As USS Enterprise Retired, A Question: Why So Many Aircraft Carriers?


Over the weekend, the USS Enterprise—the real one, not James T. Kirk’s ship—was retired in Virginia:

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was retired from active service on Saturday, temporarily reducing the number of carriers in the U.S. fleet to 10 until 2015.

The USS Enterprise ended its notable 51-year career during a ceremony at its home port at Naval Station Norfolk, where thousands of former crew members, ship builders and their families lined a pier to bid farewell to one of the most decorated ships in the Navy.

“It’ll be a special memory. The tour yesterday was a highlight of the last 20 years of my life. I’ve missed the Enterprise since every day I walked off of it,” said Kirk McDonnell, a former interior communications electrician aboard the ship from 1983 to 1987 who now lives in Highmore, S.D.

The Enterprise was the largest ship in the world at the time it was built, earning the nickname “Big E.” It didn’t have to carry conventional fuel tanks for propulsion, allowing it to carry twice as much aircraft fuel and ordnance than conventional carriers at the time. Using nuclear reactors also allowed the ship to set speed records and stay out to sea during a deployment without ever having to refuel, one of the times ships are most vulnerable to attack.

Notice how the story says that the number of aircraft carriers is only “temporarily” reduced to 10 until 2015. That’s because they’re building more of them, and yes, the next one will be named Enterprise:

The mammoth ship that projected American power during the tensest moment of the Cold War, and decades later launched some of the first air attacks in the war on terror, no longer is in service.

But its remarkable legacy - and its iconic name - will live on.

The Navy formally inactivated the aircraft carrier Enterprise on Saturday. A crowd estimated at 12,000 included hundreds of former crew members and dozens of original shipbuilders. They crammed onto a pier at the Norfolk Naval Station to say goodbye to the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

In a video address at the end of an emotional ceremony, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the nation’s next aircraft carrier will be named Enterprise, continuing a tradition that dates to the Revolutionary War.

The Big “E,” the eighth U.S. ship named Enterprise, will be decommissioned next summer after 51 years. Tugboats will tow the 1,123-foot ship to the Newport News shipyard that built it, where it will be dismantled.

“I’m honored to tell this crowd of past and present crew that the work of the name Enterprise is not done,” Mabus said in prerecorded remarks broadcast on large screens and followed by an ovation on the pier.

Why not? Why shouldn’t it be?

Right now the United States has ten aircraft carriers in service, all of the Nimitz-class, in addition to nine amphibious assault craft that have STOVL capability for Marine Harrier jumpjets. With the announcement of the next Enterprise, there will soon be three Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers under construction—the Ford, the John F. Kennedy, and then the Enterprise, which are slated to go on active duty in 2015 or later. That means in about 3-5 years, we’ll have anywhere from 21-23 aircraft carriers in our fleet.

By comparison, the entire global population of aircraft carriers is 21. That means we will soon have more aircraft carriers in just our navy than the entire world has right now. I have to ask why. Why on Earth do we need to have so many massive (the Nimitz-class weigh in at 45,000 tons; the newer Gerald R. Ford-class will be about 100,000 tons) metal barges floating around the world’s oceans? Why must we have more aircraft carriers than anybody else in the world combined? Security? Force projection? Why?

It’s clear having that many carriers will not garner extra security, and with the combination of satellites, missile cruisers, and strategic stealth bombers that can go anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice, it’s not clear that the aircraft carrier is really all that useful for force projection either. I’m forced to conclude that this has nothing to do with national security, but rather everything to do with defense contractor’s job security.

The real threats that are coming at us are not from major navies or organized military formations. Having more carriers than every other nation is not going to keep us safer against new threats. The dangers that we face are more in the areas of small irregular groups, like the militias in Iraq and the terrorists that caused 9/11, and cyberwarfare. To paraphrase a certain pilot from a certain battle in a galaxy far, far away, “What good are aircraft carriers going to be against that?”

Right now, with our country ready to go over the fiscal cliff, we should be examining every option to cut spending—for this is a spending problem, not a revenue problem. At the top of our list, right next to entitlements, should be military spending. (I’m not calling it defense spending; at this point, it has nothing to do with defense.) Why should we be essentially throwing away about $15 billion on each of these three new supercarriers that will do jack (plus the roughly $20 billion spent on researching how to make them)?

Why do we have so many of these ironclad behemoths? And why shouldn’t we retire more? The answers to these questions will show how serious those in Washington are about fixing our fiscal problems—and how beholden they are to narrow-minded special interests, rather than the general welfare.

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