When forward deployed, a U.S. carrier can move more quickly than ground troops to answer a crisis. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush ordered two carriers to the Persian Gulf. In less than 48 hours the carriers were within range of Iraqi targets.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm commander, says the prompt arrival of the powerful carriers "stopped Iraq from marching into Saudi Arabia." This ability to deter violent tyrants and maintain peace is the carrier's principal advantage.
From the quarter-mile-long flight deck of the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, F-14 Tomcats range as far as 600 miles and can destroy enemy aircraft with guided missiles fired from as far as 60 miles away. An A6 Intruder jet can deliver nine tons of bombs 500 miles away without refueling - twice the bomb capacity of World War II's famed B-17s. The carrier's electronic warfare planes, EA-6B Prowlers, can cause devastating interference with enemy communications.
Carrier forces do all this free of the political restraints of overflight and access rights, increasingly important as U.S. bases overseas are closed. No other military force can match the aircraft carrier for its ability to operate self-sufficiently at a high degree of readiness. Nor can any other military system take the place of ground troops or protect them as well.
The most modern carriers in our fleet - the swift Nimitz-class vessels - are the most survivable of all naval ships. A carrier's aircraft can reach potential aggressors hundreds of miles from the carrier, while the carrier itself with its heavy armor can sustain massive damage and still continue to operate.
Compared with the conventionally powered carriers last built in the 1960s, Nimitz-class carriers greatly surpass their predecessors in speed and safety. A new carrier's useful life is at least 45 years. There is no better return on a defense-system investment - land based or sea based - than a modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
During little more than a year in office, President Clinton time and again has turned to carrier forces to deal with crises. Today, American carrier- based craft enforce the Iraq no-fly zone and patrol the skies of Bosnia. Carriers have been vital to the mission in Somalia and today project American power into the North Pacific as tensions mount with North Korea.
Clinton is carrying our defense cuts much deeper than the downsizing begun by Bush. But even given his lower priority for defense programs, real world experience has persuaded the President of the need for the carrier. "When word of crisis breaks in Washington," Clinton has said, "it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is 'Where is the nearest carrier?' "
If construction on the new carrier - known by its hull number, CVN-76 - is delayed any longer, there will be no replacement for the 42-year-old Kitty Hawk when it is retired in the year 2002. That would leave us with fewer than 12 carriers in service - creating gaps as long as 10 months when major strategic maritime regions would have no U.S. carrier on the scene.
Even with 12 carriers, there will be gaps when no carrier will be available in key trouble spots, such as the Persian Gulf. This is because three carriers are needed in order to have one forward-deployed. When one carrier is overseas for its six-month deployment, two others are either in transit, in training, or in a shipyard for maintenance.
There is no cost saving in delay. To the contrary, because of the already costly erosion of the shipbuilding industrial base, postponing the start of CVN-76 by just one year is projected to add as much as $500 million to the price tag.
Like his predecessors, Clinton knows America in 2002 will need a modern fleet of 12 aircraft carriers to deter and defuse conflicts wherever they might occur. Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Harris Wofford must show the foresight to heed the President's request. That means authorizing construction of America's new carrier without further delay.