Hollow Forces

I’ve just been reading an article about the US Navy’s carrier presence in the Far East. A report commissioned by the DoD recommends that the current carrier battle group be joined by a second one, to try to defuse growing tensions in the region as China builds a blue water navy and Japan’s post-war antimilitarism continues to fade. It’s a vital region and having two carriers there would be a great idea.

The problem is: how easy will it be to make it happen? The US Navy carrier fleet is unmatched by anyone else in the world, but it isn’t what it was in the last days of the Cold War. Currently there are 10 decks in the fleet, all Nimitz-class ships. Allowing for refits, that means there are seven or eight active at any time, to cover the whole world. If there are two in the Far East, that leaves five or six for the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Just to put that into perspective, in 1991 there were six carrier groups in the Gulf alone.

At its peak the US Navy had 13 carriers, with 10 or 11 ready for operations at any time. As recently as 2013, the Navy insisted it needed 11, but cash shortages meant USS Enterprise had to be taken out of service. Although still in commission, she’s already been gutted and isn’t likely to sail again.

Meanwhile, the Nimitz class itself isn’t going to last forever. The newest ship is only six years old but the oldest, USS Nimitz herself, was commissioned in 1975. There isn’t a lot of her 50-year service life left. By the late 2020s, a carrier will be reaching the end of its useful life about every three years – and the follow-on Gerald R Ford-class ships might not be ready to fill the gap. The first one was due in service this year, but the usual new-ship problems are taking a lot longer than expected to work out. Only two more ships have been ordered so far, and one of those isn’t due to have her keel laid for another two years.

Navy CarriersThe situation in the rest of the fleet isn’t any better. All the frigates are gone, replaced by Littoral Combat Ships. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer design is still in production, following the cancellation of 90% of the planned successor class. The Zumwalt is just too expensive to build in large numbers, and the design itself is still controversial – many experts have criticised its unorthodox and potentially dangerous hull shape. Right now there are 62 escorts in the US Navy; that’s as many as the Royal Navy had in 1982, and well under half the size of the Reagan-era escort fleet. The cruiser fleet is down to 22 hulls and the successor to the venerable Ticonderoga class has been cancelled.

The USAF is facing similar problems – maybe even worse. The average age of its fighters is 24 years; many of the F-15 fleet have logged three times the number of flight hours they were designed for, and sometime soon they’re going to need replaced. The problem is the only replacement in the pipeline is the F-35, and the planned buy of those comes nowhere near replacing the numbers of older types nearing the end of their lives. The huge expenditure on the F-22 has produced a fleet that, on a good day, can put a hundred aircraft in the sky.

As for the Army, the M1 Abrams is holding up well, but upgrade potential is slowly running out. The only new-generation tank in the world is the Russian Armata, and the USA doesn’t have any equivalent on the drawing board. The M109A6 self-propelled gun is a lashup at best – a 1960s design that’s been stretched to the limit and can’t be improved any more. Major allies like the UK and Germany phased their M109s out years ago and replaced them with modern systems; the USA’s replacement, the Crusader, was cancelled in 2002. The cost of the system had ballooned far beyond what could be justified by its performance.

The danger, right across the US military, is that unless new systems can be developed and bought at a reasonable cost and within a tight timeframe, American forces are going to find themselves with a few ultra-high-tech systems that make defense contractors rich but can only be delivered in tiny numbers, and a huge stockpile of obsolete weaponry. Sound impossible? It isn’t. It’s happened before, in the 1920s. The USA gets a lot of ribbing from my fellow Brits about turning up late for World War 2, but the truth is America wasn’t ready to fight in 1939. Between then and 1941 a heroic effort by the military and industry was needed. It paid off; when the USA did enter the war it had tanks and planes that could hold their own in modern warfare – but even then it was a near thing.

In 1939 there was time to rearm with modern weapons before war became a necessity. Next time there might not be.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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