Comments made in the halls of the Pentagon and the halls of Congress indicate that there is a new threat to future U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. The "threat" to carriers is not enemy weapons or even the U.S. Air Force, but the increasing cost of the nuclear-propelled carriers now being constructed and planned.
The Navy currently operates 11 large-deck carriers -- ten nuclear-propelled ships and the oil-burning USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). The latter ship, which is forward based in Japan, will be decommissioned next year, when another nuclear ship, the George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), will be placed in commission. The next carrier to be decommissioned will be the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), which was completed in 1961. She will go out of service in 2013 at which time carrier levels will drop to ten ships.
The next carrier will be the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), which is now being started. But that ship will not be ready for service until 2015 -- if the ship is completed on schedule. The Navy officially estimates that the Ford -- the first of a new design -- will cost about $8 billion plus about $6 billion for research, development, test and evaluation for the new design. But unofficial estimates have placed the eventual cost of the ship at some $12 billion plus another $12 billion for one-time RDT&E. (In comparison, the last ship of the previous Nimitz [CVN 68] class -- the Bush -- will cost almost $7 billion.)
The higher costs are also predicted in a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released in late September that says three key systems face problems that could greatly affect the cost of the Ford: the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (catapults), the dual-band radar, and the advanced arresting gear. While current radars and arresting gear could be fitted in the ship, the ship's new reactor plant will not produce sufficient steam nor will the design permit the use of existing steam catapults. Without the launch system the ship would not be able to launch conventional fix-wing aircraft.
While aircraft carriers have proved to be invaluable for U.S. military operations, from the Korean War through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, today many of their traditional missions can be carried out as effectively and possibly more so in some scenarios by other "systems." These mission areas include strike, reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare.
At the same time that the cost of carriers is increasing and the carrier force is below the authorized level of 12 ships, Navy shipbuilding programs are coming under increased congressional and executive branch scrutiny as the littoral combat ship (LCS), new amphibious ships (LPD), and some other ships are suffering massive cost overruns. It is unlikely that -- with an average shipbuilding budget of $11 billion planned for the foreseeable future -- the Navy will be able to afford building to the current goal of 313 ships. The Navy now operates about 279 ships.
The world situation for the foreseeable future will see a need for additional "carriers" to support U.S. political-military interests.
An alternative to constructing "the next" large CVN-type ship is to procure additional LHA/LHD-type amphibious ships. These VSTOL/helicopter carriers, which can operate the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, could carry out some mission that traditionally required a large-deck ship. The LHA/LHD-type ships, of some 40,000 tons full-load displacement, can carry some 1,700 troops for sustained periods as well as operating about 40 VSTOLs and helicopters. These "amphibs" -- currently in production -- cost about $2.5 billion per ship.
Large-deck carriers are important, but it is unlikely that the U.S. Navy will be able to afford the planned 12 ships or even maintain the current 11 carriers. Alternatives must be considered.