A bitter debate has raged in the Pentagon for several months about the wisdom of taking the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out of service to save money. The Washington, at 24 years old a relatively young vessel, is due for a costly refit, a routine procedure that all of the 11 large carriers in service undergo regularly.
The Navy fought hard against mothballing the giant ship. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned that when the two-year reprieve Congress granted from sequester cuts expires in 2016, the George Washington will be back on the chopping block. Moreover, the chief of naval operations said last month that the Navy plans to remove 11 of its 22
Ticonderoga-class cruisers from active duty to save on operating costs, as well as removing from service early the last frigates in the fleet.
But the critics are right. This hardly seems the moment to be scrapping them, with China expanding its fleet and acting aggressively in the South and East China seas and the ongoing need to keep a significant carrier force near the Persian Gulf.
Instead, what about taking a page from history and transferring surplus warships to allied navies?
Imagine Australia, India, Brazil and Britain — the latter struggling along with no active carrier at the moment — operating the five oldest active-duty U.S. carriers. The offer of such superpower bling might prove irresistible, even with the high maintenance costs that come with them.
There is ample precedent. When World War II ended, the U.S. Navy had a fleet that included 28 large aircraft carriers and 71 smaller escort carriers — more by far than any other nation, and far more than the peacetime world seemed to demand.
Hundreds of other warships, overnight, went from vital weapons systems to costly maintenance inventory. Many of them found their way to scrap yards, others to the reserve fleet, where they sat rusting for a few decades before their own date at the breaking yard came due.
A select few, mixed and mingled with captured German battleships, Japanese subs and some Allied hulks, were moored off Bikini Atoll and vaporized in an atomic test.
But not all of America's wartime investment in its huge fleet met such ends. Aware that the cost of keeping a ship at sea would be prohibitive, the Navy hit on a perfect way to balance its desire to downsize and its need to fill the gap in maritime security that Britain's shrinking Royal Navy was creating across the globe. Rather than mothballing every ship or selling them for scrap, the U.S. transferred entire fleets of destroyers, cruisers and other vessels to allied navies.
For much of the Cold War, in fact, the navies of some of America's closest allies were led by ships that once fought the Japanese off Okinawa or hunted German submarines in the Atlantic. Greece, Turkey, Spain — as well as Peru, Colombia, Argentina and even former enemies like Japan, Italy and West Germany — all took delivery of warships they could never have afforded to build or purchase.
The carriers Langley and Belleau Wood, for instance, were transferred to France before that nation finally built its own carrier. The carrier Cabot was given to Spain in the 1960s, a time when Washington was trying to lure Spain's dictator, Francisco Franco, into joining NATO.
During the 1940s and '50s, dozens of smaller warships were sent to navies around the world, a stopgap measure to check the sudden rise of Soviet naval power. Greece and Turkey operated so many Fletcher-class destroyers that they occasionally fired warning shots at their own ships, mistaking them for the enemy. The General Belgrano, the Argentine cruiser sunk by a British submarine during the Falklands War at a loss of 323 people, began its life in the 1930s as the Phoenix, a Brooklyn-class light cruiser that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Belgrano is the exception, though. Most of these "transferred hulls," in Navy parlance, never again fired a shot in anger — at least not intentionally. Some helped newly independent countries such as India and the Philippines establish professional navies in place of colonial forces. Others, particularly in Europe, represented a vital stopgap and deterrent at a time when those nations' postwar resources were devoted to reconstruction and the Soviet Navy had begun its own rise to prominence.
How might such transfers play out today? For one thing, transferring a handful of the 11 big nuclear carriers in the U.S. fleet to our allies would eliminate the need to mothball many other ships. It would also free up money to develop the next generation of platforms, including the pilotless drone carriers.
Such transfers would be useful in another way. Secretaries of Defense speak the mantra of "burden sharing" to our allies constantly and get little in return. Hand these nations a big-deck bangle, though, and the ally in question has to consider stepping up its defense commitments — the Navy estimates it cost about $400 million annually to operate these ships — to contribute to the collective defense of its interests.
In a perfect world, of course, the enormous investment that went into building these magnificent vessels would be enough justification for keeping them at sea — and under U.S. command. But that simply is not the world America inhabits today.
Of course, we won't be able to order an Australian or Brazilian carrier to do our bidding. But if the United States acts as it should, that should not be necessary. The mere presence of these behemoths in the hands of responsible states makes war less likely. And it avoids the humiliating prospect of turning warships with years of useful service left in them into floating museums.
Michael Moran is the New York-based managing director of a global political, integrity and security risk consultancy. He covered U.S. defense and intelligence policy and the wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan for the BBC and MSNBC.