By Emelie Rutherford

The Navy’s request to dip its aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10 was not granted by Congress in the recently passed fiscal year 2009 defense authorization bill, though a key lawmaker said he remains open to the proposal.

The Navy asked Congress in February for a waiver to dip below the legally required aircraft-carrier fleet of 11 for a roughly three-year stint–between the time the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is inactivated near the end of 2012 and the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is commissioned in late 2015. Extending the Enterprise to 2015 would cost more than $2 billion and create technical, maintenance, and industrial-base challenges, the service has argued.

The final defense authorization bill passed by the House and Senate does not grant the waiver, leaving it to be reconsidered next year during budget deliberations.

House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), told Defense Daily in an interview he is waiting for “a clear understanding of what is going to be built and how quickly it’s going to be built” when weighing the service’s carrier waiver.

Taylor has suggested an “either-or” aircraft-carrier strategy to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead.

“That would be, ‘OK, if it’s going to cost you a couple of billion of dollars only to get one or two more years out of this carrier [the Enterprise], if you would put that $2 billion towards a surface combatant or a down payment on a submarine or towards an amphibious-assault ship that we can use for the next 30 years, then I personally would be willing to let that ship go,” Taylor said.

“I would certainly let that either-or proposal go before the subcommittee, and let the other members have their say,” he added.

Navy spokesman Lt. Clay Doss said for the carrier waiver the service’s “plan is to reengage” next year.

Robert Work, vice president of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicted Taylor’s “either-or” strategy will play out in favor of allowing the carrier fleet to temporarily drop to 10.

He noted that while Congress is very cautious about allowing Navy ship numbers to drop, it did allow the service to decrease its aircraft-carrier requirement from 12 to 11 ships in 2006, ahead of the decommissioning of the John F. Kennedy (CV-67) last year.

Work, who supports the Navy’s request, said the onus now is on service officials to convince lawmakers like Taylor that the Navy can meet its operational commitments with 10 carriers by adjusting maintenance cycles during the three-year period.

“They can make the case that they can meet their forward-presence requirements in peace time, they can make the case that for a three-year period they will be able to meet their contingency requirements and therefore–although it does entail some risk–it’s worth it,” Work said.

The Navy has a plan for mitigating the operational impacts of a 10-carrier force, according to the shipbuilding plan it sent Congress in February. The service “has developed a workable strategy; using deployment cycle lengths, Fleet Response Plan variations, and rescheduled ship maintenance availabilities,” it says.

HASC Seapower subcommittee Ranking Member Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said he wonders if the United States didn’t have aircraft carriers if it would build them today.

“The technologies that might obviate the need for aircraft carriers are things like intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere on earth within a half hour,” Bartlett told Defense Daily in an interview. “Our aircraft carriers can’t be near everything on earth within a half hour, but intercontinental ballistic missiles can. Precision munitions, cruise missiles, supersonic cruise missiles [can]. There’s just lots of technologies that we have today that where it might be a tough sell to sell aircraft carriers now, as expensive as they are, and with their vulnerability.”

Bartlett said he does not know what will happen with the Navy’s carrier waiver, yet questioned if the current carriers are still optimal.

“We used to send several planes to one target, we now send a single plan to several targets,” he said. “The lethality now is immeasurably larger than it was then. If we’re going to have aircraft carriers, why does it need to be any bigger than the minimum size necessary to launch and retrieve an airplane?”