Does the U.S. Need More Aircraft Carriers? The Pentagon wants more $15B ships, but it may have to look for other options
A May 21 article in the Daily Beast claimed that, in January, Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, requested that the Pentagon send a third aircraft carrier strike group (comprising an aircraft carrier and about five escort ships) to the Persian Gulf region. According to the article, Mattis’s request was denied, citing President Barack Obama’s desire to focus military resources elsewhere, especially in the Pacific.
Mattis’s appeal for a third carrier came at a time of heightening tensions — when Iran was threatening to attack U.S. warships near the Strait of Hormuz. According to the article, Mattis wanted to make a show of force to deter Iran from further escalation.
The January flare-up in the Strait of Hormuz subsided without conflict — and without the arrival of a third carrier strike group. In spite of that outcome, regional commanders like Mattis will certainly retain their affection for aircraft carriers, both as signals of U.S. power and as flexible and mobile bases for projecting power.
Mattis’s request for another carrier — a long-standing and seemingly reflexive response by commanders during crises — and Washington’s denial of this request, raises issues for policymakers and planners. If Mattis needed to make a strong show of force to Tehran, he should have had other options as effective, as responsive, and certainly more reasonably priced than a carrier strike group. Commanders like Mattis have long believed that when it comes to signaling resolve, there is nothing like parking an aircraft carrier and its attendant ships off an adversary’s coast. The high demand among U.S. regional commanders for aircraft carriers shows that these pricey ships are not yet obsolete. The Navy is currently building USS Gerald Ford, the first of a new class of carriers, showing its commitment to the very expensive platform. But this reliance on the carrier also exposes weaknesses in the Pentagon’s portfolio of capabilities, which its procurements plans, alas, are only just beginning to address.