The Obama Administration has vowed to make Asia the central focus of its foreign policy, but that could soon be undercut by the Administration’s own planned Pentagon cuts. Under the cuts, the U.S. would go months at a time without an aircraft carrier in Asia, something many suggest would demonstrate American weakness in the region. Next year, it is expected that for 130 days there will be no aircraft carrier in the area.
President Obama’s pivot to Asia will lack a crucial military underpinning next year, when for four months, the Navy will not have an aircraft carrier in the region.
Defense cuts have helped shrink the number of available carriers, alarming GOP lawmakers who are fighting the Pentagon’s plan to permanently cut the number of U.S. carriers to 10.
They argue not having a carrier in the region for months at a time will send a signal of U.S. weakness, as China seeks to make territorial claims against several U.S. allies over the South China Sea.
“Symbolically, the worst thing we could do around the globe is to take one of those carriers out,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) told defense reporters on Tuesday. “We really need two or three carriers there.”
According to Forbes and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), there will not be a carrier in the region for about 130 days next year, between when the USS George Washington leaves its base in Japan, and when its replacement, the USS Ronald Reagan, arrives there.
They argue this would leave the U.S. with fewer options to respond to flare-ups.
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nicholas Sherrouse said the Navy’s presence in the region would not be diminished. He said that, at “at any given time, there are 80 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft, and approximately 40,000 sailors and Marines in the region.”
Still, the U.S. would not be able to use a carrier if a show of force is needed against China or North Korea, or if a natural disaster strikes, which lawmakers say is a concern for U.S. Pacific Command chief Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear III.
“He can’t do what he needs to do with 11 carriers. He sure couldn’t do it with 10 carriers,” Forbes said.
“He said whenever things flare up, he likes to send an aircraft carrier, and that sends a strong message. If you don’t have an aircraft carrier to send, you know, what do you do?” McKeon said earlier this month.
Although there have been gaps in the past, they have been worsened by defense cuts under sequestration, which have slowed maintenance for ships and caused more to be sidelined for greater lengths of time, experts say.
“You want that delay to be as short as possible,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired nuclear submariner.
The situation would get worse if the Navy goes through with the plan to retire an aircraft carrier, bringing the permanent fleet down to 10, Clark said.
Lawmakers alarmed by the situation are fighting to scrap the Navy’s plan. The Navy says the Congress should agree to a 10-carrier fleet, if it does not lift budget ceilings that were put in place by the 2011 budget deal, by 2016.
Current law requires 11 carriers, but right now, the U.S. has 10. This is legal under a temporary exception approved by Congress that allowed for the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012.
To keep the Navy at 11 carriers, Armed Services Committee members are working to prevent another carrier from being retired in 2016.
On Tuesday, the panel’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee released their markup of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which would provide money in 2015 for the refueling and overhaul of the George Washington, which would extend its life for 25 years.