January 11, 2009
In ceremonies held at the Norfolk Naval Station, the newest aircraft carrier in the United States Navy was commissioned for service yesterday: the USS George H.W. Bush, named for the World War II Navy combat pilot who later became our 41st president. Outgoing President George W. Bush made a brief speech in honor of his father at the ceremony, one of the last official public events of his presidency. Construction on the $6.2 billion carrier, designated "CVN77," began in 2001, and the ship's keel was laid in 2003. It has a crew of more than 5,500 under the command of Capt. Kevin O'Flaherty, and is the last of the ten Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the Navy. The previous such carrier was the Ronald W. Reagan, and one of the next-generation carriers will be christened the "Gerald R. Ford." See the Washington Post, and the ship's Web site, traffic to which is currently being rerouted to an IP address for security reasons, presumably. The Post article says that the Bush is the Navy's 13th carrier in its active fleet, but I only count 12 (including the Bush) on the Navy Web site. The USS John F. Kennedy (CV67) was decommissioned in March 2007, and now there is only one conventionally powered carrier left in the fleet: the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63).
Ever since World War II, aircraft carriers have been the main element in the ability of the U.S. armed forces to project power around the globe. Some critics say that such huge vessels are an anacrhonism in the post-Cold War era, but there is no conceivable alternative combat system that could carry out an equivalent function. It's a question of how big our future carriers should be, and how many of them we need to patrol vital shipping lanes. In an era of newly emerging threats, such as Somali pirates, we may need a different naval force structure. Since the Royal Navy dwindled away in the 1950s, no other nation has had more than a few such ships in their fleet. The Soviet Union commissioned a few carriers, but they never were deployed far from the Russian home coast. The Russian Navy today remains hamstrung by the ongoing rivalry with neighboring Ukraine. (Hence the shutoff of natural gas from Russia to Ukraine last week.) Likewise, China is exploring the option of building such ships, but it remains to be seen if this would be part of a strategic expansion or merely a way to gain a naval power advantage over the United States in the South China Sea. China has already deployed a few ships to the Indian Ocean to guard commercial shipping against Somali pirates, the first such mission by China in modern history.
While driving into the city of Norfolk last August, I spotted a carrier that was docked, and snapped a photo. Based on the number (71), I was later able to determine that it was the USS Theodore Roosevelt, CVN 71, being refitted in its home port during the summer. During this time it joined French naval units for a brief exercise off the Atlantic coast. The Theodore Roosevelt left Norfolk on September 8, and is now deployed in the Persian Gulf region, in support of "maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility." On on Thanksgiving Day, the ship hosted General Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, which overseas military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. See the Theodore Roosevelt's Web site, and the newly-updated War introduction page, which includes summary information on U.S. armed forces.