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Why America Needs Aircraft Carriers

Posted by Scott C. Truver on


The Navy’s aircraft carrier programs are once again at the vortex of intense scrutiny and debate, fueled by strategic ambiguity, questions about spending billions of dollars for a single ship during a period of painfully tight budgets, and uncertainty whether advanced technologies and systems will deliver the “goods.” As well, carrier critics point to supposed warfighting vulnerabilities to potential adversaries’ anti-access/area-denial strategies, tactics and weapons as reasons to change the Navy’s course.

The critics are short-sighted. Indeed, as long we need to protect vital U.S. interests, citizens and friends in critical world regions from the sea, the nation’s naval forces will project national power in support of national strategy and policy. Because of this, regional commanders continue to ask the question every admiral loves to quote: “where are the carriers?”  Certainly, no ship is invulnerable, but the modern carrier is “least vulnerable among equals” and much less at risk than bases ashore. And, while the Navy’s next-generation carriers are pushing technological envelopes and experiencing what some have called “birthing pains,” the service and its industry partners are committed to resolving all issues and getting on with it.

Winston Churchill once noted, “The farther backward you look the farther forward you can see.”  This can help put today’s controversies in a useful perspective.

In the spring of 1977, the Carter administration had been in office only a few months when it virtually declared war on defense spending. Inheriting a federal budget deficit of some $74 billion (about $316 billion in fiscal 2013 dollars), Carter’s Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance identified some $10 billion (about $43 billion today) to cut from defense. No “rice bowls” or “sacred cows” would go unchallenged.

Ominously for the Navy’s carrier forces, the administration supported former-President Gerald Ford’s decision to cancel the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)––the fourth Nimitz (CVN-68)-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier––and to buy instead two smaller, conventional oil-fired “Tentative Conceptual Baseline” (TCBL) carriers. The new TCBL/CVX carriers were to take advantage of the promise of supersonic V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) aircraft. During the next 18 months, the TCBL/CVX design (such as it was) morphed into the smallish (roughly 65,000 tons full load), V/STOL Support Carrier (CVV), which would also be capable of operating the Navy’s conventional takeoff/landing aircraft in addition to the still-conceptual V/STOL “A” and “B” aircraft. An even smaller, 25,000-ton V/STOL Support Ship (VSS) was also mooted, to embark V/STOL aircraft and helicopters.

In 1978 Carter vetoed the FY1979 DoD Authorization bill because Congress inserted funding for CVN-71.

However, the Iranian Hostage crisis of 1979, which sparked a dramatic increase in aircraft carrier battle group deployments to the region – with the USS Nimitz forward deployed from September 1979 to May 1980 and continuously underway for a total of 144 days – changed Carter’s mind about CVNs. The Congress funded TR in FY1980, and there was no threat of a presidential veto. (CVN-71 cost about $2 billion in fiscal 1980 dollars, some $6.8B in fiscal 2013.) A political cartoon soon appeared, showing a Brontosaurus with its head under the Capitol Dome––munching dollars––and a flight deck affixed to its back and hull number CVN-71 scrawled across its flanks, with the caption: “Quick! How do we tell it that this is the last time?”

“Last time,” indeed! What followed almost immediately was a period of no-holds barred Naval Aviation self-assessment––the Sea-Based Air Master Plan (1979-80) and the Sea-Based Air Platform Project (1981-82) are two studies that stand out among others––which identified more than 40 distinct aircraft carrier concepts before concluding that the Nimitz class was superior. So compelling was the analysis that six more CVN-68 class ships have been acquired since 1979: remarkably two were authorized in fiscal 1983 and two again in fiscal 1988, with the last two Nimitz carriers funded in 1995 and 2001, respectively.

In the meantime, between 1980 and 2013, aircraft carriers and battle group surface warships, submarines and replenishment vessels have deployed to virtually every crisis and conflict – in addition to routine forward deployments to important world regions. The only major crisis that did NOT have a carrier – or several flattops – on scene was Operation Odyssey Dawn’s regime change in Libya in 2011. [Editor’s note: While no one in the Navy will, we will point out that Libya marked the very successful deployment of what one can only call one of the Marines’ aircraft carriers, the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3).]

In 2013, like 1977-1979, the Navy’s plans for CVNs are coming under intense scrutiny. Although initial efforts for a next-generation “CVN-21” carrier were kicked off in 1993, the formal program for a Nimitiz follow-on began in earnest five years later. This would be the Navy’s first new-design since 1968.

But, unlike that earlier period, when the Carter Administration looked to alternative ways to sustain sea-based tactical aviation at the expense of Theodore Roosevelt and follow-on CVNs, the Obama Administration has remained steadfast in its decision to sustain 11 CVNs and 10 carrier air wings and to continue with the next-generation Ford (CVN-78) class––even in the face of excruciating fiscal cuts as a result of sequestration.

“We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world,” Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer for carriers, noted in October 2012. “The demand signal is not likely to go down any time soon….”

“We need 11 carriers to do the job,” Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert affirmed a month later.

When CVN-71 was conceived, the “minimum essential” carrier force-level goal was 15 deployable oil-fired and nuclear-powered carriers, with another flattop undergoing a lengthy service life extension availability. The requirement for global naval warfighting against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact was for more than 20 carriers and associated battle group surface warships and submarines.

Good enough. However, today’s critics point to the “unaffordable” cost of these enormous ships, capped at $12.8 billion for the first of the Ford class, according to Navy data. But that figure includes about $3.3 billion in non-recurring costs that will be spread over the planned 10-carrier Ford class. Factor these out and the cost of CVN-78 will be approximately $9.5 billion – still a high-visibility item as the Navy goes about looking for ways to meet sequestration “bogeys.”

That said, these increased upfront costs for much-increased increased technology density would pay some $5 billion in reductions in the total acquisition and ownership cost over the 50-year lifetimes of each of the 10 Ford-class carriers, compared to the in-service CVNs.

Another way of looking at the costs is to figure out how much a “pound of warship” costs today. Clearly, all are needed to protect important U.S. interests worldwide, but the 100,000-ton CVN-78 is a bargain at about $48 a pound; the Navy’s restarted Arleigh Burke Flight IIA guided-missile destroyers are coming in at some $98 a pound; and Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines at $195 a pound. (This isn’t all that superficial, as for years Navy cost-estimators have used a “pound of combat system” or a “pound of hull” to guide early approximations.) By way of comparison, according to U.S. Air Force data, the F-22 Raptor runs about $3,300 a pound.

While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a September 2013 report raised concerns about lead-ship testing and reliability of advanced systems in the first two Ford CVNs, which the Navy and the shipbuilder are addressing, nowhere did the GAO question the inherent value of sea-based tactical aviation or call for an assessment of alternatives to the CVN.

This also plays to the CNO’s new “payloads over platforms” initiative, looking at ways in which the Navy can take full advantage of modular weapon, sensor, and unmanned vehicle payloads a platform carries or employs. “In addition to being more affordable,” Greenert explained, “this decoupling of payload development from platform development will take advantage of a set of emerging trends in precision weapons, stealth, ship and aircraft construction, economics, and warfare….”

His number-one example of the payload-centric approach to adaptability and warfighting was the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which was deactivated in December 2012 after 51 years of operations. CORRECTED DATE OF DEACTIVATION Oct. 3 at 3:05 p.m. “The Enterprise was conceived in the 1950s to deal with a growing Soviet threat,” Greenert wrote. “At the time our national strategy was to contain the Soviet Union…. But times change,” he acknowledged, “and so do trends in economics, technology, and warfare. The Enterprise went from carrying a mix of A-7 Corsairs, A-6 Intruders, and F-14 Tomcats—designed predominantly to counter the Soviets—to homogeneous air wings of multi-mission F/A-18 Hornets to address the range of post–Cold War operations.”

Finally, carrier Cassandras worry about vulnerabilities against advanced weapons, including anti-carrier ballistic missiles. “Regardless of the number of carriers national leadership decides to maintain,” wrote retired Navy Commander John Patch, “because they remain the U.S. Navy’s preeminent capital ship and a symbol of American global power and prestige, they are a potential key target for both unconventional and conventional adversaries.”


However, one inexplicable aspect of the “carriers are vulnerable!” argument, particularly versus the Chinese DF-21 ballistic missile threat, is that while the carrier’s vulnerability is trumpeted, there is little mention of the fact that every ship suffers from similar, if not greater, vulnerabilities – particularly ships built to commercial standards and simply painted haze-gray. This includes platforms on the various lists of options if the Navy were to stop building carriers. It also ignores enhanced passive and active systems––e.g., the cruise- and ballistic-missile defenses provided by the Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers––that are designed to defeat tomorrow’s threats. Finally, to put the entire vulnerability issue in context, land bases, which never move, are much more vulnerable to attack than are mobile naval forces at sea.

So, it’s déjà vu all over again. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Scott Truver is director of Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue National Security Programs. 

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