But a new Rand Corp. report commissioned by the service and published this month concludes the Navy cannot build cheaper, more modest carriers without significantly limiting capability or overhauling its current air acquisition plan.
The study, which was provided to the Navy in a classified version last July and made publicly available Oct. 6, assesses four potential future styles of carrier, taking into account key capability factors such as aircraft sortie generation rates, as well as comparative costs for acquisition and midlife refueling.
The first option, CVN 8X, is by and large similar to the new Ford class of carrier that saw the first of its class, the Gerald R. Ford, commissioned in July.
Like the Ford and the two follow-on carriers in the class, this variant would be 100,000 tons and keep the same dimensions.
But the CVN 8X, as envisioned by Rand, would incorporate a few improvements that lean heavily on emerging technology, including a 40-year life-of-the-ship nuclear reactor that would eliminate the need for a midlife refueling period, and three catapults in its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) instead of four.
The second option, CVN LX, would be a carrier in the style of the Forrestal-class, built in the 1950s for the Navy as the first class of supercarriers. It would be 70,000 tons and feature an improved flight deck and a hybrid integrated propulsion plant with nuclear power.
The third, CV LX, would be a carrier akin to the new America class of amphibious assault ship.
At 43,000 tons, it would not incorporate the catapult launch system at the center of modern carrier operations, but would support short takeoff and vertical landing, or STOVL aircraft, including the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
Rand envisions the Navy requiring two of these smaller carriers for every legacy carrier it needs to replace.
The final option, CV EX, is a 20,000-ton miniature carrier akin to escort carriers used by some international navies.
This option, which would run on conventional power and could accommodate STOVL fighters, is undoubtedly the cheapest of the bunch. But its capabilities would be so limited, and require such a dramatic departure from current Navy operations, that analysts spend little time considering its merits.
The Forrestal-style carrier, or CVN LX, has several major advantages, according to the study. Though it would have a more modest footprint, a slightly reduced sortie generation rate would not significantly decrease its ability to meet the Navy's needs underway, analysts find.
However, the requirements of redesigning an older style of ship to meet contemporary needs, they found, would result in a still-expensive ship: $9.4 billion to build, compared with the Ford's $12.9 billion.
"The CVN LX [Forrestal carrier] concept would allow considerable savings across the ship's service life and appears to be a viable alternative to consider for current concept exploration," study authors Bradley Martin and Michael E. McMahon write. " ... However, CVN LX would be a new design that would require a significant investment in non-recurring engineering in the near-term to allow timely delivery in the 2030s."
There are other downsides that might give the Navy pause, including reduced survivability compared with today's supercarriers.
With the CV LX [USS America-style carrier], essentially a helicopter carrier that can accommodate the Marine Corps version of the new Joint Strike Fighter, analysts envision the Navy needing 22 ships in lieu of today's 11 carriers.
Even at a two-to-one replacement rate, the Navy would realize significant savings, spending an estimated $4.2 billion on each ship.
However, the fact that this carrier could not accommodate the Navy's brand-new F-35C aircraft, which are designed for catapult launch and tailhook recovery, means this option is at best an incomplete solution, and would require either a complete reimagining of future Navy aviation, or significant investment in other, complementary platforms.
"The concept variant CV LX [America carrier] ... might be a low-risk, alternative pathway for the Navy to reduce carrier costs if such a variant were procured in greater numbers than the current carrier shipbuilding plan," the analysts write.
"Over the long term, however, as the current carrier force is retired, the CV LX would not be a viable option for the eventual carrier force unless displaced capabilities were reassigned to new aircraft or platforms in the joint force, which would be costly," they add.
A practical option, the study suggests, might be investing in future carriers like the Ford, but slightly cheaper to produce.
By equipping a future carrier with a 40-year life-of-the-ship reactor (a technology, the study notes, which does not yet exist) and cutting back from four EMALS catapults to three, which assumes the emerging technology will be proven reliable, analysts estimate the Navy could shave off $920 million in recurring ship costs.
However, the study concludes that evolving operational needs and acquisition decisions could easily alter the calculus.
"It is worth noting that the timeline for these arriving in service is still decades away, and it is very likely that threats and capabilities will evolve during that time," the analysts write. "Any of these paths could be feasible assuming changes in air wing or escort mix."