The Pentagon would cringe at the though of reducing the size of its carrier fleet, but the Project on Defense Alternatives suggests that as an option for stripping more than $60 billion from the defense budget over the next five years.
According to Carl Conettea with PDA, defense spending has added roughly $3 trillion to the federal debt in recent years, much of it borrowed from social security. With social security accounts in decline with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, the need to re-pay the debt looms large over the federal budget.
Facing the prospect of a rising China, reducing the flexibility of US force projection in deep water would not seem the wisest option for reducing spending, but PDA posits that the suggested cuts represent excess and generally unused assets.
None of America’s post-1998 wars have required US commanders to push deployed strike assets to their limits – despite target lists running into the thousands. Moreover: in none of the recent wars has the United States deployed more than one-third the strike assets it had available worldwide. This suggests that we have passed the limit of utility for the sheer aggregation of airborne strike platforms – which today number approximately 2150 fighters and bombers.
The effectiveness of precision-guided munitions has dramatically increased the capabilities and accuracy of bombing runs. Though the exact benefit is under contention, CDA reports a reliable estimate would be that PGMs allow a five to eight-fold reduction in the number of sorties required to achieve the same results.
The increased precision of bombing campaigns has resulted in a decline in requirements for numbers of sorties. In the first Gulf War, US aircraft flew an average of 1.3 sorties per day, whereas for OIF the number has fallen to 0.9, while the proportion of precision-guided munitions grew from 8% to 68%.
The result of this increase in accuracy is that US airpower is achieving better results with a lower expenditure in US assets, and such technological advances are only expected to continue improving in coming years. As a result, PDA suggests, the US budget is already funding an excess of fighter aircrafts and carriers, which offers fiscally-minded defense officials a place to start consolidating resources.
According to their figures, cutting two active-component USAF fighter wings and two USN aircraft carriers along with their associated air wings would save about $61 billion in procurement, personnel, and operations costs over the next five years. The smaller force structure would result in about $6.65 billion in savings annually.
Toward a Sustainable US Defense Posture projectdefensealt.pdf