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 Defense 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 — the latter struggling along with no active carrier at the moment — operating the five oldest active-duty U.S. carriers. The offer of such superpower bling might prove irresistible, even with the high maintenance costs that come with them.
There is ample precedent. When World War II ended, the U.S. 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.