Global Politics

US Navy gets budget cuts

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to save the Department of Defense more than $150 billion over the next five years. $35 billion of those proposed savings would come from cuts to the US Navy. The World's Jason Margolis has more.

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has set a goal of saving $150 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next five years. $35 billion of those proposed savings would come from the US Navy.

The Navy said it will meet its budget mostly by trimming personnel. That makes sense to the Navy brass, said Steven Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations.

�The Navy sees its identity as being, understandably enough, in sailing ships, so if by eliminating some staff organizations that they don't think they need, they can get more ships out on the ocean doing what the Navy is there to do,� Biddle said. �They're in favor of that.�

But does the US Navy need more ships on the seas? It's already far and away the biggest navy in the world.

For example, take the aircraft carrier. The Navy has 11 carriers; that's half of the world's total.

The Navy deploys three aircraft carriers at all times. And it's not just the carriers. More than 60 fighter jets ride along with each one.

So does a squadron of about a dozen ships to protect the carrier. This flotilla can send shudders of fear into any nation.

Some argue, however, that these aircraft carriers, and the jets and ships that deploy with them, are relics of the cold war. Steven Biddle says that argument is a familiar one.

�There were a lot of people in the cold war who thought aircraft carriers were a relic,� Biddle said. �I mean the whole debate over: Is the aircraft carrier obsolete, it has been around a long, long time. What makes them so controversial is that they are huge concentrations of capability in one point, which makes them potentially vulnerable and it also makes them tremendously expensive.�

The US has plans to build three replacement aircraft carriers at a cost of more than $5 billion each.

�Why do we need 11 carrier battle groups when nobody in the rest of the world has more than one?� asked Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan and now senior fellow with The Center for American Progress.

Korb doesn't propose scrapping aircraft carriers. He just wants to scale back their numbers. He said aircraft carriers were instrumental in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, but that was a long time ago.

�It is a completely different era, and we're not going to fight large conventional battles anymore. The wave of the future is going to be to use unmanned aircraft and special forces that deal with threats like we see in Yemen. And if you look at the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy has played a very, very minor role, particularly in Afghanistan, which is completely landlocked,� said Korb.

Korb added that enemy missiles can now reach US aircraft carriers, which are, after all, slow-moving targets.

Northrup Grumman is building the first of the new aircraft carriers. The company has a special unit that studies the future of war, and helps invent new weaponry. The group is working on 21st century technologies like lasers and cyber warfare.

The unit prepares and predicts. But former unit director Bob Hoffa says it's difficult to know what ship, plane, or weapon will work best in the future.

�It's very hard to look out much further than five to 10 years,� said Hoffa. �I just played in a war game here over the last few days, and the scenario was 2030 and trying to stretch your imagination to 20 years is extraordinarily difficult to do.�

This leaves Secretary Gates in a tough position. The military has to maximize its ability to fight and minimize its expenses. There are a lot of different opinions about how to do that.

In the end though, Congress gets to decide the military budget. And all good lawmakers know that if a ship or weapon is built in their district, well then, of course, that ship or weapon is the one the Navy simply cannot do without.