REDUCING THE DEFICIT: SPENDING AND REVENUE OPTIONS
Congressional Budget Office - March 1997


DEF-06 REDUCE THE NUMBER OF AIRCRAFT CARRIERS AND AIR WINGS TO 10


Annual Savings							Five-Year
Savings from			(Millions of dollars)		Cumulative
the 1997 Plan		1998	1999	2000	2001	2002	Total

Budget Authority	350	934	1,620	1,358	7,060	11,322

Outlays			259	746	1,061	1,260	1,646	4,972

The aircraft carrier is the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy. The Administration's plan calls for a fleet of 12 carriers (11 active plus one carrier, manned partly by reserves, that can also be used for training) with 10 active air wings and one in the reserves to provide combat capability for those ships. The carriers will be accompanied by a mix of surface combat ships--usually cruisers and destroyers--and submarines that can attack planes, ships, and submarines that threaten the carrier. The surface combatants and submarines can also attack targets on land.

Some policymakers have argued that the United States does not need a force of 12 carriers in the aftermath of the Cold War. The total capability of all U.S. tactical aircraft in the Navy and Air Force will substantially exceed that of any regional power that seems potentially hostile. Cuts may therefore be acceptable.

Moreover, the capabilities of U.S. ships are unsurpassed worldwide. The Navy has ships other than carriers, including large flat-deck amphibious vessels, that can assist in maintaining a U.S. naval presence overseas in peacetime. Perhaps for these reasons, some policymakers have contemplated carrier force levels below those recommended by the Administration's plan. In 1990, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services recommended a force of 10 to 12 carriers. And during the 1992 campaign, President Clinton called for a Navy with 10 carriers.

This option would retire two conventionally powered carriers early so that by 1999 the Navy would have 10 carriers (nine active carriers and one manned partly by reserves that could also be used for training). In addition, from the force of 10 active and one reserve air wings, it would eliminate one active air wing and leave nine active air wings and one reserve wing to match the number of carriers.

Compared with the 1997 plan, which has 12 carriers and 11 air wings, savings in budget authority could total about $350 million in 1998 and roughly $11.3 billion over five years. (In outlays, about $260 million would be saved in 1998 and $5 billion over five years.) About $4.9 billion of those savings are from reduced operating and support costs generated by retiring two carriers and eliminating one air wing. Another $6.4 billion would be saved by obviating the need to buy the CVN-77 nuclear carrier in 2002. Costs to decommission each retiring ship have not been deducted from the savings estimate.

The Navy might also realize procurement savings, which have not been included in the savings shown above. For example, the Navy might not need to buy as many DDG-51 destroyers for the smaller number of carrier battle groups (see DEF-07 for a discussion of the DDG-51). Also, the cut in air wings would reduce the number of required aircraft (see DEF-08 for a discussion of changes in procurement of naval aircraft).

According to former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, reducing the force to 10 carriers would not impair the ability of the U.S. military to fight and win two regional wars that started nearly simultaneously. He argued, however, that having fewer ships would limit the Navy's ability to keep three carriers deployed overseas most of the time. In peacetime, some carriers spend time in repair; others are kept at U.S. ports to provide stateside duty time for their crews; still others are in transit to their operating stations. The Navy argues that only one-quarter or less of the carrier fleet can be deployed overseas in peacetime. Thus, reducing the fleet to only 10 carriers might mean that, much of the time, one carrier fewer on average could be deployed overseas.

The Navy, however, may be able to maintain deployments with a smaller fleet. The factors the Navy used throughout the 1980s implied that about a third of the carrier fleet would be deployed overseas. Moreover, the Navy kept five of its 13 carriers overseas in the late 1970s. Based on that experience, the fraction of the carrier fleet that might operate routinely overseas is larger than the Navy's current formula would suggest, although according to the Navy such intensive use of carriers led to a number of problems. Alternatively, the same amount of overseas presence might be achieved with fewer carriers by basing another carrier overseas or shuttling crews and air wings between carriers. If the Navy shuttled crews to carriers deployed overseas, the same overseas presence could be achieved with about eight carriers and nine crews and air wings, saving $1.3 billion per year in procurement and operating and sup-port costs.

Furthermore, a reduced overseas presence may be acceptable in the post-Cold War world. The United States would still have at least two carriers deployed overseas at any time, and possibly more if the Navy deployed a larger fraction of its carrier fleet. However, some missions, such as those requiring substantial numbers of fixed-wing aircraft, can be performed only by carriers. For example, carrier aircraft can be used to hit moving targets at longer ranges. In a crisis requiring such capability, a smaller force might mean an increase in the time before U.S. combat capability became available.

Alternatively, the Navy could use surface combatants other than the aircraft carriers to maintain a naval presence in peacetime and to assist in responding to crises. For example, it could use groups of ships

centered around as many as 12 large flat-deck amphibious assault ships (smaller carriers) that are designed to transport the Marines and their equipment; those ships can embark helicopters and Harriers (Marine Corps attack aircraft that can land and take off vertically) and are as large as the aircraft carriers of many other countries. These Amphibious Ready Groups are fully capable of handling some missions performed by carriers, such as conducting limited strikes and evacuating noncombat personnel.

The Navy may also be able to meet some of its deployment requirements with groups of surface combatants that do not include any kind of carrier. Those formations have been made possible because the offensive capabilities of surface combatants have been augmented with the Tomahawk missile for attacking targets hundreds of miles inland and because their defensive capabilities have been enhanced by the Aegis system for defense against attacks from aircraft and anti-ship missiles. With the demise of the Soviet Union, a substantially reduced threat to U.S. ships also contributes to the feasibility of maintaining a presence with ships other than carriers. The Navy has already used formations without aircraft carriers to provide overseas presence. None of the formations, however, are as capable as a carrier battle group.

However, if policymakers continue to use aircraft carriers for overseas presence at current levels but the Navy has fewer vessels available, the time that ships spend at sea will have to increase. The high-quality sailors the Navy needs will therefore be spending more time away from their homes and families, thus making it harder for the Navy to retain them. According to a quantitative study by the Center for Naval Analyses, however, the problem of retention might not be severe and might be reversed by increasing compensation slightly.