Carrier Wars…Over the Horizon

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U.S. Navy

There's a Ford In Your Future: The U.S. Navy's first Ford-class carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is slated to set sail in 2015 or 2016.

With President Obama’s re-election, GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s plans to boost U.S. Navy shipbuilding from 10 to 15 warships a year are history. Could we look back on the electoral result as a turning point?

Under current Pentagon plans, the Navy will shrink to 10 aircraft carriers when the USS Enterprise, which returned from the final cruise in its 51-year history last weekend, is retired from the fleet in December.

It’s worth noting that as the U.S. temporarily pares its carrier fleet by 9% for about three years — until the USS Gerald R. Ford sets sail — other would-be naval powers are talking about expanding their fleets:

In London, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the Royal Navy might actually buy two aircraft carriers, bringing its total carrier fleet to…two. A “relatively modest” additional $113 million annually would give the British a pair of carriers and would constitute an “extremely good investment,” Hammond told a Royal United Services Institute gathering Nov 1.

Then on Tuesday, from the other side of the world, came Wang Baokun, a Chinese military and economic scholar, arguing that Beijing can afford to build a four-carrier fleet (it currently is testing its lone model, a hand-me-down Russian carrier that lacks…aircraft):

China’s aircraft carrier building project will boost a series of industries such as carrier construction and maintenance, special materials, aircraft and missiles, navigation and combat command system, defense weapons system, radar, electronic information, satellite communication and automatic control system. And since the government will have to develop aircraft carrier formations, warships, fleet bases and ports, the project will also spawn or boost other sectors.

Make no mistake about it: these drawing-board carriers are no match for today’s U.S. Navy flattops.

But also know this: a carrier and her supporting flotilla are the most visible and potent sign of military power many people – and their governments — ever see. Their presence is real in a way that Air Force flyovers are not, and without the political stickiness of ground-troop deployments. Just how much of a carrier edge the U.S. Navy needs to maintain for decades to come — at an initial investment of $20 billion each — is going to be an increasingly-debated issue as foreign-carrier fleets grow.