The future of the United States Navy has been discussed a great deal. It should, because control of the sea matters far more than you can imagine. About 90% of the world’s trade travels on the oceans. Imported cars, of course, but it can even be the fruit at your local supermarket that comes by sea. We tend to forget these lessons at our peril. In the wake of World War I, the United States slashed its naval forces due to requirements of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, and as a result, the early portions of World War II were a close-run matter, even with the running start of the Two Ocean Navy Acts of 1938 and 1940. But unwise cuts aren’t the only problem, another one that can be just as serious emerges when the wrong questions are asked.
Such is the case we see from Norman Polmar, who postulates that the Navy faces a choice between a force of carriers and littoral combat ships, or a force of amphibious assault ships and heavier surface combatants (Polmar uses the term “frigates”). Polmar favors not only cutting LCS, but also cutting America’s carrier force even more than it’s already been slashed since the end of the Cold War. The primary weapon of the carriers, their air wings, have also taken hits.
The fact is, aircraft carriers are expensive. The new Gerald R. Ford-class vessels will cost $10.5 billion each. That is a lot, compared to the new America-class amphibious assault ships, which only cost $3.4 billion per vessel. But these are different ships with very different capabilities for very different missions. The America is designed to serve as a floating base a battalion of Marines and a composite squadron (centered on the V-22 Osprey) in conjunction with other vessels (a San Antonio-class amphibious transport and a Whidbey Island-class landing ship).
But the real difference is in how much each of these capital ships carries. The Gerald R. Ford, even after the slashing of American carrier air wings, still carried four squadrons of combat planes. With some squeezing and cramming, the America might be able to carry two squadrons of V/STOL jets. This can make a huge difference. In 1982, the Royal Navy, having retired its last aircraft carrier three years previously, had to make do with Harriers flying off V/STOL carriers like HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes in the Falklands War. The British won, but the Falklands War was still a close call – closer than it had to be.
This is the fundamental problem with Polmar’s proposal to cut the carrier force. When an aircraft carrier is needed, it is REALLY needed. The rapid deployment of aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf to back up the 82nd Airborne probably was enough to convince Saddam Hussein that attacking Saudi Arabia was not a good idea.
That said, the amphibious assault ship has its value, as well. Aircraft can help deter a fight, but Marines can force their way in and take and hold ground for follow-on elements to arrive. The Army might have heavy gear, but a beachhead – or preferably a port – is needed to unload that gear, and to support the troops on the ground. Amphibious vessels carry the Marines that do that.
This is the other fallacy Polmar has fallen victim to. Asking whether the United States needs more carriers or more amphibious assault ships is the wrong question to ask, especially when you present it as an either/or scenario. The U.S. Navy that won the Cold War had not just carriers, amphibious assault ships, and frigates; it had cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and supply ships as well.