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Opinion: Preserve the Carrier Force

Aircraft carriers in Norfolk, Va. on Feb. 8, 2014. US Navy Photo

Aircraft carriers in Norfolk, Va. on Feb. 8, 2014. US Navy Photo

The aircraft carrier, nuclear-powered for the last 50 years, and its embarked air wing remain arguably the most valuable and effective instrument for shaping the national military strategy, with proven applicability from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to high-end maritime strike warfare.

Budget decisions should preserve military capability such that when the president calls “911,” he can count on available and immediate military response — namely the integrated power of the carrier and air wing. During a budget downturn, the value proposition should motivate national leaders to ask, “How can we not afford to build carriers?”

Why Carriers?

When the nation’s defense budget shrinks, as it does cyclically, aircraft carriers are targeted due to their cost. However, when one considers their weapon-system capability, long service life, extensive combat power — they are exceptionally cost-effective, responsive and relevant in any operational scenario in any theater.

The need for more carriers becomes evident with increased regional conflicts and a more dispersed threat of escalation. Today, if events somewhere outside typical carrier deployment areas were to escalate, the Navy would have to “surge” a carrier from its homeport, which could take weeks or months; or remove a deployed carrier from its current region and mission.

The nation was the beneficiary of serendipity not once, but twice in 2013. When the president was seeking military options in response to a growing Syrian problem, USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was at the chop line between the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility in the Indian Ocean, readily available for re-tasking.

Later in the year, when a ravaging typhoon struck the Philippines, USS George Washington (CVN-73) was on station in a matter of hours to provide much needed relief to a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions.

Serendipity won’t always be on our side. We have the opportunity to preserve the force and assure our ability to respond.

Enter the Ford-class

The service life of a nuclear-powered carrier is 50 years — unequaled by any other ship class — providing a significant return on the taxpayers’ investment, ensuring consistent forward presence in areas of conflict.

Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the first new class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in more than 40 years, was delivered at a cost only about 18 percent more than the last Nimitz-class carrier and provides a 70 percent increase in maximum sortie-generation capability over the Nimitz class.

She has a completely redesigned flight deck that uses a ”pit stop”-like concept to recover, rearm and refuel high-end aircraft capable of high sortie rates, and a more efficient and powerful nuclear-propulsion system, greatly reducing the requirement for steam, hydraulic, and pneumatic piping systems. Ford will have a multifunction radar suite that will detect and engage the most advanced threats, and revolutionary launch and recovery systems that contribute to more efficient flight operations while reducing total operating costs and stress on the aircraft.

Improvements to the Ford-class over Nimitz will reduce crew size by between 500 and 900 sailors and reduce the 50-year total ownership costs by more than $4 billion. Finally, technology insertion into the Ford class design will increase ship operational availability by 25 percent, due to reduced maintenance requirements, thereby allowing the CVN force to meet the nation’s needs while maintaining flexibility for unforeseen events.

Asymmetric Advantage

No other country has replicated the American carrier strike group, featuring a 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier capable of operating up to 75 advanced aircraft. The carrier’s aircraft are nodes for data-sharing, operating netted sensors, and linking weapon systems to generate effects far downrange. The nuclear power plant provides the ship unmatched responsiveness, unconstrained by the need to refuel. The attendant asymmetric advantage is clear and unmistakable.

China has developed the Liaoning-class aircraft carrier, taking short cuts in technology development to avoid the century of modernization and learning that the U.S. Navy experienced to field the Nimitz and Ford classes and carrier-suitable aircraft. Conversely, cutting-edge U.S. technology was used to launch and recover an unmanned, fighter-sized aircraft from the carrier George H.W. Bush, a first in aviation history. This serves as a critical demonstration of the relevancy of the carrier in the future asymmetric fight.

The Right Force

Our nation’s fiscal affairs mandate that we decide not only what type of military force we can afford, but also what type of military force we need — optimizing the value proposition and fielding those military capabilities that provide the United States with strategic benefit at best value in the long term. It’s imperative to prioritize investment in this asymmetric capability as one means to maintain credibility as a globally responsive military force.

A version of this post was based on an article in Proceedings and originally ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

  • ELP

    Not mentioned are the following, the alleged 70 percent sortie generation fantasy doesn’t match up to ‘The Carrier Myth’ (Dr. Rebecca Grant) which looks at Navy sortie generation claims which just were not so. Sortie generation claims then were not credible. It is doubtful these claims are. The 70 percent also doesn’t take into account the Just So Failed F-35C which makes the WWII TBD Devastator look like a roaring, operational success. The Navy is well on its way toward fielding an obsolete to the threat carrier air wing. Then there is ASW. The high-water mark for the USN and ASW was the 1980s where we had it in-depth. Today, now significantly downsized so-as to be a joke, the emerging submarine threat does not look pretty. Ill suited carrier aircraft to the threat with reduced ASW capacity, along with the obsolete AEGIS system gamed to ever lower credibility to include more diverse super-sonic threats means that our carriers will be targets that can be found, and sunk. I suggest that rather than using platitude, USN leadership gets its act together and starts to understand things like building naval platforms in affordable number for both presence and war attrition. Today’s Navy roadmap shows multiple platforms that are too gold-plated and faulty to lose in a war.

    • harvest

      ‘The Carrier Myth’ is a fifteen year-old article published by the online journal of the Air Force Association. I’m not sure how that discussion of sortie generation in a surge exercise with an entirely different air wing is germane to the discussion in the article above.

      Please stop with the attacks which aren’t data-supported on the F-35C, AEGIS, etc. Once again, criticism without data has a name- opinion. Wording opinions strongly does not make them facts.

      • ELP

        Marketing claims without evidence (F-35) can be dismissed without evidence. Especially considering the program history of the vendor failing to deliver. The Carrier Myth is old. But not all of it. Portions of that sortie data stick.

        • harvest

          No, the entire article was written in 1999. The data is from then or prior.

  • Zack Howitt

    Here’s what’s missing in this conversation. 10 Ford-class carriers are planned. Assuming they are built 5 years apart, with a 50-year service life, the last of the Ford-class carriers will decommission in 2110 (Here’s my math – 2015+(9*5)+50)

    You have a good argument for the carrier force in the present time, maybe even the near future, but has anyone thought about the relevancy of this class 95 years from now?

    • kevinthepope

      Bet is no, they won’t build all ten, or if they did, the last several will look radically different. Frankly it would not shock me if at some point they design a carrier to carry the aircraft within and have the thing submerge once weapons become accurate and long distance enough to render them vulnerable from 2-3 thousand miles away instead of a few hundred. Nobody knows if the Chinese DF missiles really work, but it sure has everyone thinking, and that’s good for planning!

  • silencedogoodreturns

    I’ve long thought carriers essential for naval security and force projection. But our current large deck carriers? These are the same carriers that were built to carry 70+ aircraft. Today, however, with advances in targeting, we no longer need, or have, so many planes on deck. One plane can hit many targets, whereas in the past, many planes were needed to hit one target. Given that, why do we need such large carriers when we get far more bang from fewer airframes?

    • Spot

      Planes break down, get lost in accidents or through combat. And a one-size-fits-all-philosophy for combat aircraft only works if you’re fighting set-piece battles with incompetent, 2nd or 3rd rate enemies. If we ever get to the point of fighting somebody better, you will see the fallacy of such thinking.