The aircraft carrier is a potent symbol of American global power, but defense policymakers are considering cutting the fleet, despite all the symbolism that would entail.
The Pentagon has been warning about the effects of budget cuts known as sequestration for years. But none of its warnings -- or those of its allies in Congress -- have been able to yield a long-term solution to the Defense Department's budget cuts.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced earlier this year that the president's fiscal 2015 budget would allow the Navy to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. However, he added, the Pentagon would need to retire an aircraft carrier unless cuts were reversed in fiscal 2016.
The ship Hagel singled out was the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1992. The ship is due for a costly nuclear refueling and overhaul, which Pentagon officials believe would be unaffordable if defense cuts remain.
“Keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost $6 billion, so we would have no other choice than to retire her should sequestration-level cuts be reimposed,” Hagel said.
That suggestion led to fierce pushback from defense lawmakers, in particular Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the chairman of the House subcommittee dedicated to seapower, who accused the Pentagon of “lay[ing] the groundwork” to reduce the carrier fleet to 10. Virginia is home to Newport News, where nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are built.
“At a time when American interests are being challenged around the world, the secretary of defense should be sending an unequivocal message to our competitors and allies that he supports a fleet of 11 carriers,” Forbes said. “Canceling funding for the USS George Washington's required overhaul will be equivalent to abandoning a ship for which the taxpayers have already paid, when it still has decades of service life left.”
The defense industry also has been sounding the alarm. The Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition started a social media campaign at the end of March. The coalition's Facebook page has already racked up nearly 75,000 likes, and the group is encouraging supporters to caption photos of the iconic naval vessel.
The coalition also is stressing the economic benefits that come from building and maintaining carriers. Over the last seven years, Newport News Shipbuilding placed orders with nearly 1,600 vendors worth more than $3 billion, it says.
Building and maintaining nuclear-powered aircraft carriers also demand special skills, industry backers argue. For example, it takes 10 years to train and certify a nuclear welder — knowledge and expertise that could be lost if an 11-carrier fleet were not maintained.
The size of the U.S. Navy has been a campaign issue -- in the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney said frequently that the Navy is at its smallest size since 1917. Supporters of a larger Navy say that more ships mean more coverage of the seas and a greater ability to protect American interests around the world.
As the November elections approach, aircraft carriers gain new relevance for candidates trying to emphasize their record of military service.
“You need to be making cuts, but there are a lot of ways that you can do it without harming U.S. military capability,” said Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and is running for Congress in Phoenix. “Aircraft carriers are a good way to project power and stability in regions all over the world. It's not a good strategic move [to cut the fleet].”