Seven New Carriers (Maybe)

Oct. 1, 2007
Today’s Navy leaders are in a bind. With the size of the fleet at 277 warships, and with a stated requirement for 313, the service faces a broad, long-term, and expensive shipbuilding task. Senior officers are struggling to find the money, with no assurance of success.

In the midst of all this, however, there is at least one certainty. Navy leadership is staunchly committed to buying many more big-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers—the most powerful, and expensive, warships on Earth. The Navy’s latest shipbuilding plan calls for building seven of these ships over the next 30 years.

The top admirals insist that the Navy’s current force of eleven 100,000-ton, 1,100-foot-long floating airfields offers the best means for carrying out a wide array of US Navy missions. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who served as Chief of Naval Operations before his recent elevation to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this spring that the Navy wants big carriers because they supply “global reach” and “persistent presence.”

Still, the high cost of building new carriers raises considerable concerns. Government and independent analysts assert that the Navy, if it sticks to its existing carrier plans, will run out of money to modernize and expand other vital parts of the fleet, such as submarines. They suggest dropping below a steady state of 11 supercarriers, or, in the alternative, switching to smaller and cheaper aviation-capable ships.

The Navy’s position paper on its new class of carriers declares: “Nuclear aircraft carriers provide the nation with the capability to quickly bring significant firepower to the theater of operations, remain there for extended periods of time without the need to rely on bases from other nations, control the battlespace, and project power ashore.”

That is true, however, only if the warships and their air wings also have access to air refueling and resupply, which, of course, in turn require access to bases on land and, usually, the support of Air Force aircraft. USAF fighters usually can deploy in force to a theater faster than can carriers, and can provide a heavier sustained punch, if they have access to theater bases. And Air Force bombers can, if necessary, conduct strikes from extreme distances—including from US bases.

Still, a 2006 RAND study noted, “On numerous occasions over the past 50 years, US military and civilian defense leaders have relied on aircraft carriers and their air assets, not only as key forward-based elements of the nation’s deterrent and warfighting force but also when the US has needed to project military power, engage in hostile operations, provide humanitarian relief, or fulfill a range of other hostile and nonhostile missions.”

Afghan Naval Theater

Without air bases near Afghanistan, the early part of the Operation Enduring Freedom air war was handled by Navy and Marine Corps strike aircraft aboard carriers, while Air Force bombers pounded the Taliban from bases on Diego Garcia and in the United States. In the major combat phase of the 2003 Iraq War, sea-based fighters slightly outpaced the Air Force in strike sorties, but USAF, thanks to its bombers, delivered much more ordnance.

The size of the carrier force has fluctuated widely since World War II, but it stabilized after Vietnam at 15, each with an air wing of about 80 aircraft.

Although Navy leaders insisted that 15 was the minimum number needed to meet their obligations, budget constraints, the deteriorating condition of older carriers, and the increasing cost of the new ones forced an initial reduction to 12. With the decommissioning in March of the conventionally powered carrier John F. Kennedy, the force dropped to 11. Among Navy personnel, that number now is considered to be “the minimum.”

To get more overseas presence out of fewer ships, the Navy in 2003 scrapped the constant deployment of two carrier strike groups and promulgated its “Fleet Response Plan,” which promised to provide Washington the ability to surge six carrier groups within 30 days and a total of eight within 90 days. That capability was demonstrated partially in June 2004, when seven carrier groups were deployed at once.

Maintaining 11 carriers was a key element of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, which was adopted in 2005 in an effort to rebuild the fleet to 313 combatants. It would require procurement of a new nuclear carrier every four years, so as to have replacements ready when the oldest carriers are stricken from the active list.

Mullen said the shipbuilding cost would average $14.5 billion per year, higher by several billion dollars than is the case today. Critics, within and outside of government, warn that Mullen’s figure is far too optimistic. They say the Navy will need much more than that if it is to buy all of the ships that it says it needs.

J. Michael Gilmore, a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyst, told the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee July 24 that the plan would generate expenditures of $23 billion a year. Similar warnings have been issued by three prominent naval analysts—Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service; Norman Polmar, a private naval systems analyst and author; and Robert O. Work, a retired Marine Corps officer and now an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

O’Rourke, Polmar, and Work all have presented alternative shipbuilding plans that would support a steady state force of only seven or eight carriers. These plans are said to be more “affordable,” which, in reality, means little more than “cheaper.”

Work, in an effort to justify going to a smaller carrier force, pointed out that each of today’s naval air wings, equipped with precision munitions in large numbers, could effectively hit six times as many targets as it could about two decades ago.

The analysts also disputed the accuracy of the Navy’s projected cost for the next generation of nuclear carriers. The first of the line, not expected to enter service until 2015, will be named after the late President Gerald R. Ford. Polmar, in two recent articles in Proceedings, the journal of the US Naval Institute, said Ford would require research and development of $12 billion followed by $12 billion in construction costs. Excluded from those figures are the cost of aircraft themselves.

Polmar argued that the Navy should stop building its enormous nuclear carriers and build more of the 45,000-ton big-deck amphibious assault ships, which he said would cost about $2 billion and could carry a squadron of the short takeoff and vertical landing version of the F-35.

Combat Rescue Mission Requirements

The Air Force designed the CSAR-X program to be a low-risk undertaking that would field an initial Block 0 combat search and rescue aircraft that met the basic performance attributes needed in the new platform. The service would then field a more sophisticated Block 10 configuration later. At issue is the Air Force’s need for a larger, faster, more survivable, and more reliable fleet of helicopters to replace the old HH-60 Pave Hawks that have served admirably but have serious mission limitations and are now nearly worn out. USAF wants the Block 0 CSAR-X platform capable of flying out to 316 miles and loitering for five minutes during an extraction, and then returning to base. This compares favorably to the HH-60 Pave Hawk, which can only reach out 213 miles under the same rescue scenario. The new rescue bird must also be able to carry three pararescue jumpers (PJs)—the airmen that leave the helicopter to retrieve downed aircrew—as opposed to two on the HH-60G, and hold four litters for wounded when carrying a full crew, as opposed to two litter patients on the Pave Hawk.

Block 10 enhancements would include items such as radar that allows the helicopter to fly low and hug the terrain, an obstacle-detection system, and air-to-air missiles to defend itself from hostile aircraft, the Air Force says.

Lehman’s Taunt

Some in and out of the Navy refer to this ship concept as a “Gary Hart carrier,” an epithet popularized in the early 1980s by Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman and referring to then Sen. Gary W. Hart’s call for small carriers using jump-jet aviation.

It is clear that the Navy doesn’t like the idea any more than it did in the Lehman years. Navy officials consistently have rejected the idea of smaller flattops, arguing that supercarriers provide a stronger and more sustained combat punch at longer range, and are more survivable than the smaller ships.

Moreover, the Navy thinks the critics are inflating their cost estimates. Rear Adm. David Architzel, the program executive officer for carriers, wrote in the August issue of Proceedings that building Ford would cost $8 billion over several years, and the research, which will benefit all the future carriers, would cost only $5.6 billion. That is a total of under $14 billion, not the $24 billion lofted by Polmar.

Though the Navy rejects the ideas of most critics, it has accepted some recommendations in the RAND study, which said that future carriers, to meet emerging missions, “will need to be more modular, deploy on shorter notice, and be prepared to handle more casualties than they can today.”

The Navy also wants to contain the cost of these new carriers. According to the Navy’s fact sheet, the new Ford-class of warships “preserves the core capabilities of the carrier strike group but with more flexibility to adapt to changing missions, and with reduced manning and maintenance to lower total ownership costs.”

Capt. Michael Schwartz, Ford’s program manager, has repeatedly emphasized its flexibility, improved operational capabilities, and reduced cost. “The new carrier is being built with flexible, adaptable command and control spaces,” Schwartz said, to support a wider range of missions. “In carriers today, it’s all bolted down equipment, fixed infrastructure. For a ship that’s going to have a 50-year service life, it’s difficult for us to know what types of missions a carrier’s going to be involved in.”

The new carriers also are being designed to meet the Fleet Response Plan’s requirement for greater availability by going at least 12 months longer between major maintenance periods.

Another key feature, say Navy officials, will be greater combat performance. A 1999 test determined that the maximum number of strike sorties a carrier could launch was 220 to 230 in 24 hours, and about 120 in a 12-hour operating cycle.

That exercise identified “the key bottlenecks,” which were mainly the ability to move aircraft around the flight deck, carry out maintenance tasks, and refuel and rearm them for the next mission, Schwartz explained. The new carrier is being designed to reduce those bottlenecks so it can conduct sustained operations of 160 sorties in a 12-hour cycle and surge operations of 270 sorties in 24 hours.

Achievement of that goal, which is not assured, will require each carrier to have more flight deck space for moving and storing aircraft, more “pit stop” fueling points, more accessible maintenance and supply facilities, and a greatly streamlined system of moving, preparing, and loading weapons. They also will have launching and recovery systems that need fewer operators and less maintenance and are able to handle a wider range of airplanes.

According to Schwartz, the improved design “not only gives you the ability to launch more aircraft sorties, which is a great tactical advantage, but also allows you to do it more efficiently, with a lot fewer people than today.” That in itself will reduce carrier expenditures, he added.

Current carriers operate with more than 5,500 personnel in the ship’s crew and air wing crew. The goal is to operate Ford with 1,200 fewer personnel.

In a significant turn, the new carriers will also be expected to support a large unmanned combat air system (UCAS)—a stealthy drone that the Navy hopes will be able to conduct long-range, extended endurance strike and reconnaissance missions in high-threat environments. If development is successful, the UCAS could be available shortly after Ford enters the fleet in eight years.

Despite the domestic critics, the Navy is clearly betting the farm on supercarriers—both today and tomorrow. Navy leaders aren’t alone in their devotion to the big decks; Britain, France, India, Russia, and China also are moving to acquire large, air-capable warships.

The aircraft carrier has been the Navy’s premier weapon since it eclipsed the battleship during World War II, and the end of this dominance is nowhere in sight. Yet to be seen, however, is whether the Navy can create the carrier force it wants without wrecking its chances of building the larger, newer, and well-balanced fleet that it needs.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.–based military affairs reporter and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Versatile, Ready, and Rated,” appeared in the August issue.