CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- No one seriously questions the underlying reality of foreign policy, the idea that the only check on other country's military power is our own military power. But we have long recognized that our ability to project military power is tied to the nation's financial ability to support the military.
In 2011, Gen. Michael Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the biggest threat to American national security is recurring deficit spending. Mullens recognized that so-called "entitlement" spending is not the only opportunity for reduced government spending, particularly where the total Department of Defense budget following the collapse of the Soviet Union was "only" $300 billion annually, and DOD budgets have exceeded $600 billion for each of the last six years.
The Pentagon claims to have received the "deficit" message. The 2013 DOD budget notes the nearly 100 percent increase, from $270 billion to $525 billion, in the annual base line budget for DOD between 2001 and 2012, (an increase which excludes the nearly $100 billion annual cost of Iraq and Afghanistan). In response, the DOD 2013 budget proposes to reduce projected base spending by $270 billion through 2017 -- not actual cash reductions mind you, but rather reduced increases compared to the projected spending in the 2012 budget.
DOD's 2012 budget proposed total base line spending through fiscal year 2017 at $2.98 trillion. DOD's 2013 budget proposes a total of $2.73 trillion, some $270 billion less than the 2012 budget for the same period last year. In other words, although the $570 billion annual budget proposed in 2012 was scheduled to increase to $621 billion in 2017, under the 2013 DOD budget, 2012 spending of $525 billion would increase to only $567 billion in 2017. So we "save" the difference in increases: $270 billion. In its view at least, DOD is "all hands on deck" for deficit reduction.
No weapon system currently projects power worldwide more effectively than the aircraft carrier strike group. As currently implemented, a "Nimitz" class aircraft carrier strike group typically consists of an armada of ships: the carrier itself, at 1,000 feet in length carrying 65 to 75 attack aircraft; and defensive ships (including two guided missile cruisers, two anti-aircraft warships, and at least one anti-submarine destroyer or attack submarine), plus logistics and supply ships. The aircraft strike group is deployed with 5,000 sailors; it has its own zip code.
The construction cost of a Nimitz class carrier strike group is $4 billion, and the cost of maintenance and operation of the carrier is estimated at $22 billion over the life of the vessel. Our current practice is to rotate active carrier strike groups in and out of service for "major" overhauls every five years. But the United States plans a more modern "Ford" class carrier, the first of which began construction in 2007 at a projected construction cost of $8 billion with a scheduled delivery in 2015. Additional Ford class carriers are scheduled to enter service in 2020 and 2025. The Ford class carrier strike group will feature a "free electron laser directed-energy weapon" defense system and reduce personnel by 25 percent.
Other countries maintain carrier strike groups. Currently, the UK has one in operation and two under construction. France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Thailand (who knew?) and India have one each, all of varying size, cost and capability. The Peoples Republic of China has one, a Russian constructed vessel launched in 1988, and purchased in 1998. The Russian Confederation has precisely one, as in "o-n-e." That vessel, launched in 1985, has impressive power. It operated continuously through 2011, but in February 2012, returned to base. It is, according to some reports, not now actively engaged in fleet operations. In short, the worldwide fleet of aircraft carrier strike groups, of varying vintage and operational capacity, numbers between 9 and 11.
The United States fleet of aircraft carrier strike groups numbers 12. Twelve, as in more than the entire world combined. At an annual operating cost of $500 million, the United States might consider reducing the size of the carrier fleet. One option, simply "pass" on the proposed three new "Ford" class carriers and save $24 billion in construction costs, and another $7.5 billion in operating costs over 15 years. Five-year retrofits scheduled for the existing fleet could be avoided by "giving" a carrier or two to Britain or France (and thereby save the $2 billion cost of "mothballing" each carrier). Option two: retire enough older carriers to pay for three new Ford class carriers.
If we are going to be serious about deficit reduction, and focus on spending (not merely "enhanced" revenue), we need to seriously review all spending, both entitlements and defense. Current spending for a fleet of 12 aircraft carrier strike groups should be high on the list of expenditures reviewed.
DePaulo is a lawyer in Charleston.