A deceptive image of naval readiness: the carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS George H.W. Bush, USS Enterprise, USS Harry Truman and USS Abraham Lincoln in port at Naval Station Norfolk, VA.  Of the five carriers, only three could be considered operationally ready; the Enterprise is being retired and budget cuts have postponed the mid-life upgrades for the Lincoln.  Additionally, a pending deployment by the Truman has been delayed due to a lack of funds.     

Like many in the intel community, I followed the collapse of the Soviet Navy in the early 1990s.  It was absolutely stunning; in a matter of a few short years, a blue-water force was largely reduced with a ghost fleet that was left rusting at the pier.  I remember seeing video from Vladivostok, once the most important base for the Soviet Pacific Fleet; less than five years after the collapse of the USSR, some of the surface vessels had actually capsized at their berths, and it was a rare event for more than one ship to leave port for a few days.

To be sure, a U.S. Navy facing sequestration is a long way from the Soviet naval collapse of 20 years ago.  But last week’s announcement that a deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman would be delayed is disturbing, to say the least.  Even more disconcerting was the concurrent news that the refueling/mid-life upgrade of the USS Abraham Lincoln will be postponed by at least three years.  Without refueling of its reactors (and scheduled equipment upgrades), the Lincoln will likely never sail again.  The planned upgrades, known as a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) is a three-year process, with a price tag of at least $3 billion.  Even if current estimates hold–and the RCOH is funded–the Lincoln would not rejoin the fleet until the end of this decade.

As for the Truman, the delay in its scheduled deployment creates short-term readiness problems for the U.S. military.  The carrier and its battle group were slated to sail to the Middle East, with extended time in the Persian Gulf.  With the Truman stuck in Norfolk (for the time being), the Navy is left with one carrier in the gulf region, the USS John C. Stennis, which deployed from Bremerton, Washington, last August.  The Stennis will be replaced on station by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which will deploy on schedule in a few weeks, barely 90 days after it returned to Naval Station Norfolk.

Since 9-11, the U.S. has tried to keep at least two carriers in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times.  Having two carriers on station adds more than 150 aircraft to the regional balance for forces, giving us increased flexibility to support operations in Afghanistan, or (if it becomes necessary), conduct operations against Iran.  The carrier’s escorts add even more firepower to the equation, for missions ranging from long-range strike to missile defense.

But such problems may represent the “new normal” for the Navy.  With the USS Enterprise now in the process of being retired, the American fleet is down to 10 carriers.  But the available number if actually eight, with the Lincoln’s RCOH on hold, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt still undergoing its mid-life upgrade.  The Roosevelt was supposed to re-join the fleet in 2013, but its return is now on hold–thanks to the same budget problems that will delay the Lincoln’s overhaul, possibly for years.  There are also questions about the projected RCOH for the USS George Washington, next in line behind the Lincoln.

Critics like to point out that no other country has more than two carriers, and none match the capabilities of a  Nimitz-class ship and its embarked air wing.  But the equation is changing the Far East, where China recently commissioned its first carrier (purchased from Russia), and is reportedly building three more, two conventionally-powered (set to enter service later this decade), along with Beijing’s first nuclear-powered carrier, which could be ready by 2020.  In terms of power projection, few assets are more important than an aircraft carrier, particularly for the U.S., which literally defends the sea lanes for the rest of the world.

That’s why the Lincoln’s status is so troubling.  In the current budget environment, putting off the RCOH could easily become the first step towards the carrier’s early retirement.  That, in turn, will create a ripple effect throughout the Navy and the entire defense sector.  With one less carrier in service, pressure will build to retire one or two Aegis cruisers; two or three Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, a couple of older Los Angeles-class attack boats and even a logistics support vessel.  Factor in accompanying reductions in personnel and the carrier air wing, and you’re talking about real money.

In the civilian sector, delays in the RCOH process will mean lost jobs–potentially thousands–at Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest private employer in the state of Virginia.  Layoffs at the shipyard will mean even more job losses in the Hampton Roads economy, which is largely based on the military and defense contracting.

During the annual State of the Union speech, President Obama will reportedly urge Congress to reach a budget deal and avoid the additional cuts that would result from sequestration.  But Mr. Obama has been a virtual spectator in this process, and there are plenty in his administration that would welcome the added $500 billion in defense cuts that sequestration would trigger.  That would free up more money for social and entitlement programs.  Afterall, in the words of the President and other prominent Democrats, the U.S. doesn’t have a spending problem, it has (as Steny Hoyer puts it), a “paying for it”:problem.   What better way to pay for new benefit programs–and avoid the issue of entitlement reform–than by gutting defense.

Our naval stations in places like Norfolk, Mayport, Bremerton and San Diego may never look like Vladivostok of twenty years ago,  But once you start down the road of wholesale defense cuts (accompanied by social pressures and economic woes), it’s stunning how far fleet readiness can fall–and how fast.