Aircraft Carrier Fleet Could Shrink Even as Demand Increases

Brian Slattery /



America’s aircraft carrier fleet has been in high demand lately. Ongoing operations in Afghanistan as well as emerging security challenges in Syria and the Asia–Pacific region have led to increasing requests for and deployments of aircraft carriers. Yet this has occurred during a period of decline for the fleet.

Increasing pressure wrought by the Obama Administration’s defense cuts indicate that, rather than reinvesting in this ultimate symbol of U.S. power projection, the Navy must consider cutting one or more from the fleet.

The U.S. Navy is required by law to maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. Given the recent swell in demand and the amount of time it takes to build just one of these massive ships, this law is quite reasonable. However, the fleet has currently fallen to 10 vessels, a move that the Navy has assured is temporary as the next-generation Ford-class carrier is built.

Security experts and Members of Congress are concerned that this reduction could become permanent. Budget cuts imposed on the military over the past five years have put increasing pressure on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has already been underfunded for decades.

As Sydney Freedberg Jr. of Breaking Defense explains:

From the 1980s to 2002, the Navy went down from 14 carriers in the fleet to 12, of which at least two and more often three were deployed around the world at any given time. (The average wavered between 2.5 and 2.75). Since 2003, however, the Navy has shrunk from 12 carriers to 10. Yet the number of carriers at sea increased, to either three or four deployed at any given time. (The 2013 average was 3.5).

The Navy’s overtaxed carrier fleet may lead to increased readiness problems. As each carrier extends its deployment, that decreases time and resources available for necessary maintenance work. In turn, this causes greater maintenance problems as smaller ones are ignored. As those larger problems require greater maintenance work, carriers will be called to even longer deployments while others are being repaired. This is a vicious cycle caused by an underfunded fleet.

The requirement for at least 11 aircraft carriers has been long established and upheld as part of America’s security posture. This requirement has been proven in practice as carriers are increasingly called upon to respond to crises. The President should remember his constitutional responsibility as commander-in-chief: to provide for the common defense and to provide and maintain a navy.