Who Is Mothballing A U.S. Carrier? And Why?
In the shadow of summit and scandal last week, there was stunning news from the Defense Department: “The Pentagon has decided to cut the aircraft carrier fleet from 11 today to 10,” Breaking Defense reported. “By retiring the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman at least two decades early, rather than refueling its nuclear reactor core in 2024 as planned, the military would save tens of billions on overhaul and operations costs that it could invest in other priorities.”
This jaw-dropping announcement — first noted by The Post’s David Ignatius — shocked even civilians with an amateur’s interest such as myself, because of the widespread assumption that President Trump had committed to a significant expansion of naval power on his watch, not a drastic cut in the force most associated with the projection of U.S. power. Who made this decision? Breaking Defense’s story begins “the Pentagon has decided.” While the Pentagon does indeed decide a lot of things, it doesn’t get to decide the size of the carrier fleet. That is a joint decision made by the commander in chief and Congress. Not even the most able of defense secretaries, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or chiefs of naval operations get to “decide” to cut a carrier.
The Pentagon’s leadership and bureaucracy has effectively slow-rolled the president on his campaign promise, repeated after his election on the deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford, to get the Navy to its “needed” ship count of 355. That expansion has been quietly deferred again and again, with only Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, admitting that that goal is in doubt. But the president was clear: He wanted a 355-ship Navy and, specifically, a fleet of 12 aircraft carriers. My reporting is that this “decision” is counter to the advice of the uniformed professionals. It is unclear whether the Office of Management and Budget, headed by Mick Mulvaney — who is also Trump’s acting chief of staff — had a role here, but it is difficult to imagine that national security adviser John Bolton is complicit in this proposed slashing of the capacity to project U.S. power.
Rarely does bureaucratic mutiny among the civilians at the Pentagon appear in such an unvarnished fashion as with this announcement about the decision to essentially halve the USS Truman’s lifespan. Leaking this “decision” through the media was the most obvious of trial balloons. But that the Pentagon’s senior leadership has begun down this road without even a whisper in public to, say, the Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), suggests that the Pentagon respects neither Congress nor the president and his national security team. If acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan is nominated to fill the position full-time, this story should greatly complicate his confirmation path. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Shanahan opponent leaked it for that very purpose.
Given that any new carriers will take a decade or longer to be commissioned, the presence or absence of the USS Truman in the fleet will impact at least three future presidents, possibly more. You can’t deploy assets that have been mothballed. You can’t project U.S. power with a so-called ghost fleet. Expect defenders of this move to claim, “This is a temporary drop in size of the carrier fleet. We will get back to 12 carriers quickly.” That boat doesn’t float, and congressional oversight will get into the details of the supposed “plan of transition.” Even if persuasive, it isn’t the sort of decision the Pentagon gets to make on its own.
The issue of carrier vulnerability has been aired for years among Navy professionals, such as my frequent radio guest Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense analyst. But none of this discussion has been the focus of public debate. No one has stood up and said anything like: “The president is wrong. Carriers are too vulnerable to long-range missiles from the People’s Republic of China or swarms of drones from anywhere.” If carrier critics want to make a case, they need to unveil arguments, not announcements.
The Pentagon fired the first shot at the president and his on-the-record plans. Let’s see what the response is. If Trump has been sucker-punched, expect the reaction to be loud and public.