Will aircraft carriers really have a 168-year run?

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.

 

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Is it possible to reconfigure amphibious assault ships as carriers for armed UAVs and field a few of them in place of current aircraft carriers? I touched on this in an earlier SWJ post (Thoughts from Khobar, 8 May).

Amphibious assault ships cost less than full-sized carriers. Smaller ships mean smaller crews. The armed UAVs could be piloted by men and women stationed back in CONUS keeping them out of harm’s way as well as reducing support requirements on the ship. UAVs are less costly than manned fighters so there’s another cost-savings. Is this feasible?

Yes Morgan, a larger gator such a the new LHA-8 AMERICA, which was designed w/o a well deck for amphib vehicles (the sun will always shine on the Corps)could be used as you describe(d). Additionally, there is also a new catapult system that future such hulls, or smaller carriers as well, could be configured for, if a short flight deck is in question.

However, having once been a sea-going Marine detachment commander aboard a CVA, when Marines did such things, it became apparent to me that launching and recovering of armed air frames at sea, day & night, is hazardous, and demands a specialized and well trained crew for such, and may be one reason there hasn't been as much gusto for armed UAVs by the brown shoe Navy, although, amusingly, prior to WW II there was much the same thought about manned aircraft operating from decks at sea.

One could argue that the U.S. Navy does need an additional 4 carriers, but in stating the argument in any Mahanian geo-strategic way, one must not leave out the additional fact that at 5 to 6 surface and sub-surface ships needed to operate with any carrier, that then adds 20 to 24 ships/boats to the equation, along with crews, and that ain’t cheap...Therefore, maybe the Navy is "lucky to be getting what it is getting," with 11?

Can we settle for a class of cheaper, less capable carriers with fewer or less capable escorts?

Diesel/turbine IEP maybe? How about one or two of those massive Wartsila-Sulzer RTC-96Cs in a Ford hull? Yes they take up space and require their own fuel but they a heckuva lot cheaper than a nuclear plant.