There's life in those old carriers yet

By , Michael Vlahos is a member of R&D Associates in Washington.

Two mighty carriers steam in circular patrol in the Arabian Sea, just south of Iran. The incarnation of deployable power, they seem the ultimate conventional weapon, the premiere "big stick." But one of these leviathans is running on half-power, and exhaustion has severely cut its ability to launch aircraft. Until a replacement arrives, the US carrier task force off Iran will be incapable of round-the-clock fllight operations.

The critical vulnerability of America's big carriers to overexhaustion is but a reminder of our stretched naval assets. Yet we have immediate resources -- the Lexington and four other carriers of the faithful old Essex class -- if we would only restore them to service.

This nation for 35 years has leaned on the carrier to buttress its crisis diplomacy. Carriers have been needed, again and again, to support and defend our alliance system. Off Korea, in the Mediterranean, along the North Atlantic lifeline, US carrier task groups have held together the sometimes fragile network of Western security.

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In recent years, the Young Turks have increasingly attacked the big aircraft carrier as a vulnerable, expensive, imminently obsolete weapons system: a kind of naval saurian whose time has passed. Just as fashionable has been the thesis that the big carrier represents nothing more than a tool of and an incentive for US imperialism.

In spite of public and professional assaults, no one has been able to discover an effective replacement. Together, four US carriers equal, in sortie equivalents, the punch of something like the entire French Air Force.

Today, the US Navy sustains both the global interests and the oceanic lines of communication that bind the American system with fewer capital ships than at any time since 1903.

Today, usable US power projection capabilities are entrusted, and limited, to a handful of great ships: an overworked, aging, and very tired "dirty dozen." With only 12 stretched thin across the world ocean, we are already at our deployment limits.

We can only afford two carriers off Iran. What if high-intensity air operations over Iran or Pakistan were needed tomorrow? A US intervention force to the Persian Gulf needed full and immediate air support? Active air intervention by a "third party" required an instant reinforcing of US strike and air defense assets at sea?

In 1950, when the curtain rose in Korea, the US was able to pull carrier after carrier out of monthballs and hurl them across the Pacific. Now we have no modern carriers in reserve. We have no up-to-date "surge" capability. If we needed more striking power off Iran and Pakistan, and the kind of air defense to keep a certain continental air force at bay, we would have to strip our carrier battle groups on other stations. With trouble brewing on the border stations. With trouble brewing on the border of Thailand, and more ready to boil in Korea, our deployablem power projection forces, in the form of the aircraft carrier, are stretched beyond the limit. We simply do not have any more big carriers that we can haul out of Philadelphia or San Diego, the way we did in 1950, to beef up our thin grey line at sea.

There is, however, the Essex-class alternative, the Old Guard. Five Essex carriers still remain, sealed up and all but forgotten. They are old, but only as old as the Midway, now off Iran, and they, too, were modernized several times in the 50s and 60s. They might creak a bit, but they can steam at high speed, and they can handle modern combat aircraft.

The Oriskany, Lexington, Bon Homme Richard, Intrepid, and Shangri-La. Loaded with light attack aircraft -- either Marin A. 4s still in the inventory, or A-7 Corsair IIs -- could each handle five attack squadrons, or some 60 aircraft. They would enlarge and extend the power of the standard carrier battle group, with which they might operate. Then the big carriers, freed of their light attack squadrons, could increase their embarked strengths in fighter and all-weather attack aircraft by 50 percent. This would give a Forrestal-size carrier the capability to tangle with a high-intensity air threat.

This is not simply another "quick fix." The Essex class could be pulled out of reserve and into the line within a year, but they would not be expected to hold the line foreover.

There would be problems, of course. The ships are undeniably old. They could not be pushed too hard or too fast. They would have to be rotated frequently. To cover the shortfall in fighter aircraft needed for an expanded carrier force, F-14 production would have to be pushed. Immediately. But officers in the US Navy are confident that carriers of the Essex class, which served so valiantly off Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, have another five to seven years of life left in the tough hulls.

We need them. And we don't have five years to waste.

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