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RESPONSE TO TERROR | WEAPONRY

Mideast Role May Bode Well for Aircraft Carriers

Military: Experts who feared the Bush administration would reduce the number of such ships say their use in the war on terrorism proves their value.

November 16, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — One of the hottest military debates within the Bush administration before Sept. 11 was whether, as key Bush advisors suggested, the military had too many aircraft carriers.

Now military brass and some civilian analysts are pointing to the decisive role played by carriers in the U.S. war against terrorism as proof that they remain an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and that their strategic importance may be growing, not shrinking.

Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank for national security issues, said the difficulty in securing the use of land bases, particularly in Saudi Arabia, shows that the U.S. may need more carriers, not fewer.

"I can foresee circumstances where carriers are not just our best option but our only option," Thompson said. "I'm very skeptical of solutions that assume the use of friendly bases."

In one fashion or another, a debate over carriers--particularly carriers versus land-based Air Force aircraft--has been raging nonstop since World War II, when the carrier displaced the battleship as the Navy's preeminent warship.

"Someone usually proposes cutting carriers and then along comes a Desert Storm, a Kosovo or a war on terrorism," said Thompson, "and we realize again how important it is to have a 'platform' that can go anywhere in the world without asking permission to use land bases."

Advisors to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had suggested in the early months of the new administration that the military reduce the number of carrier battle groups from 12 to 10 and place greater emphasis on land-based bombers and smaller, less expensive ships. A battle group is one carrier and its support ships.

Although that suggestion was not adopted as official policy, the issue of carriers is destined to resurface as Congress considers multibillion-dollar matters concerning upgrading aging carriers and investing in a "new generation" of such vessels.

And the advantage has clearly shifted to the pro-carrier side.

"'I don't think we'll ever silence the debate, nor should we, about what's best for the country," said Rear Adm. David Stone, commander of the San Diego-based Nimitz carrier battle group. "But I think we all realize, after seeing the performance of the carriers in providing range and flexibility, why we really have a need for large-deck carriers in times of crisis."

Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Navy ordered the carriers George Washington and John F. Kennedy to patrol the Eastern Seaboard to repel any further attacks.

Warplanes from the carriers Carl Vinson, Enterprise and Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea have struck hundreds of targets in Afghanistan, and the carrier Kitty Hawk is serving as a staging platform for ground troops. The carrier John C. Stennis left San Diego on Monday for the Arabian Sea.

"The mobility and sustainability of carriers has been proven once again," said Navy Secretary Gordon England, who declined to get involved in the issue of how many carrier groups the Navy needs or can afford.

One idea being discussed in Navy circles is to delay the 2003 retirement of the San Diego-based carrier Constellation and also speed up construction of the Ronald Reagan, set to take up residence here in 2004.

"We're not hearing much from those people who, a few months ago, were running around saying we should be reducing carriers," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's research and development subcommittee. Hunter says he thinks the military is severely underfunded.

Although no one has suggested abolishing aircraft carriers, a variety of critics before Sept. 11 had concluded that the effectiveness of carriers had been reduced by their enormous cost and size and the rise of new technology, such as unmanned planes and advanced spy satellites.

The Pentagon estimates the annual cost of maintaining a 10-ship carrier battle group at more than $1 billion.

"A carrier is terribly inefficient and very costly compared to land-based bombers," said Ivan Eland, director of defense policy at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington. "When the chips are down, we can usually get a regional base, such as Diego Garcia" in the Indian Ocean.

Last spring, naval expert Norman Polmar wrote an essay in Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, suggesting that the Navy could build several smaller ships capable of launching 40 to 50 aircraft for the price of one $5-billion Nimitz-class carrier capable of launching more than 70 planes.

Much of the debate involves widely differing views of technical matters such as survivability and whether larger ships are more vulnerable than smaller ones to the new class of long-range missiles and tracking satellites that a number of potential U.S. adversaries have or are attempting to acquire.

At more than 1,000 feet long and 18 stories tall, a Nimitz-class carrier is the biggest ship afloat.

"The Navy has a huge institutional investment in the paradigm of carrier warfare and is reluctant to invest in anything that challenges that," said carrier critic Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. "The most powerful group in the Navy is the aviation community."

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