The Navy is experiencing serious operational shortfalls due to running its fleet of ten aircraft carriers hard in recent years, which is one short of the mandated 11. As such, it is time for the U.S. to build smaller aircraft carriers in greater numbers than what today’s one-size-fits-all super carrier strategy permits.
Making the problem worse is that there is little relief in sight as the USS Gerald R. Ford is not slated to be fully operation until 2021. Even then, the costs of procuring and maintaining an 11 carrier fleet may be crushing.
From Navy Times piece on the issue that ran today:
The US Navy is also unable to meet its commitment to field two carrier strike groups, with another three able to surge and deploy should the need arise. Even if sequestration cuts are reversed and full funding is restored, service leaders have said it would be at least 2018 before the Navy would be able to regain those operational readiness levels.
“Gaps in carrier coverage threaten to undermine both the US ability to deter conflict and respond to crises,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia and chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, said Tuesday during a hearing on the carrier situation. Members of the House Subcommittee on Readiness joined with Seapower members in the hearing.
And even as Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, acknowledged that the carrier “is at the very core of our maritime strategy,” he and a panel of admirals provided detailed testimony why shortages will continue, and why the fleet will remain at 10 ships for the time being, rather than the 11-ship fleet mandated by Congress.
“We require 11, today we have 10,” Stackley said. “We have more in depot maintenance today than we would normally have under a stable operational cycle. So we have a shortfall in our ability to generate the forces we need.”
We discussed this very issue in-depth over a year ago in this previous Foxtrot Alpha post, contemplating not just size, but also propulsion, as in nuclear versus fossil fuel, for potential future carrier designs.
Make sure to read the piece linked below for full context:
The reality is that America’s super carrier size is hard to justify as the carrier air wings they host have shrunk over the last couple of decades. During the cold War, close to 90 aircraft would call the decks of a Nimitz Class carrier home. Today that number is more like 60 to 65 aircraft, many of which have direct commonality with one another.
The idea is not to replace the super carrier entirely with more plentiful and less expensive smaller carriers, but to replace a portion of the super carrier fleet as they retire. Just the cost of building a super carrier has ballooned, with the price of the USS John F. Kennedy being (CVN-79) at nearly $12 billion, that is after the billions of dollars in development costs that have already been sunk into the first in class USS Gerald R. Ford, a ship that has been dogged by poor procurement strategy and technical difficulties.
With this in mind, affording one-for-one replacements of the existing carrier fleet could crush the Navy’s ship-building budget, especially with other uncertain fleet priorities looming, like replacing the Ohio Class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines.
For less than the cost of one Ford Class super carrier, the U.S. Navy could purchase two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers. Even with U.S. modifications, including catapults and arresting gear, these ships could very well cost even less than what they do today as the baseline research and development costs would have largely been already paid for by the British Ministry of Defense.
If we could replace every other super carrier with two modified Queen Elizabeth class carriers, we could drastically increase our carrier force’s flexibility. In doing so, the Navy would have to think differently about how it uses its carrier-borne personnel, escorts and air wings. Still, savings garnered by building smaller carriers could be reallocated to adapting to such a new way of doing business.
Like so many other 100% solution, high-cost military vehicles, they may be perceived as very effective in combat but they can only be in one place at one time, and often that place is in the shipyard or the maintenance hangar. By building smaller carriers, and more of them, Navy commanders will be able to better pair their available resources with the mission at hand.
For instance, you do not need a super carrier for simply creating a strong presence in a region, or to support low-intensity warfare operations, or to train aircrews, or to execute good-will tours. In fact, smaller carriers would provide everything a super carrier could, although at diminished sortie rates. For missions where a super carrier’s capability is needed, and if none are available, two smaller carriers can be deployed in one’s place.
A one-size-fits-all, and that size being extra-large, approach to America’s carrier force will likely be unsustainable in the coming decades. With America’s Navy having to be in more places at one time than ever, breaking the old super-carrier or bust mold will be essential for meeting the mission demands of the future. This is especially true as the U.S. looks to “pivot towards the pacific” and to confront China’s anti-access/area denial strategy, one where more carriers will be far more useful than fewer super carriers.
Maybe the biggest resistance to building smaller carriers comes from tradition and budgetary precedents that those in power fear they will never get back if they dare to go another direction. The idea of a 11 super carrier force with a glacially slow ship-building process is very familiar to the Navy now. Banging-out a few smaller carriers ever decade is not. Sadly, the Navy, and most of the Defense Department as a whole, are the institutions in our government that need to be most adaptable and open to change, but are not.
Maybe the worry is that if a super carrier alternative exists, and proves highly capable for the money, they Navy won’t get their super-carrier funding at all. This is a small and petty way to look at America’s defense challenges of the coming decades, and it is similar to why the Navy won’t build advanced AIP diesel submarines alongside the hideously expensive all-nuclear fast attack submarines force. This is as that force clearly struggles to meet tasking demands and emerging threats. Beyond anything else, things like smaller fixed-wing aircraft carriers and and diesel submarines seem like they are “below” what the entrenched Pentagon bosses want to see developed under their watch.
Studies on the matter have come and gone, with a new one being commissioned recently, yet regardless of their findings, the sad truth is that without introducing a high-low capability mix, our carrier needs will likely become increasingly disparate from the budgetary realities as time goes on.
In the end it will take the right leadership that will be willing to dare to fix major force structure issues by going another direction instead of continuing to solely double-down on what is not working. And even then it will be a fight for the ages, but without such courage and creativity, the U.S. military’s actual effectiveness, not what is shown on Powerpoint slides, will struggle to grow into the coming decades.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Top shot credit BAe Sytems, bottom shot U.S. Navy