Dinosaurs At Sea : Aircraft Carriers Have Ruled the Oceans Since 1945. But Now the Floating Giants Are Threatened by Shrinking Budgets and Military Obsolescence.

<i> Michael Wright, executive editor of National Journal magazine in Washington, writes frequently on national security matters</i>

A 45-knot wind whips along the sprawling flight deck of the Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the Navy’s state-of-the-art supercarriers. As the ship launches and recovers airplanes--short, squat cargo haulers and sleek fighters--a rescue helicopter chatters in place a few hundred yards away, just in case. It’s hard to imagine a noisier place on planet Earth. Or a place with more stomach-knotting tension.

Near the bow of the ship, a pair of steam-driven catapults punches planes into the sky. At the other end, homeward-bound planes glide in, wings wobbling with last-second alignments and--if all goes well--use the sturdy hooks suspended from their tails to snag one of four fat arresting cables that extend across the deck. With a slam and a roar, they’re jerked to a head-snapping stop within 350 feet. This action is the stuff of World War II-era “Victory at Sea” flag wavers, and it’s been a carrier’s stock in trade for more than 50 years.

Between launchings and recoveries, as the catapults recycle and the arresting cable is retracted, sailors in distinctively colored shirts scurry to get ready for the next round. Yellow shirts are essentially traffic cops, directing planes toward catapults or to out-of-the way spots on the gently pitching deck where they’ll be chained in place by blue shirts. The red shirts load and unload bombs and the air-to-air missiles that, once fired, home in on a target’s glowing-hot tail pipe. The purple shirts--the “grapes"--top off the tanks with aviation fuel. Green shirts run the catapults and the arresting gear.

Fresh from a pit stop in a Virginia repair yard, the Eisenhower and its crew are cutting wide circles in the Atlantic, about 100 miles east of Norfolk, getting ready for another six-months-long deployment to the Mediterranean that begins this fall. Since the Navy picked up the keys and drove it away in 1977, the Eisenhower has also operated in the North Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The ship steamed into the Red Sea not long after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. On its expeditions to foreign waters, the Eisenhower’s “battle group” usually includes nine or so guided-missile cruisers and destroyers and a couple of submarines.


Carrier battle groups have been dispatched by American Presidents to show the flag in this or that trouble spot since the end of World War II. Between 1946 and 1990, according to a tally by the Congressional Research Service, carriers were involved in 140 “international incidents.” Planes from two carriers flew in the 1986 raids on Libya. Half a dozen were involved at various times during the Persian Gulf War. More recently, carrier-based aircraft have helped enforce a “no fly"zone over southern Iraq. And this spring, jets from the Saratoga--a 39-year-old carrier that’s due to be retired late this summer after its Adriatic cruise--patrolled over the rubble of the former Yugoslavia.

Back in Washington, as Congress thrashes out the federal budget, attempting to make tight dollars stretch further, a growing armada of critics maintains that these carriers are money-guzzling dinosaurs, vestigial remains of an era when the Navy had to be ever-ready to duke it out with the Soviet fleet. But that’s light years away from the scene in the Eisenhower’s bridge, a penthouse-control room packed with polished brass and glowing digits and dials. Here, junior officers are practicing the routines of steering the ship--not only getting from point A to point B but also, in the process, avoiding a collision with another ship or a hull-gouging sandbar that would bring a swift end to their (and their commanding officer’s) career. And so, as Capt. Alan Mark Gemmill, the Eisenhower’s skipper since March, 1993, looks on, young officers work with quiet intensity to sort out the course and speculate about the intentions of a fishing boat whose lights have been spotted a mile or two ahead.

Command of a high-profile ship like the Eisenhower is a primo assignment for Gemmill; if he doesn’t screw up, he’s a good bet to make admiral in a year or two. Unlike many other officers who are edging their way to the top of the heap, Gemmill isn’t a blustering, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy. He doesn’t sport one of those five-pound Annapolis rings or a barely disguised contempt for civilians who haven’t been off to war once or twice.

A soft-spoken native of Arizona, where he grew up on a cattle ranch, Gemmill isn’t a graduate of the Naval Academy (University of Arizona, class of 1968). He didn’t have his ticket punched in Vietnam (by the time he finished flight training, the war was all but over). And he hasn’t risen from dry-land staff jobs in Washington, polishing social skills and schmoozing with members of Congress and lobbyists. Instead, he has dutifully toiled as a test pilot and run squadrons and, before taking command of the Eisenhower, pulled a wide range of duties on other ships.


But to the Navy, whose image is decidedly frayed around the edges these days--thanks in large measure to lingering questions about its treatment of women--Gemmill is tailor-made for the Eisenhower: accessible, media-savvy and willing to help shape a positive, “coping-in-the-modern-world” image of the carrier and its crew. Since Congress last year lifted its restrictions on women serving on ships that might fall into harm’s way and picked the Eisenhower to be the first warship to which women would be assigned, reporters and photographers have been shuttling out to capture the sights and sounds of women pilots brushing up their carrier landing skills and to otherwise poke through the ship for signs of resentment--or acceptance--among the crew. Most of the reports include a sound bite or two from the C.O. Though not the glibbest of people, Gemmill, whose last command was a supply ship with a “mixed crew” (women have been assigned to noncombat vessels for years)--has been holding his own. “We’re all grown-ups here,” he says, in tones so soft you sometimes have to strain to hear. “We’ll do what we have to do.” It’s the new and adaptive voice of a carrier force that will have to evolve to survive.

THE EISENHOWER IS ONE OF THE NAVY’S NIMITZ-CLASS CARRIERS. SIX ARE already in the fleet, and two other brand-new models will report for duty in a year or two. They’ve all been modeled on the design for the Nimitz (named for Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who helped revive the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor and then directed its battering of Japan) that was completed in 1975.

Another Nimitz-class carrier--perhaps the last of the line--is at the top of the service’s shopping list this year. Designated CVN-76 (it doesn’t have a more formal name yet), it carries a sticker price of nearly $4.5 billion and is included in the Clinton Administration’s Pentagon budget for fiscal 1995.

The Navy--and the country’s ailing shipyards--have a big stake in CVN-76. And it’s by no means certain that Congress will vote their way. Not many years ago, this wasn’t how the world worked. Capitol Hill was four-square behind supercarriers. The bigger the better, it seemed. Why? Aside from high-sounding patriotic or geopolitical justifications, it was the prospect of several years of steady work for thousands of constituents everywhere. A carrier construction project, which from start to finish takes at least five years, is prime pork wrapped in the stars and stripes. Apart from the tons of metal and vast arrays of electronic equipment that make up a supercarrier, each ship comes equipped with 2,000 telephones and 30,000 light fixtures; somebody has to make and crate and ship all those ingredients. In the process, money makes it way to subcontractors in as many as 35 states.


President Carter, an old Navy man with a radical idea or two, learned that fact of political life the hard way after he asked Congress to approve a smaller, less expensive carrier that would run on old-fashioned fuel oil instead of nuclear power. Capitol Hill was the target of a 21-gun lobbying campaign. The Navy and the conglomerates that own most of the shipyards maintained that a smaller carrier wouldn’t be as cost effective: It wouldn’t stand up to as much battle damage, would be too slow, and its necessarily reduced load of airplanes would have to shrink further to make room for fuel tanks. In the end, Congress insisted on another Nimitz-class whopper, the Theodore Roosevelt.

In the early 1980s, during the you-want-it, you-get-it days of the Ronald Reagan arms buildup, the White House asked Capitol Hill for money to spend on replacements for two World War II-era relics that were nearing retirement age. Congress dutifully rubber-stamped nearly $7 billion for the supercarriers Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Later in the decade came a green light for the John C. Stennis and the United States. Those two are still being assembled at Newport News Shipbuilding near Norfolk.

The blueprints for CVN-76 first slid off the drawing boards when George Bush was commander in chief. Last year, after former Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s “bottom-up” review--an attempt to sort out how extensive an arsenal the United States needs now that it’s the only superpower left standing--the Clinton Administration decided to stay the course with CVN-76 and to maintain 11 active carriers and another in reserve.

Not a drastic departure from the 15 carriers that the Navy operated during the twilight years of the Cold War. But a dozen was the number said to be needed (once allowances are made for repair time and crew vacations) to keep an American carrier near potential flash points in, say, the Persian Gulf, the Western Pacific and the Adriatic. More broadly, the carriers would be a part of a slimmed-down military that would still be capable of fighting the equivalent of two Persian Gulf Wars at the same time.


In many ways, the post-Cold War world is an even riskier place, CVN-76 advocates contend. There are the unfriendly rumbles from North Korea, armed to the teeth with 55 army divisions and 5,000 tanks. And what about the implications of a coup by the likes of Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy?

“If Congress chooses to cut the carrier, the Navy isn’t gonna die. But it sure as hell will affect our ability to respond to crises,” says Vice Adm. Leighton W. Smith Jr., until recently a deputy chief of naval operations. He has presided over much of his service’s planning for life in the post-Cold War world, a period when “nobody’s going to come after us. We do believe, however, that there will be regional crises that have the potential to impact those things that are important to our economy. I can’t believe we’ll always have access to those regions from land bases.”

A new carrier isn’t that much of an extravagance, the Navy’s top brass maintain, because they’ve already cut back so much else. Since the mid-1980s, the fleet has shrunk from 546 ships to about 400; by the end of the decade, it may number no more than 330 or so. “This year, the Navy will be decommissioning more ships than most other nations have in their entire navies,” says Smith, who is now NATO’s commander for southern Europe.

But there are plenty of critics on and off Capitol Hill who say that, as a general point, nearly four years after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and two years after the former Soviet Union imploded, America’s armed services, and the Navy in particular, are still allotted too fat a share of the steadily shrinking pot of available federal dollars. “The Navy is a force in search of a mission, struggling to hold onto the budgetary and institutional gains made during the 1980s,” defense policy analyst Christopher A. Preble wrote recently in a report for the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. “The Navy should de-emphasize the role of aircraft carriers, which are relics of a Cold War strategy.”


Several critics--by no means limited to liberals--go on to note the many places where carriers haven’t been in recent years. Like the 1990 evacuations from Somalia and Liberia that the Navy orchestrated. And the 1989 raid on Panama. These critics would scrap the CVN-76, retire a handful of other carriers and keep the ones that are left close to home until they’re needed on some faraway front. America would no longer be the cop on the beat. “Japan and Australia should be expected to assume a larger burden in the Western Pacific,” Preble said. “And Great Britain, France and Germany should be expected to do the same” in their spheres of influence.

America’s carriers, proposed and already built, are tempting targets. This year, for the first time since 1990, defense spending accounts can be raided by members of Congress scrambling to find money for, say, some underfinanced domestic program; heretofore, “fire walls” kept budget raiders at bay. A few weeks ago, Robert D. Reischauer, director of the more or less objective, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told the House Armed Services Committee that forcing the Navy to get by with 10 carriers (and reducing the Army by three divisions) would produce nearly $23 billion in savings over five years. The CBO calculations included money that wouldn’t be spent on, say, the 80-odd airplanes that are usually packed by a supercarrier and on the accompanying “battle group.”

The carrier fleet could also end up in the sights of lawmakers who have no qualms about the size of the proposed Pentagon budget--or in fact assert that it should be larger--but maintain that much less should be spent on such big-ticket items as the CVN-76 and much more on training troops and keeping their tanks and warplanes up and running.

Privately, many in Navy blue (and Marine Corps green) complain that carriers eat up money that could be more wisely invested in fast troop and cargo ships or on big new cargo planes. Their concerns were summed up forcefully in early March, in congressional testimony by Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who runs the Central Command. Generals and admirals almost never admit out loud that they have enough of anything, but Hoar, whose command extends from eastern Africa to the Persian Gulf and Iran, has a reputation for blistering forthrightness and thus greater credibility. The Senate Armed Services Committee sat up and listened when he declared that the American military doesn’t have enough troop and cargo planes for one good-sized war abroad, much less two.


Not so privately, there are growing fears that before long, America’s military will, as it did after the post-Vietnam cutbacks (and the sharp reductions that followed World War II and the Korean War) look good on paper but be unfit to fight. “Readiness--the ability of forces to fight on short notice--is an apple-pie issue on Capitol Hill,” says Andrew F. Krepinevich, an analyst with the private Defense Budget Project. “There’s a strong aversion on the part of the White House and senior civilian leadership to expose themselves to charges that the military isn’t ready to fight.” But he raises questions about whether the United States can afford all that readiness. “We can’t buy that big a force and keep it ready with the money that’s available. Something’s got to give.”

A DECADE AGO, THE DISCUSSION WOULD HAVE BEEN OVER. CVN-76 WOULD be a done deal, because Congress has already approved $832 million for its nuclear power plant. Once upon a time, notwithstanding the grumbles about how several billions could be better spent, that down payment would have all but guaranteed that the ship would be built. That’s not the case now, given Congress’ vote last year to kill the superconducting super collider, in which the federal government had already invested about $2 billion. Clearly, down payments don’t mean what they used to. If the CVN-76 project is dropped before it’s completed--and under the Navy’s best-case scenario, which doesn’t allow for any shortages of skilled shipyard workers or any labor disputes that could delay construction, it wouldn’t join the fleet until 2003--the CVN-76 could be cannibalized, its parts used as spares for other carriers.

Capitol Hill takes its time, so the squabble over CVN-76 is likely to extend through much of this year. Even if Congress waves the new carrier through this year, the debate could be revived in the future. One of the first shots was fired in the House Armed Services Committee by the chairman, Ronald V. Dellums, a Democrat from Oakland, whose views count for a lot.

Last year, his first as chairman, wasn’t an easy one for him. The base-closing commission targeted several Navy facilities in his district, one of them a carrier home port, the Alameda Naval Air Station. He did, however, block an effort by House hawks to speed up consideration of CVN-76. This year, the new carrier is clearly on his mind. During a recent session with Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, Dellums declared: “There is serious doubt whether the muscular battle group bought for the Cold War--centered around nuclear aircraft carriers--is necessary or even appropriate.”


Dellums’ comments are still reverberating around the nation’s mostly empty dry-docks; without CVN-76, the financial conditions of many of the nation’s failing shipyards will drastically worsen. Some may die.

Until the 1960s, it was standing-room-only in the yards. Metal was being bent around the clock in shipyards on both sea coasts, along the Gulf of Mexico and all around the Great Lakes. America’s shipbuilders ruled the waves. The domestic industry’s decline began after Japan Inc. opened for business. During the Nixon Administration, Washington began propping up U.S. shipbuilders with financial grants. That helped. So did the oil shocks of the 1970s, when barrels of crude worth their weight in gold sparked a demand for big new tankers. But what one Republican gave, another took away. The Reagan Administration killed the grants, and the industry’s plunge accelerated.

The survivors have staggered along on military contracts; the Navy’s 1985 budget included money for 29 new ships. Now, that business is drying up; this year’s budget would underwrite, at most, six new vessels. The federal subsidies are gone, but Washington has been helping keep some of the survivors in business by spreading around what are essentially make-work projects.

The United States has two yards left with the specialized know-how and equipment to assemble nuclear-powered warships--Newport News Shipbuilding, a unit of Tenneco Inc., and the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp., in Connecticut. Newport News can build carriers and submarines; Electric Boat is a subs-only yard. After intense lobbying by General Dynamics, the Clinton Administration’s “bottom-up” reviewers decided to keep two “nuclear-construction-capable” shipyards in business. Accordingly, the White House’s 1995 budget includes money for a $2-billion nuclear submarine that, most specialists say, the Navy doesn’t need. But it will help keep the lights burning at Electric Boat.


Similarly, CVN-76 is considered a capability saver. Says a congressional aide who is a national security specialist: “During the Cold War, these carriers were justified for military reasons. In the case of CVN-76, it’s said to be more a matter of ‘industrial policy.’ We have to build it, and right away, or we’ll lose the capacity to build supercarriers. If we delay it even for a year, laid-off shipyard workers with hard-to-replace skills might be lost for good.”

Still, barring a flood of orders for commercial projects, a green light for CVN-76 could merely postpone an inevitable collapse, according to shipbuilding industry spokesmen, who reflexively see bad omens everywhere. “Currently, we have about 100,000 people in the industry,” says John J. Stocker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade association that’s based in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. “By 1998, we’ll be down to 28,000 even if the new carrier is approved. If we lose the carrier, the industry will be wiped off the map.”

That might be a stretch, but Newport News Shipbuilding, Virginia’s largest employer, would be the biggest corporate loser if plans for the new carrier are scuttled. In 1987, at the peak of the Reagan Administration’s arms binge, the yard had 31,000 workers; now its payroll is nearer 22,000. Without CVN-76? Maybe no more than 5,000 after the yard wraps up other Navy projects it’s working on.

And it wouldn’t be good news for San Diego’s National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. The shipyard’s business was once roughly 50% Navy, 50% civilian. It is famous as the place where the Exxon Valdez oil tanker was built and later repaired. The yard’s work is now “virtually 100% military,” says Fred N. Hallett, NASSCO’s chief financial officer.


NASSCO, which has a payroll of nearly 3,500, is the last yard on the West Coast that builds ships for the Navy (Long Beach just repairs them). After stumbling through the 1980s, NASSCO landed contracts for four high-speed supply ships whose gas-turbine engines and exotic transmission gears would make them fast enough to keep up with supercarriers (which can bat along at nearly 40 miles an hour). Plagued by an array of problems--some caused by ever-changing Navy specifications, some by shipyard mismanagement--the first ship was delivered to the Navy in February, three years late and way over budget. The yard says it’s losing money on the supply ships. If CVN-76 is shelved, or if the Navy is forced to reduce its carrier fleet further, the yard’s future could be in jeopardy.

AROUND THE NAVY, SOME carrier boosters say it’s easy to pinpoint when the CVN-76 and the rest of the carrier fleet, along with the Navy in general, began to lose their luster. Not when Commander in Chief Reagan gave up the Oval Office. Not when Bill Clinton (who, during the 1992 presidential campaign, maintained that 10 carriers would be plenty) took charge.

No, the troubles started with the Persian Gulf War. In the view of many analysts, the war provided proof positive that the carriers--which might have performed admirably in an open-ocean, no-holds-barred war with the Soviet Union--aren’t very well suited for “regional” conflicts. Those analysts claim that supercarriers just aren’t that super in an era when any Third World nation with a few bucks can get a good deal on ship-crippling cruise missiles or simple but deadly waterborne mines.

An especially pointed post-mortem--the handiwork of Navy Capt. Charles R. Girvin, a 30-year veteran who had a front-row seat during the war--appeared in a mid-1993 issue of the authoritative Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute. “Despite the use of six aircraft carriers--with crews totaling more than 30,000 men--accompanied by extensive cruiser, destroyer and frigate escorts, postwar analysis . . . confirmed that the carrier aviation contribution to the air campaign was minor compared to the land-based air forces,” he wrote. “The carriers simply were not needed.” All in all, Girvin asserted, the war showcased the effectiveness of relatively inexpensive mines, which forced much of the American Navy to keep its distance, and the “huge success” of Tomahawk cruise missiles.


In Washington, Navy officials shrug off Girvin and other critics as “shortsighted.” They insist that the Navy and its carriers did just fine; the problem is that the service lost the public relations war. “The Air Force got the glory,” a senior Navy spin master grumps. “They had better gun-sight cameras (that provided those extra sharp, video-game-quality shots of targets being destroyed by ‘smart’ bombs), they provided better access to the news media. The Navy did an awful job. From one half to a third of our ships over there banned reporters; the ships’ captains didn’t want to bother.”

Now, he continues, ships’ captains everywhere have been ordered to bother. This year, the Navy went out of its way to accommodate reporters who wanted to ride the carrier Saratoga around the Adriatic; television crews found smiling sailors ready and willing to transmit their footage back to their home offices. Same with the Eisenhower and its history-making rendezvous with women in uniform.

As a part of what could be called Operation Bounce Back, the Navy is also experimenting with innovative ways of using its carriers, to show that even dinosaurs can learn new tricks.

They don’t always succeed. Last year, the Navy dabbled with making the carrier Ranger a troop transport. More than 500 Marines--complete with ground-fighting gear and helicopters--were loaded up for a cruise to the Mediterranean. When the Marines strapped on their backpacks and other equipment, they could barely maneuver through the carrier’s narrow passageways and steep ladders. “We might not do that again,” a senior Navy commander says dryly.


During its coming deployment, the Eisenhower may be involved in watch-us-adapt experiments. At various times, the ship may take on Army special forces troops or Air Force units. Or the carrier and its accompanying cruisers and destroyers, some of them equipped with the most sophisticated radars anywhere, might engage in a little make-believe SCUD busting. Operating 20 miles or so offshore, they’d go through the motions of detecting hypothetical enemy missiles fired at a hypothetical Marine landing. Because the ships don’t carry anti-missile missiles, they would practice relaying radar data to hypothetical batteries of Army Patriot missiles. That’s all according to Gemmill’s immediate boss, Rear Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who commands the Eisenhower’s battle group.

Gehman is an intense, wiry man who commanded patrol boats during the Vietnam War and has held high-level staff jobs in Washington. A high-tech command center is being installed next to his office, where coffee cups rattle whenever a snagged plane crashes to a stop on the flight deck, to help ships more quickly pass along what they’ve learned about an enemy’s missile firings. Gehman isn’t an aviator; his tours at sea have mostly been on cruisers and destroyers. But he talks the talk. “Carriers were bought at the height of the Cold War for open-ocean conflicts. Now the world has changed. We have to adapt to new international arrangements and to new threats.”

He adds, of course, that “we have to have carriers to meet those threats.” But in the increasingly hostile climate facing the carrier fleet, that conclusion, like his exercises, may only be hypothetical.