Special Report

Scrapping the Forrestal

Aircraft carriers in the budget crosshairs.

By 11.6.13

Psst. Wanna buy a used aircraft carrier on the cheap? She’s a real beauty, the Navy’s first “supercarrier.” She’s over 1,000 feet long, displaces 60,000 tons, can do 33 knots, and carry 85 aircraft. She boast a number of firsts….first carrier with an angled deck, steam catapults, and optical landing system.

The USS Forrestal (affectionately known in the Navy as USS Forest Fire or USS Zippo due to a tragic flight deck fire that killed 134 sailors) was commissioned in 1955 at a cost of $217 million. With dozens of deployments over the years, she supported combat operations in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as numerous missions as part of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.

Actually, if you were interested in picking up this carrier at a deeply discounted price, you’re a little late. The Navy just sold that beauty for a song. Or rather, the Navy decided to scrap the super carrier and actuallypaid a contractor one cent to take the multi-million dollar ship off its hands. Later this year the carrier will be towed from Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where she was in mothballs, to Brownsville, Texas, where she is to be scrapped and the material recycled. 

After 38 years of distinguished service on the high seas out on the frontiers of freedom, it will be a tough and embarrassing transition from proud warship to recycled-metal razor blades and auto bodies. Plans to convert the ship into a floating museum in Baltimore (like the carriers Midway in San Diego, the Intrepid in New York City, and the Lexington in Corpus Christi), or to sink the ship to create an artificial reef (like the USS Oriskany) never materialized. So, it’s off to the maritime chop shop for that magnificent ship.

This sad epitaph for the Forrestal comes at a critical time for the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathon Greenert recently announced that, with deep forced budget cuts under sequestration, the Navy will have no choice but to put its multi-billion-dollar flattops on the table for consideration. But Greenert did quickly add that aircraft carriers will remain important, calling them a “key and critical part” of U.S. defense strategy. We’ll see. All in all, these tough budgetary realities are a bitter pill for the Navy brass to swallow, but they are coping with a crisp “Aye, Aye, Sir!”

In August, a Defense Department strategic review raised the possibility of mothballing two or three of the Navy’s ten carrier strike groups, which would include aircraft and warships that accompany carriers into combat zones around the world. So, our carrier fleet is under the most serious, heavy attack since the kamikazes rained terror down on the mighty ships in World War II.

But, on a brighter note, on November 9, the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford will be christened at Newport News Shipbuilding, the first of three Ford-class carriers in the works. The Navy dropped to 10 carriers when the USS Enterprise was retired from service last year. The Ford will bring the Navy’s carrier force back to 11.

Critics say our carrier Navy is outdated and obsolete. Pentagon budget gurus have proposed major cuts (beyond the sequester) in our fleet of aircraft carriers. They say they are too big, too vulnerable, and too expensive for modern warfare.

These wild charges are belied by the facts and by our military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Aircraft carriers have been the point of the spear of our air power since World War II. Carrier-based fighters and bombers shouldered a heavy burden in Korea and Vietnam. 

Aircraft carriers also played a decisive role in the success of coalition forces in the Gulf War and NATO forces in Bosnia. For over a half century, with their mobility and standoff capabilities, aircraft carriers have been a vital component of our foreign policy in the deterrence of aggression.

Aircraft carriers provide mobile airfields that are not dependent on the cooperation of other nations. Carrier aircraft fly shorter and more frequent missions than bombers based in Missouri that circle the globe to drop their bombs.

No American aircraft carrier has been attacked by enemy forces since World War II. Since the 1940s, no carrier has been sunk or even damaged by the enemy. Their defenses are formidable. A carrier task force has multiple defenses: combat air patrol -- the F-18 Super Hornets that patrol an envelope well beyond enemy missile range; cruisers and destroyers armed with deadly surface to air missiles to guard the carrier from attack; the carrier’s own missile and Gatling gun defense systems. Formidable, if not impregnable defenses.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should prompt reconsideration of any radical overhaul and restructuring of our naval air force. Aircraft carriers have once again proven themselves to be the crown jewel of our nation’s air power. They have played an indispensable role in the battle against Taliban and al Qaeda forces.

The impressive showing of our aircraft carrier forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are compelling evidence of their importance to our national security. This is proof positive of the strategic importance of the first question asked routinely by our commander-in-chief during a foreign crisis: “Where are the carriers?”

“Anywhere you want them to be, sir!”

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.