- The Department of Defense's proposed $718 billion budget for fiscal year 2020 includes plans to retire an aircraft carrier decades early.
- The controversial move would free up funds to develop and field new weapons that will be more survivable in a high-end fight against a tough adversary like China or Russia.
- The decision to retire an aircraft carrier is certain to face pushback from Congress.
The US Navy plans to retire one of its aircraft carriers decades early, a highly controversial move to free up funds for the new weapons needed to fight a powerful adversary.
"We made the difficult decision to retire CVN 75 (USS Harry S. Truman) in lieu of its previously funded refueling complex overhaul that was scheduled to occur in FY 2024," the Navy stated in an overview of the fiscal year 2020 budget released Tuesday, referring to the mid-life overhaul during which the carrier's reactor cores are refueled.
The purpose is to free up funding for new weapons that are more likely to survive were the US to go to war with China, a senior defense official told Breaking Defense, which first broke the story about the Pentagon's plans to mothball the Truman.
"Great power competition has reemerged as the central challenge to US security and prosperity, demanding prioritization and hard strategic choices," the Navy explained.
The decision to retire the Truman decades early, which reportedly came from Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, "is in concert with the Defense Department's commitment to proactively pursue diversified investments in next-generation, advanced, and distributed capabilities," the Navy said, noting it would be looking into both manned and unmanned systems.
"This approach pursues a balance of high-end, survivable manned platforms with a greater number of complementary, more affordable, potentially more cost-imposing, and attritable options," the service added.
Nonetheless, the Navy still intends to move forward with its planned purchase of two more Ford-class aircraft carriers.
While aircraft carriers have long been beacons of American military might, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable. US carriers remain difficult to kill, but near-peer adversaries are developing weapons capable of knocking them out of the fight at long range.
Naval experts say that US carriers now need to operate at least 1,000 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland to keep out of range of China's precision anti-ship missiles, according to USNI News.
That puts carrier-based fighters out of range for attacks on the mainland, and the budget does not offer a substantial investment in extending or enhancing the capabilities of the carrier air wing.
The US Navy is turning its attention away from traditional capabilities to robotic vessels, such as unmanned scout ships to conduct surveillance and draw enemy fire and unmanned missile boats to fire on targets identified by the robotic scout vessels, Breaking Defense reported.
The loss of an unmanned platform is nothing compared to damage to a Nimitz-class supercarrier loaded with bombs, an air wing of about 60 aircraft, two nuclear reactors — and roughly 5,000 sailors on board.
And, the entire US military is investing more heavily in long-range, precision fires — missiles and artillery — to punch holes in contested battlespaces.
Commenting on the Department of Defense's proposed $718 budget for fiscal year 2020, Shanahan stated that "this budget will strongly position the US military for great power competition for decades to come." Shortly after taking office as the acting secretary of defense, Shanahan told his staff that the focus going forward is "China, China, China."
The budget proposal is expected to face pushback from Congress. After all, there is a very strong possibility the USS Harry S. Truman, like the USS George Washington before it, is a large bargaining chip in the Defense Department’s efforts to secure additional funding from Congress.