meet budgetary restrictions, would stop building new aircraft carriers altogether after completion of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, scheduled for 2020, the next in line to be built after the U.S.S Gerald Ford. The next aircraft carrier the Navy was scheduled to construct, the U.S.S. Enterprise, would be canceled, as would future carriers. Funding for the Enterprise would have begun in 2016. The result would be obvious: as older aircraft carriers retire they would not be replaced, and the fleet, already undersized, would continue to shrink.

At the same time that America’s navy endures this diminishment, (the total number of ships in the U.S. navy has shrunk from 600 in 1990 to 286 currently) both China and Russia have committed vast resources to expanding their seagoing power both in terms of the number and sophistication of their respective fleets, as well as investing in technological advances that could threaten U.S. warships with distant, land-based weaponry. The U.S also faces threats from smaller actors such as North Korea and Iran.

Moscow’s Supreme Navy Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov recently stated: [Russia is building a new] “cutting-edge nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. … The carrier project also includes plans to develop new ship-based fighter bombers and train personnel for the emerging carrier group. By 2020, the Russian Navy will receive 30 new corvettes and frigates, at least 15 missile- and artillery-carrying speedboats and nearly two dozen submarines…”

Moscow has committed $138 billion to its naval modernization program.

According to The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual Report to Congress, China’s navy could dominate the western Pacific by 2020. The report notes:

“Since commissioning its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in September of 2012, the PLA Navy has continued to develop a fixed-wing carrier aviation capability for air defense and offensive strike missions. China plans to follow the Liaoning with at least two indigenously built carriers…

“It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve its disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes but instead will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede to China’s claims…

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] navy is in the midst of an impressive modernization program. China’s acquisition of naval platforms, weapons, and systems has emphasized qualitative improvements, not quantitative growth, and is centered on improving its ability to strike opposing ships at sea and operate at greater distances from the Chinese mainland. Today, the PLA Navy is able to conduct high-intensity operations beyond the region. Trends in China’s defense spending, research and development, and shipbuilding suggest the PLA Navy will continue to modernize…

“The PLA is rapidly expanding and diversifying its ability to strike U.S. bases, ships, and aircraft throughout the Asia Pacific region including those it previously could not reach, such as the U.S. military facilities on Guam…”

On January 1, Hainan, a province of an increasingly aggressive China, announced a requirement that international fishing vessels in the South China Sea seek permission from China’s central government, a move termed by the U.S. State Department "provocative and potentially dangerous." It is an example of China’s intensive drive to dominate the air and sea space in Asian pacific region, to the clear detriment of the interests not only of its neighbors and the United States, but to international commerce as well.

China’s domination of the western Pacific by 2020, if current trends continue, will be through both its expanded navy as well as its development of other high-tech weapons such as the J-20 stealth fighter.

China’s attack on offshore possessions of the Philippines in 2012 went unanswered, militarily or even diplomatically, by the Obama government. Encouraged, Beijing’s forces have become increasingly aggressive in the Pacific, threatening virtually all of its neighbors.

A recent incident involved China’s Liaoning carrier intentionally cutting off a U.S. naval vessel, the U.S.S. Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser.

The world has taken notice, even as the U.S. continues to decrease its military spending. A Turkish news source, for example, Turkish Weekly, reported: “It [China] has recently launched an arms race through its creation of an air defense identification zone over a strip of the East China Sea and in the addition of arms in her military inventory.”

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