Terrorism war fuels debate about need for carriers

Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — One of the hottest military debates within the Bush administration before Sept. 11 was whether, as key Bush advisers suggested, the military had too many aircraft carriers.

Now military brass and some civilian analysts are pointing to the role played by carriers in the U.S. war against terrorism as proof that they remain an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and that their strategic importance may even be growing.

Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank for national security issues, said the difficulty in securing the use of land bases, particularly in Saudi Arabia, shows that the United States may need more carriers.

"I can foresee circumstances where carriers are not just our best option but our only option," Thompson said. "I’m very skeptical of solutions that assume the use of friendly bases.

"Someone usually proposes cutting carriers, and then along comes a Desert Storm, a Kosovo or a war on terrorism," said Thompson, "and we realize again how important it is to have a platform that can go anywhere in the world without asking permission to use land bases."

Advisers to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had suggested in the early months of the administration that the military reduce the number of carrier battle groups from 12 to 10 and place greater emphasis on land-based bombers and smaller, less expensive ships. A battle group is one carrier and its support ships.

Although that suggestion was not adopted as official policy, the issue of carriers is destined to resurface as Congress considers multibillion-dollar issues concerning upgrading aging carriers and investing in a new generation of such vessels.

Warplanes from the carriers Carl Vinson, Enterprise and Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea have struck hundreds of targets in Afghanistan, and the carrier Kitty Hawk is serving as a staging platform for ground troops. The carrier John Stennis left San Diego Monday for the Arabian Sea.

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