News has broken that the aircraft carrier the USS Roosevelt has over 100 infected with Coronavirus (Covid-19) and asked permission to dock, and move the sailors off the ship to quarantine. Most of the debate is because the captain responsible for the letter has been relieved of command. But the more important part is what this does to US readiness. Docking and quarantining much of the crew would take a carrier out of deployment for at least two weeks. Though the commander of the ship noted in the case of war they would immediately recall the personnel and sail to the fight. This has caused all sorts of hand wringing about the impact of coronavirus, but reveals a much deeper importance about the role of military spending.
As far back as President Eisenhower explained the costs of war and Americans have worried about spending and complained about the military industrial complex. The pressure has only increased with at least token worries about the debt, the rise of isolationism in some, and the desire for more spending on social programs from others. For example, isolationist libertarians like to point out that America spends more than the next 7 countries combined on their military and they have handy charts to show it. Many liberals and progressives eye the military budget and wish they could cut spending on what they call imperialistic or unnecessary wars to spend more on social programs like medicare for all.
There are a variety of problems with both lines of thought aside from the impact of the virus. Much like China is likely underreporting virus deaths, China and Russia cooks the books on their military spending to make it appear as though they spend less. It also reduces potential danger and military conflict to a simple math contest. Throwing money at problems in the form of government spending, usually makes them even more expensive as items like college tuition and health care show. The urge to make health care a right with the coronavirus is only increasing demands to cut the military budget.
But the potential docking of the USS Roosevelt proves a rule that is important in policy circles but relatively unknown in wider circles called the rule of thirds. This rule states that for the military to provide continuous service they need three ships for every one in deployment. While that one is at sea and performing vital missions around the world, the other two would be either resting from their recent deployment or training and refitting for their next one. Sometimes the US can have a greater presence in a region by extending the tour of the ships currently deployed and speeding up the training and deployment of their replacement. But generally, the navy needs three ships for every one that is deployed around the world.
But many civilians critical of the military due to ideology tend to compare actual instead of deployable numbers. So, they might say stuff like the US has 11 full sized carriers in service (10 Nimitz and 1 Ford Class), and we outmatch the two that China has, one of which is only a training vessel. But that ignores the operational commitments the US faces. Using the rule of thirds the US really only has three available for service throughout the world and one of those is back in port. (Another, the Ford class Carrier, is still unavailable due to technical problems.) This still sounds like many but lets suppose that one carrier is conducting War on Terror operations in the Middle East, a second is lending its prodigious logistical abilities to the humanitarian crisis in Indonesia, and the third carrier is leading a Freedom of Navigation patrol in the South China Sea.
Carrier strike groups are formidable platforms but the demands of operations in the war on terror, preventing bad actors from unilaterally seizing disputed islands, humanitarian missions, and now concerns over the virus spread the navy thinner than our absolute numbers and spending might indicate to the average person. In the above deployment, the USS Roosevelt would be one those carriers and their removal would prematurely end one of those missions. Ending a mission is bad, but the remaining carriers still face formidable odds when one of them isn’t sidelined. Returning to China, for example, the single carrier strike group hypothetically performing a Freedom of Navigation patrol in the South China Sea would be outnumbered by the two carriers and the nearby Chinese fleet that is now the world’s biggest. Again, using that hypothetical deployment, the single carrier could get help from the other strike group performing humanitarian missions around Indonesia, and they could eventually receive help from other carriers prepping for deployment. But given China’s desire for short quick wars, that still might be too little too late in a crisis.
An argument could be had that America shouldn’t be doing these things and that they would obviate the need for these carriers. But an even stronger argument can be made than an active and interventionist America makes the world a better place for both America and the world. But that is an argument for another day. As it stands, the end result is that if the navy faces budget cuts and must reduce the size of the fleet, the absence of a single carrier, as displayed by the USS Roosevelt shows how valuable these platforms are in the navy’s force structure and budget.