Gates questions long-term need for 11 Navy carriers

Defense secretary signaled that the service may have to scale back or rethink its plans to pay for other priorities.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday questioned whether the Navy can continue to spend billions to buy a single ship, signaling that the service may have to scale back or rethink its long-term plans to pay for other priorities.

Speaking at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference, Gates acknowledged budget pressures facing the Defense Department, particularly as it tries to repair and replace Army and Marine Corps equipment that has been lost or damaged during overseas deployments while covering long-term costs to take care of troops and their families.

"I do not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions," Gates said. "At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers."

During his remarks, Gates questioned the need to maintain 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the fleet.

Congress has required the Navy to keep 11 carriers in service -- one of which is customarily used only for training -- but last year gave the service the authority to go down to 10 ships between the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012 and the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford in 2015.

In addition, the Quadrennial Defense Review, a long-term Pentagon planning document released in February, concluded that 10-11 carriers should remain in operation between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015.

But Gates suggested maintaining this force structure may be unnecessary.

"Consider the massive overmatch the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries," Gates said. "Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities."

He also said the military needs to take a "hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing," particularly as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore.

Any decisions on amphibious warfare could directly affect the future of the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, designed to carry troops from ship to shore while under fire.

"What kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?" Gates asked.

The secretary reiterated his concerns that the replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine will place new financial pressures on the already constrained shipbuilding budget.

The Navy expects to spend $6 billion in research and development on the boats over the next several years, and then procure 12 of them at a cost of roughly $7 billion apiece.

"The new ballistic missile submarine alone would begin to eat up the lion's share of the Navy's shipbuilding resources," Gates said, echoing comments he made before the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year.

The Navy, which is starting to make R&D investments in the submarine, wants to buy the first boat in fiscal 2019 and have it ready to enter service in fiscal 2028. The remaining 11 boats would be procured between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2033 and enter service between fiscal 2029 and fiscal 2040.

During his remarks, Gates emphasized that he did not have all the answers to the budget and other pressures facing the Navy, including a changing threat that includes pirates, terrorists and other nontraditional adversaries.

But the Navy, he quipped, doesn't "necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and [rocket-propelled grenades]."

He lauded recent investments in "more special warfare capabilities," such as small coastal patrol vessels, a riverine squadron and multiservice high-speed vessels.

Meanwhile, the Littoral Combat Ship, despite its development problems, is a "versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy's big, blue-water surface combatants," Gates said.