A lengthy study by the United States Naval Institute has found that deployments of American aircraft carriers are at a historic low because the massive ships are spending more time at maintenance depots than at sea.
The 15-month USNI analysis looked at more than five decades’ worth of carrier air wing deployments to conclude that “the Navy has seen the lowest number of carrier strike groups underway since 1992, the year following the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” an online report said.
USNI News reported further:
The Navy has deployed about 22 to 25 percent of its carriers since 2013. That total — which excludes training missions and exercises — is down from a 28-percent average for the rest of the era of the global war on terror. In 2018, to date, that number has been down to an average of about 15 percent of the Navy’s carriers committed to operational deployments.
For 22 days this summer, the Navy did not have a full carrier strike group deployed anywhere in the world available for national tasking, the service confirmed to USNI News. That’s the longest gap in the years USNI News studied.
The primary reason for the dearth of carriers at sea is that the service is working to erase a huge maintenance backlog accumulated during the 17 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks during the Global War On Terror (GWOT).
“After 9/11 – and all those evolutions for the ground team, our focus was supporting the ground fight, which meant we were operating that force a lot, and when you operate the force a lot it eats up a lot of your cash, it eats up a lot of your service life,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran told USNI News last week.
“The Navy got smaller to help offset the cost of a lot of those things. So, modernization wasn’t coming along at the same pace as it might have, with forces that were faced with the adversary every single day. Our job was to support [ground forces], and we have done it really well. But it’s against a team that’s maybe a minor league team when it comes to maritime forces, not the major league team that we want to be ready for.”
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy calls on the armed forces to shift away from the kind of low-intensity warfare in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and towards fighting great powers like Russia and China, both of which have increased their maritime capabilities in recent years.
“This has all been building up over the last 17 years through overuse of the carrier force and naval aviation and a desire to have more forces ready,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work told USNI News.
“When we kept two carriers in the Persian Gulf for a period of time, we kept telling the senior leadership that this was going to have a downstream effect, and it would really put a crimp maintenance-wise, and there would be gaps both in the Pacific as well as the Middle East. That is coming home to roost.”
Analysis: U.S. carrier strike groups are among the world’s most potent power projection platforms and the Pentagon uses them in a way that imitates turn-of-the-20th-century “gunboat diplomacy” practiced by U.S. leaders in Latin America and in Asia. The phrase refers to a foreign policy backed up by the credible threat of military force.
And while the U.S. is not the imperialist nation it once was, America obviously has global interests in must protect and defend. Carrier strike groups do today what large battleships did 100-plus years ago.
But carriers can’t assist in the conduct of foreign policy when they are sitting in maintenance depots awaiting what are often months’ or even years’ worth of repairs and upgrades. And as former deputy defense secretary Work said, it isn’t as though Navy leaders and lawmakers weren’t warned.
That said, the Navy engaging in these maintenance periods and upgrades now rather than later is another sign that the Trump administration is preparing the overall force for a war no one wants but that may nevertheless be on the horizon as revisionist powers Russia and China continue to pursue foreign policy objectives that run afoul of or threaten U.S. and Western national and security interests.
The U.S. will need its carriers — all of them — should conflict with a major power erupt. Hopefully, they will be ready if/when that time comes.