In the ongoing debate about U.S. policy choices regarding Libya, one of the elephants in the room has been American aircraft carriers. Or, more precisely, where are American carriers, which could provide aircraft for enforcing a no-fly zone as well as protection for any non-combatant evacuation operation?

The reality is that, when the Libyan crisis struck, there was no American aircraft carrier with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which is centered on the Mediterranean. The closest, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was in the Red Sea. At this point, a week after Libya sank into chaos, there are still no U.S. aircraft carriers available to mount air operations in the central Mediterranean.

One is forced to ask whether Secretary of Defense Robert Gates still scoffs at the value of aircraft carriers, as he did at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition in May 2010. Does he still believe that 11 aircraft carrier strike groups constitute “massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys”? Does he still think that 11 aircraft carriers are too many “when no other country has more than one“?

Of course, when the United States prefers to charter commercial vessels to evacuate its citizens, rather than use its naval forces, perhaps it doesn’t need as large a capability. One can only hope that the next time this happens, the bureaucrat doing the chartering is willing to hire a bigger boat, one able to actually evacuate American citizens in a timely fashion.