A bitter debate has raged in the Pentagon for several months about the wisdom of taking the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out of service to save money. The Washington, at 24 years old a relatively young vessel, is due for a costly refit, a routine procedure that all of the 11 large carriers in service undergo regularly. The Navy fought hard against mothballing the giant ship. But Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned that when the two-year reprieve Congress granted from sequester cuts expires in 2016, the George Washington will be back on the chopping block. Moreover, the chief of naval operations said last month that the Navy plans to remove 11 of its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers from active duty to save on operating costs, as well as removing from service early the last frigates in the fleet.
But the critics are right. This hardly seems the moment to be scrapping them, with China expanding its fleet and acting aggressively in the South and East China seas and the ongoing need to keep a significant carrier force near the Persian Gulf. Instead, what about taking a page from history and transferring surplus warships to allied navies? Imagine Australia, India, Brazil and Britain — latter struggling along with no active carrier at moment — operating the five oldest active-duty US carriers. The offer of such superpower bling might prove irresistible, even with high maintenance costs that come with them.
There is ample precedent. When World War II ended, the US Navy had a fleet that included 28 large aircraft carriers and 71 smaller escort carriers — more by far than any other nation, and far more than the peacetime world seemed to demand. Hundreds of other warships, overnight, went from vital weapons systems to costly maintenance inventory. Many of them found their way to scrap yards, others to the reserve fleet, where they sat rusting for a few decades before their own date at the breaking yard came due.
A select few, mixed and mingled with captured German battleships, Japanese subs and some Allied hulks, were moored off Bikini Atoll and vaporized in an atomic test. But not all of America’s wartime investment in its huge fleet met such ends. Aware that the cost of keeping a ship at sea would be prohibitive, the Navy hit on a perfect way to balance its desire to downsize and its need to fill the gap in maritime security that Britain’s shrinking Royal Navy was creating across the globe. Rather than mothballing every ship or selling them for scrap, the US transferred entire fleets of destroyers, cruisers and other vessels to allied navies.
For much of the Cold War, in fact, the navies of some of America’s closest allies were led by ships that once fought the Japanese off Okinawa or hunted German submarines in the Atlantic. Greece, Turkey, Spain — as well as Peru, Colombia, Argentina and even former enemies like Japan, Italy and West Germany — all took delivery of warships they could never have afforded to build or purchase. During the 1940s and ’50s, dozens of smaller warships were sent to navies around the world, a stopgap measure to check the sudden rise of Soviet naval power.
Most of these “transferred hulls,” in Navy parlance, never again fired a shot in anger — at least not intentionally. Some helped newly independent countries such as India and the Philippines establish professional navies in place of colonial forces. Others, particularly in Europe, represented a vital stopgap and deterrent at a time when those nations’ post-war resources were devoted to reconstruction and the Soviet Navy had begun its own rise to prominence.
In a perfect world, of course, the enormous investment that went into building these magnificent vessels would be enough justification for keeping them at sea — and under US command. But that simply is not the world America inhabits today. The mere presence of these behemoths in the hands of responsible states makes war less likely. And it avoids the humiliating prospect of turning warships with years of useful service left in them into floating museums. The writer is managing director of a global political, integrity and security risk consultancy and covered US defence and intelligence policy and the wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan for the BBC and MSNBC.
— Courtesy: The Los Angeles Times