When the Carriers Depart, What Will Happen To US Soft Power?
On April 30, Vice President Mike Pence announced on-board the USS Harry S. Truman that the aircraft carrier would not be decommissioned decades ahead of schedule. The proposal to retire the carrier by cancelling its scheduled refueling of its nuclear reactor core was first reported late February by Washington Post’s David Ignatius and confirmed in the Department of Defense (DoD) 2020 Budget Proposal.
The initial decision to skip the mid-life Refueling & Complex Overhaul of the USS Truman would force decommissioning of the carrier in the mid-2020s, instead of the projected date of 2048. As a result, the number of active carriers in the U.S. Navy’s fleet would be reduced from 11 to 10. The decision was highly controversial on Capitol Hill where lawmakers publicly disagreed with the plan and repeatedly stated their commitment to maintaining the carrier. Presumably, this opposition is what prompted President Trump to declare the reversal of the Decommission Order, which was met with bi-partisan praise.
This discussion is not the first time the future of the U.S. Aircraft Carrier has been questioned, and it certainly will not be the last. In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed mothballing the USS George Washington and was met with similar opposition and backed down. In the USS Washington and USS Truman debates, the main reason presented for early retirement was vast cost savings to the DoD. Retiring the USS Truman 20 years ahead of schedule was expected to save the DoD upwards of $30 billion over the next several decades.
The logic behind sacrificing aircraft carriers in exchange for billions of savings is two-fold. First: the effectiveness of the carrier as a tool has lessened in modern warfare, as it has become more susceptible and thus less lethal. Second: the battle space has shifted.
Adversaries are developing capabilities to destroy the expensive and highly manned carriers, such as the Chinese DF-26 ballistic missile, dubbed the “carrier-killer” because of its long-range capability. The United States is now operating in an era of “Great Power Competition” and those primary adversaries – China and Russia – are focusing on new technologies (hypersonic and unmanned weapons) and new types of warfare (artificial intelligence and cyber). Both nations are racing to achieve these capabilities and in certain aspects are out-pacing U.S. military innovation and adaptation. China is aggressively pursuing an advanced hypersonic missile program, which poses a significant risk to the United States, and leaders of both countries have declared A.I. a top priority.
Throughout this last public debate, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretary of the Navy, and the incoming CNO all affirmed their support for the USS Truman’s early retirement. In a House Armed Services Committee on April 10, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer stated, “people abandon assets to make the case to move toward more effective, more efficient, and in our case, more lethal platforms.” Given this internal support, it is unlikely the Pentagon will abandon this issue in the future.
The two large national debates to-date have focused on the capability of the carrier and cost savings. But the discussion moving forward needs to step outside the tactical realm and acknowledge undeniable figurehead of U.S. power projection and an immeasurable amount of U.S. soft power the carrier represents.
U.S. Navy vessels are literal standard bearers, representing U.S. international influence in waters around the globe. Navy ship captains often act as emissaries, engaging with foreign diplomats about U.S. values and priorities. The presence of forward deployed naval assets act as both security to U.S. allies and deterrence to adversaries.
Given the interconnectedness of today’s international economies and foreign policies, hard and soft power must go hand in hand to maintain international authority. The DoD’s focus is on, as it should be, the effective employment of hard power to maintain national security. But the deployment of hard power also reinforces U.S. soft power, maintaining its presence without needing to fire a missile. A time is coming when the carrier will become obsolete. When this happens, what asset or strategy will fill the 97,000-ton gap left behind in U.S. soft power influence? That is the debate Capitol Hill needs to have before the next budget proposal to retire a carrier.
Teresa D. Kennedy is a systems integration consultant for the U.S. Navy. She is a 2016 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar, and a leader for Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First. Teresa lives in Washington D.C. with her girlfriend and puppy.