Today is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, America’s Trafalgar and the greatest day in the history of U.S. aircraft carriers. It is a pure coincidence that I had a conversation with Rear Admiral Thomas Moore, the Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Aircraft Carriers, on this anniversary. Moore had read my recent column (“Does the U.S. Need More Aircraft Carriers?”) and had some clarifying comments.
I noted in the column that regional commanders like Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis demand more carriers strike groups for their operational needs than the Navy can supply. Moore noted that, “we have an eleven-carrier Navy for a world that needs fifteen.” But he acknowledged that there wasn’t much prospect of the Navy ever getting more than the eleven called for in the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plan. Aircraft carriers are very expensive and the Navy will struggle to finance its current program.
For the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet, this may be something of an ironic outcome. According to Moore, the lifetime costs of future aircraft carriers are actually falling, not rising. The total life-cycle costs (construction plus lifetime operations and maintenance plus disposal) of future Ford-class carriers will be $4 billion less per ship (adjusted for inflation) than the current Nimitz-class carriers. This is because the Ford carriers will require 800 fewer sailors to operate the ship, 400 fewer sailors to support the air wing, and because the all-electric ship design will be cheaper to maintain.
I also noted in the column that USS Gerald Ford will cost the Navy $15 billion to build. Moore noted that while this is true, it is the Navy’s practice to load one-time research and design costs on the first ship of a class. Ford will get stuck with $6 billion in such one-time charges. USS John F. Kennedy and future ships of the class will post a $9 billion price tag.
Moore explained that the Fords will hold more aircraft and ordnance and can generate 33% more sorties per day than a Nimitz carrier. That adds up to more performance with lower lifetime costs, in a platform regional commanders can’t get enough of.
Does this mean that the Pentagon should reconsider its decision to cap the carrier fleet at eleven? Nobody expects that to happen – many think the Navy is lucky to get what it’s getting. Others question whether the big carrier concept still has a future in a world that will soon bristle with anti-ship missiles. Moore has the Ford class penciled into his calendar for the year 2110. From Midway to then, 168 years, would be an amazing run.