You won’t have seen this in the United States press, but the number of carrier task forces in East Asia is on its way to zero, as a result of pressures elsewhere and ongoing Navy cuts. We saw it in the Nikkei Asian Review.
On its way home, George Washington is participating in Exercise Keen Sword 15 (it is Fiscal Year 2015 for the US Government. The Fiscal Year arrives 1 October). Keen Sword is a bilateral (US/Japan) naval exercise that has run annually since 1986.
The Navy expects to get a task force back into Yokusuka sometime in 2015, if the DOD doesn’t keep taking it in the budget shorts. But right now, the clock has run down on USS George Washington’s nuclear fuel, requiring a refueling and refit that will last months or even years, and its replacement, USS Ronald Reagan, has been delayed, ensuring a carrier gap of at least four months — assuming de facto Secretary of Defense Valerie Jarrett doesn’t find some better use for the money, like social programs or rewards to cronies or contributors, in the interim.
There is some question as to whether George Washington will be refueled at all. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus have attempted to have the ship decommissioned on budgetary grounds. Congress has been force-feeding the Navy money earmarked for the carrier fleet, to thwart Mabus and Greenert’s radical downsizing scheme.
As if having fewer carriers wasn’t bad enough, the Navy’s latest, largest and most expensive carriers have a Carrier Air Wing with fewer aircraft of fewer types, diminishing the ships’ combat punch. About 50 F/A-18 airframes have to carry all fighter, attack and tanker missions; a handful of special planes provide limited cargo and AEW support, and a dozen-plus helicopters juggle transport, plane-guard, minesweeping, and antisubmarine missions. A Cold War or Vietnam era carrier carried nearly 100 aircraft of many more specialized types.
Budget constraints at home, combined with the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, are limiting the American fleet’s ability to operate in Asia. Temporarily at least, not a single aircraft carrier will be deployed in East Asia.
Japanese and U.S. officials fear having no U.S. carriers, which have long been the bedrock of the region’s stability, could tempt North Korea and China to take advantage of the power vacuum to initiate a military adventure.
The USS George Washington, the only U.S. aircraft carrier with an overseas home port, is to leave its base for nuclear refueling and an overhaul. Until the USS Ronald Reagan arrives at the Japanese port of Yokosuka, located at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, to replace the ship, there will be no American carriers in East Asia, according to persons familiar with the matter.
The US has a total of 10 carriers, down from 11 when the President took office, 12 ten years ago and 14-15 in the 80s and early 90s. If the GW is decommissioned that number will be 9.
Hey, there have been no US carriers in East Asia before. Of course, it was called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere then, from 1940-44 or so. Which brings us to another of those times when history threatens to rhyme, if not quite repeat:
The four-month absence of the big U.S. ships could prompt Japan to start developing its own fleet of aircraft carriers.
It would not have to build the vessels from scratch. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force already has two helicopter carriers, the Hyuga and the Ise. The much larger Izumo is due to be completed soon. If these ships were converted to carry F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighters and escorted by Aegis-equipped destroyers, Japan would have a full-fledged convoy of aircraft carriers.
There was a time when people would have laughed at the idea of STOVL carriers as combatants but the Falklands War in 1982 showed that well-flown world-class jump jets can hold their own with well-flown world-class landplanes, if the carrier force gets a few lucky breaks. No one who looks hard at that air-sea battle can fault the training, preparation, equipment or especially the courage and élan of the Argentine pilots, but at extreme range and up against British EW mastery, their better planes didn’t bring them victory.
Japan’s constitutional Naval Self Defense Force always has been, in fact, the Reichswehr-style potential nucleus of a larger national Navy, leveraging Japanese personnel quality and technological leadership to keep its global partners on their toes.
In other naval programs, such as non-nuclear submarine development, the Japanese NSDF is snuggling up to the navies of its 4-year World War II enemies and nearly-70-year allies, the USA and Australia.
In Japan, policymakers are watching a United States where the leadership has gazed at its domestic-policy navel since the burst of the real-estate bubble in 2007, and especially since electing and reelecting a domestically-focused President. In Japan, it looks like US abdication, unilateral withdrawal, and unilateral disarmament.
This is being heard in some Japanese circles as arm or die. The idea of Japanese rearmament suits many Americans, including budget hawks and libertarians as well as the-foreigners-can-go-hang liberals and isolationists. But none of them seem to have thought beyond the first-order consequences of such rearmament.
Japan and the US are allies because our interests are congruent, not because Japanese are all nice guys and some of the regional powers we’re more competitive with are all bad guys. As long as those interests are congruent, we’ll have no problem getting along. But it’s probably a mistake to assume that current alignments in world policy and politics are immutable.