By David Axe
Every few years, rumors spread that the U.S. Navy could decommission early one of its 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
But it never happens—and for good reason. For all the debate over carriers’ cost and vulnerability, they remain powerful platforms. Not just for fighting wars, but also for influencing world events during peacetime.
So take with a 100,000-ton grain of salt the latest rumor of an impending cut to the carrier fleet. The scuttlebutt isn’t likely to end with a carrier heading to the breakers.
According to USNI News reporters Sam LaGrone and Mallory Shelbourne, the Navy is considering decommissioning the 23-year-old carrier USS Harry S. Truman two decades earlier than planned.
Cutting Truman would allow the Navy to cancel a $5.5-billion mid-life refit and refueling in 2024, freeing up money—and thousands of sailors—for other priorities.
If the Truman plan sounds familiar, it’s because the Navy floated the same idea two years ago. Congress pushed back. The administration of ex-president Donald Trump realized it lacked the support to push through the cut. A few months after the decommissioning talk started, it abruptly ended.
That same thing happened in 2015 with Truman’s sister ship USS George Washington. But rumors of her decommissioning also inspired push-back from lawmakers—and ultimately came to nothing.
“It’s certainly not a new idea or proposal,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval expert and author, said of the Truman rumor. “It seems to pop up every few years and then get tossed back because aircraft carriers represent such a big part of the Navy’s capabilities, presence and firepower. As a result, retirement of a carrier early is not seen as a very popular or wise thing to do.”
It’s true that the Navy has been studying alternatives to its thousand-foot-long, 100,000-ton-displacement nuclear supercarriers, which can cost $14 billion just to build. Options include smaller nuke flattops and non-nuclear light carriers—the latter perhaps based on the fleet’s existing America-class assault ships.
The Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation—a kind of in-house think-tank—has been pushing for a top-to-bottom redesign of the U.S. fleet. Instead of organizing around the 11 supercarriers, CAPE’s notional fleets would have fewer big ships and many more smaller ships—including robotic vessels.
It’s possible CAPE is behind the Truman talk, a source familiar with the discussion said on condition of anonymity.
But the safe money is on the Navy keeping Truman—and all of its carriers—for as long as possible, while also continuing to build new big flattops.
Yes, carriers are expensive. Yes, like all surface ships they are vulnerable to submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles. But for all their liabilities, they still are flexible, mobile and—owing to their 70-plane air wings—powerful on the offensive.
Which is why they remain in high demand among the U.S. military’s regional commanders. From January through October 2020, American carriers spent a combined 855 days at sea—258 days more than all of 2019, according to USNI News report Megan Eckstein.
They launched air strikes on militants. They patrolled in and around the Persian Gulf in order to deter Iran. They sailed through the China Seas as a warning to an increasingly expansionist China.
“That heavy carrier usage makes 2020 the busiest year for the carrier fleet since the Arab Spring [in 2011], forcing some carriers to stay on station for record-length deployments and conduct [back-to-back] double-pump [deployments],” Eckstein explained.
Cutting Truman could force the remaining flattops to deploy even more often. After all, demand for carriers isn’t likely to subside. But if 11 carriers struggle to meet commanders’ requirements, imagine the implications for 10 carriers.
“We can never say never with things like this,” Wertheim said. “Platforms like carriers, or other strategic assets, are considered sacred and untouchable until one day they’re not.”
“But Congress ultimately has to go along with the decisions, and until now carriers have been much pretty off-limits, many would argue for good reason.”