35. Minutes of the Secretary of State’s Staff Meeting1

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to national security policy.]

Secretary Kissinger: All right, Sy [Weiss]; do you want to talk about the aircraft carrier?

Mr. Weiss: Yes, sir. We’ve been looking at the aircraft carrier problem against the importance that they’ve had to us in the past and the recognition that they may be even more important in the future, given the increasing inflexibility that we expect that we’re going to [Page 152] suffer as a result of a contracting base structure—either because the bases won’t be there or they won’t be there when we need them.

The carrier has a very special kind of flexibility in that situation.

Against that background, the defense plans are interesting and, in some respects, not too encouraging. They plan to reduce the current 15-carrier level down to 12 by 1977, and this raises a number of questions that we thought we could usefully focus on and, if we can come to some conclusions, perhaps engage Defense on them.

The first and most obvious question, of course, is: Can we keep a 15-carrier level?

There are a number of problems related to this—just to tick off a few of them: The cost is an enormous consideration. New carriers costs about a billion dollars, and that’s just a start. That’s just starting with the nuclear carrier. The air group that goes with it—anywhere from 2 and a half to 5 million dollars over a ten-year period.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. But the air group would cost us that no matter where we put it.

Mr. Weiss: Yes. But if you have 12 carriers, you don’t have 15 air groups.

Secretary Kissinger: But if you put them on land, you still would need that much for airplanes.

Mr. Weiss: You would, except I’m saying the probability is there is a relationship between the number of air groups and the carriers, at least, that you have. In terms of the bases, you’re right. But the question is: Will we have the bases to put them overseas?

Secretary Kissinger: My point is: If you count the airplanes as a cost consideration, do you need them or not?

Mr. Weiss: Oh, absolutely.

Secretary Kissinger: And if you need them, whether they’re on carriers or someplace else doesn’t increase the cost.

Mr. Weiss: Well, the point is: Your need is not unrelated to the base—whether it’s a floating base or a physical base. Now, if we think we have the bases overseas, then we have to have them.

Secretary Kissinger: No. You don’t get my point. My point is it is not proper to count the airplanes as part of the expense of a carrier—

Mr. Weiss: No, but—

Secretary Kissinger: —because either you need the airplanes or you don’t need the airplanes. If you need the airplanes, you’ll either need them on a carrier or you’ll need them someplace else.

Mr. Weiss: O.K.

Secretary Kissinger: The carrier is an additional investment if you have overseas bases. I happen to be for carriers.

[Page 153]

Mr. Weiss: I know; I know.

Secretary Kissinger: I’d be in favor of more and smaller carriers.

Mr. Weiss: I was going to get to that in just a second here, because that is an option. Nevertheless, even the cost of the carrier is a problem. As you know, it’s run into a problem in Congress. There’s the lead time in question. It takes about seven years from the point that you lay the keel to the point where you have an operational capability.

Defense is looking at a whole range of options. For example, they have instructed the Navy to take a look at building a carrier—what can you build within 550 million dollars—which still sounds like an awful lot of dough. The fact of the matter is that’s in a very early stage of planning.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, has the Navy decided on a submarine?

Mr. Weiss: They haven’t decided on anything yet. It hasn’t gotten that far. It’s probably true that that development of the carrier will be related to a V–STOL aircraft, because one of the features of these larger carriers is the arresting gear and so forth. And what they’d like to do is do away with that.

Secretary Kissinger: But the question also is whether you need all of that sophisticated aircraft for the circumstances in which you are most likely to use carriers.

Mr. Weiss: That’s correct; absolutely right.

Secretary Kissinger: In Viet-Nam it turned out that [the] most effective weapons were the least sophisticated ones and that the most sophisticated ones were, in many cases, irrelevant—on truck kills. I think 85 percent came from these DC–4 gunships.

Mr. Weiss: That, again, is one of the issues we raise. And Defense—they’re not totally resistant to this. On the other hand, you know, this sea-controlled ship that they went up for this past year—which is a carrier which will be in the order of 120 to 170 million dollars—can carry helicopters and V–STOL aircraft in limited numbers—had a helluva time with the Congress. It just could not get receptive to that kind of capability, even though from our point of view it responds to the issue you’re raising. There’s also the possibility of re-modifying some of these.

I think when Zumwalt leaves, it won’t surprise me if it disappears. It keeps the guy who’s been pushing because he recognizes that a good deal of the carrier requirement is projection of presence and so forth. You can modify these carriers, but you can’t keep them afloat forever. When they get to about 30 years of age, they get very expensive to run. The larger, heavier aircraft can’t run on them. And the question you raise—correctly: Why not keep more unsophisticated aircraft?

[Page 154]

And that is an issue we can discuss with Defense. The point is that is not the way they will necessarily go, unless there is some outside influence and discussion.

So let me just finish for one second on the 15. My point would be that in the absence of some outside intervention—without regard now to whether 15 is the right figure or 12, plus some other less sophisticated kinds of carriers, what have you—unless there is some outside intervention by 1977, you will have a 12-carrier force.

Now, that, in turn, poses two immediate issues. First of all, if you do have to live with the 12-carrier force, how do you allocate your assets? And in our paper2 we have taken a look at alternatives. We have got a couple of charts here that might be interesting for you to look at. There’s nothing magical at all; these were arbitrary, obviously. But we plotted from 15 down to 12 (showing two charts.)

Looking at a requirement—well, it might be better to look at the one on the right first, where basically you’re looking at the Mediterranean and the Pacific without homeporting and with homeporting. This is essentially what we are now doing. Leave aside now the Indian Ocean for just a moment. You’ve got two carriers in the Med and one to try to keep, if you can—as many as three carriers in the Pacific. We arbitrarily put one in the Indian Ocean; that would, presumably, come from the Pacific requirement.

If you go down to 12 carriers, you can see that you can’t even keep two in the Med on a permanent basis. You can’t keep anything like three in the Pacific—including the Indian Ocean—and, therefore, your requirements become much tighter.

Now, when you get to homeporting, it buys you something. It doesn’t buy a helluva lot, but it gives you some additional flexibility. The purpose of homeporting is primarily related to this recruiting problem, as you well know; but it does buy you some additional time on station.

Now, the question is: If you do go down to 12 carriers, then you raise some interesting questions. Let me illustrate with a couple.

For example, a large part of our carrier inventory is tied up with our NATO commitment.

Secretary Kissinger: What’s the difference between these two charts?

Mr. Brown: We’ve got the titles wrong.


[Page 155]

This is the Mediterranean; this is the Indian Ocean (indicating). The other is the Mediterranean and Pacific.

Mr. Weiss: The one on the right here is simply what we have now in terms of our current force deployments. Now, you could draw up different charts showing, you know, South Atlantic or elsewhere, where you think you might need them; but I think the key point here is that since it takes about two carriers behind every one that is forward-deployed, your current force is very largely limited, (a), because you’ve got two in the Med—and there are very good reasons why they’re there—but there are some questions you could raise as to why you couldn’t get more flexibility in other ways without keeping two carriers continuously in the Med. It may be a bad idea, but at least it’s worth looking at.

Similarly, your NATO commitment. Something like 10 of your carriers are committed to NATO on a 48-hour basis on Category A. That restricts your flexibility for the use of those carriers.

So there are political questions now that you could go—

Secretary Kissinger: Ten carriers are what?

Mr. Weiss: Are so-called Category A commitments to NATO.

Secretary Kissinger: Meaning what?

Mr. Weiss: Meaning that they must be available within 48 hours of a war.

Secretary Kissinger: But that’s nonsense. We ought to look at that.

Mr. Weiss: That’s what we’re saying.

Secretary Kissinger: We ought to look at the whole Navy deployment for NATO, which seems to me to be geared to a 1940-type war. Every time we scratch NATO deployments we get some other story of expectations of a 120-day re-supply, and God knows what else they have in mind. But I don’t think this is the forum to do it. We have to use the NSC machinery. There’s no sense in our developing papers here.

And, Jerry, would you tell Brent [Scowcroft] to put this into the NSC machinery?

Mr. Bremer: Yes, sir.

Secretary Kissinger: And then tell your people (addressing Mr. Weiss) to put this into the NSC machinery.

Mr. Weiss: We tried twice, Mr. Secretary, through the NSC; and we’ve had NSSM 503 and 1774 and we can’t—you know, I’m not saying we can’t be any more successful, but at least you ought to think through about your bilateral relationship with Jim [Schlesinger] on the grounds [Page 156] that there are important foreign policy considerations. You might be able to get them to move. In a way it may not be right, but at least I think you ought to think about it.

Secretary Kissinger: I think it’s a bad way to make major national decisions—to do it over breakfast—as much as I regret it.

Mr. Weiss: No; I don’t think you should do it. But, I mean, get some people from his building and this building to sit down and work out a paper that poses the issue so you can decide it in a measured way.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, we can consider it, but at any rate we shouldn’t do it unilaterally here—because we’re just going to be spinning wheels if we do this.

I mean I appreciate what you did, and I think it’s important and we should continue it. But I don’t think we can carry it beyond a certain point without Defense cooperation.

Mr. Weiss: Absolutely; no question.

Mr. Rush: I differ with you, Sy. This is obviously a question for the NSC machinery. And to have it settled by Defense, by Henry and Jim, is not the way to settle these things, in my opinion.

Mr. Brown: The difficulty will be getting the Defense Department to pose the issues to us and to the NSC and answer them.

Secretary Kissinger: I think what I do have to do is to have—get Scowcroft to arrange a breakfast with Schlesinger.

Mr. Bremer: Yes, sir.

Secretary Kissinger: I will raise that issue and work out a machinery by which, maybe in a restricted group, he will permit working on it. In fact, the President has ordered that 177 be completed. And I have held off, in my other capacity, transmitting that order in writing, in order not to get another slowdown.

So will you do this (addressing Mr. Bremer)?

Mr. Bremer: Yes, sir.

Mr. Weiss: I think internally, within the building, there’s the need to get the various Regional Secretaries.

Secretary Kissinger: Oh, it will be in the newspapers. We’ll do this in every Bureau.

Mr. Weiss: No, no. I didn’t finish my point. I thought you would have wanted their assessment of what the implications will be.

Let me take the case of the two carriers in the Med. You probably know that better than anybody. But, nevertheless, there are a variety of alternative things anyone can do, including the question of whether you can’t land-base some of the airplanes on the southern flank.

Secretary Kissinger: Where?

Mr. Weiss: Well, Turkey might be a case in point.

[Page 157]

Mr. Stabler: At one point it was considered you might be able to do this in Italy.

Secretary Kissinger: But our experience—if you take the foreseeable military contingencies and our experience, you know that there’s no littoral country which will let us use the airfields for military operations in an Israeli-Arab war.

Mr. Weiss: That’s correct. But let me make my point. You have the carriers. One is NATO-committed; the other is looking in the other direction.

Now, I’m not arguing this because I’m not sure that this is right. It’s conceivable that the NATO-commitment portion you might want to put ashore.

Now, you’ve got a carrier, you know—a base that’s free to float around and use other—you know, you may be looking in the other direction. That is, you may be looking in the Middle East. And you may meet the carrier requirement without having the carrier—

Secretary Kissinger: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve gone through three Middle East crises, and we’ve moved these carriers around without regard to the NATO commitment. I didn’t know there was a NATO Command.

Mr. Stabler: It operates entirely at the U.S. Command—the U.S. Force.

Secretary Kissinger: We’ve put a third carrier into the Mediterranean and the crisis developed every time. So I don’t see how we can do with less than two. And I’d like a third one available to get there, you know, on three or four days’ notice. I mean this would be—on the basis of our experience, this has been the deployment we’ve always concluded we needed.

Mr. Ingersoll: That’s right. I’d hate to see us go down to one and a half in the Pacific.

Mr. Rush: So would I.

Mr. Weiss: But let me just interject. I don’t disagree with Bob [Ingersoll], but nobody wants to go below two in the Med and nobody wants to go below three in the Pacific; and you’ve got some NATO commitments.

Now, something has to give. Now, the answer may be NATO commitments—where there are other NATO-committed carriers—

Secretary Kissinger: Doing what?

Mr. Brown: Backing up the two carriers in the Med.

Mr. Weiss: You can always upsurge for a brief period. You can always move them about. But, basically, they’re stationed—

Mr. Rush: When you have an alert.

[Page 158]

Secretary Kissinger: What do we need attack carriers for as a part of the NATO commitment? We either need them for anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic as well as in the Mediterranean—for which these big ones are much too expensive—or we need them for a possible move against the Soviet Union—for which, in fact, we’re better off.

Mr. Weiss: The northern flank.

Secretary Kissinger: What does the northern flank have to do with it?

Mr. Weiss: If you have a flank going up to Norway, that’s highly useful to us. It has been in the past. I think it will continue because I think the Norwegians have nothing.

Secretary Kissinger: There has been a flank up there for 12 months a year, because we can pull it down from Norway into the Mediterranean. For crisis purposes, I’d consider that a carrier up in Norway was perfectly useful for the Mediterranean. We wouldn’t insist, if we have a reserve carrier, that it’s got to be right outside the Straits of Gibraltar. We pulled one down, in the last crisis, from Glasgow somewhere?5

Mr. Sisco: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: Is Glasgow a seaport?


Mr. Brown: What it really says: There are not enough carriers to go around in the three oceans. With 12 carriers you simply can not keep the kinds of deployments that we currently have. Something has got to give.

Mr. Weiss: I’m not suggesting that you’re going to want to keep a carrier in the Indian Ocean for 12 months round. Maybe you want to do it for six. But if you keep it there for 12 months round and if you look at your 12-carrier figure, you can’t keep two carriers in the Med, a carrier in the Indian Ocean, and three carriers in the Far East. You can’t keep two in the Pacific.

It can’t be done; you just don’t have them.

Secretary Kissinger: I suppose one thing—the Navy always tells you you need three carriers to keep one deployed.

Mr. Weiss: Normally two, without homeporting two to keep one deployed.

Secretary Kissinger: So reducing the Fleet by three it should reduce deployments only by a little more than one. I mean they can’t lead to a result of three less carriers.

[Page 159]

Mr. Weiss: No, but this is—no, no. This is where they’re deployed (indicating on chart). My point is: If they reduce by three carriers, then you almost ought to be able to throw a dart at the oceans and say, “One of them loses one.”

Mr. Brown: There it is; that’s where it disappeared from (indicating on chart). You’ve got one in the Indian Ocean. This more than three affects the Mediterranean and you’re lost in the Pacific.

Secretary Kissinger: Now wait a minute. You lose one in the Indian Ocean, one in the Pacific.

Mr. Brown: Yes, that’s right.

Mr. Weiss: Now, of course, if you say, “Well, we don’t have to deploy in the Indian Ocean full time,” that’s another option.

Mr. Lord: So you need a carrier for political influence in some other kind of activity.

Secretary Kissinger: The basic point, it seems to me, is that you lose one carrier either in the Indian Ocean or in the Pacific—

Mr. Weiss: That’s right.

Secretary Kissinger:—provided you don’t pull one out of the Atlantic.

Mr. Weiss: That’s right. But that’s another option.

Secretary Kissinger: But how did they get in the Atlantic at any one time?

Mr. Brown: The way they’re divided now, it’s roughly eight and—let’s see—out of 15, I think seven in the Atlantic and eight in the Pacific. And those seven are required, basically, to keep the two in the Med. That’s how it works.

Secretary Kissinger: Then there’s none deployed in the Atlantic at all.

Mr. Brown: I mean there will be a couple in overhaul. A couple will be training down in Puerto Rico, getting ready to replace the carriers—if you have an extra one maybe or something.

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on an important problem. I think we ought to get an NSC-type study. I’ll work it out next week with Schlesinger. And I think we certainly ought to make our inputs felt for more and smaller carriers.

Mr. Brown: One other political factor too is the question of homeporting.

Mr. Davies: This emphasizes the rationale or the soundness of homeporting in Greece, Mr. Secretary. It gives us an extra carrier. This is a very significant factor.

Mr. Ingersoll: We’ve worked that out in Japan. It’s worked out very well.

[Page 160]

Mr. Brown: And they may want to consider more homeporting in the Pacific—Subic Bay or Australia—if it’s important to keep two carriers full time in the Western Pacific.

Mr. Weiss: In the Philippines, then, you get into a base negotiation. You have to pay a price for it.

Mr. Rush: Yes.

Mr. Ingersoll: We’re paying that right now.

Secretary Kissinger: I have a group that is coming.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to national security.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Lot File 78D443, Box 3, Secretary’s Staff Meetings. Secret. Kissinger chaired the meeting. According to an attached list, attendees included: Kissinger, Rush, Sisco, Ingersoll, Weiss, Vest, Lord, Maw, Hyland, Springsteen, Kubisch, Buffum, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Rodger P. Davies, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs James J. Blake, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Wells Stabler, Director of PM’s Office of International Security Policy Leslie H. Brown, and Special Assistant to the Secretary L. Paul Bremer III.
  2. Not found.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 12.
  4. Document 12.
  5. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, President Nixon ordered the USS John F. Kennedy moved from west of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, Vol. XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, Document 269.