Home » Aviation » Opinion: U.S. Carrier Force is a Cost Effective National Security Asset


Opinion: U.S. Carrier Force is a Cost Effective National Security Asset

A sailor monitors the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). US Navy Photo

A sailor monitors the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). US Navy Photo

“What kind of navy do Americans want?” columnist George F. Will asked in an August Washington Post commentary. “The answer will determine whether U.S. power can, in [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan] Greenert’s formulation, ‘be where it matters, when it matters.’”

On Aug. 8, 2014 aircraft from the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) answered that question, conducting the first strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) militants in support of the President Barack Obama’s decision to re-engage militarily in Iraq. With only minimal numbers of troops on the ground, the Bush once again demonstrated the operational flexibility and combat effectiveness of sea-based tactical air power to protect important U.S. interests, American citizens, and allies.

As U.S. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) understands, with the United States having fewer bases overseas from which to launch attacks or just stand watch in volatile regions, aircraft carriers effectively “move U.S. ‘soil’ anywhere in the world.”

CVN ROI

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) transits the Gulf of Aden on Oct, 23, 2014. US Navy Photo

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) transits the Gulf of Aden on Oct, 23, 2014. US Navy Photo

In terms of return on investment, the aircraft carrier is really one of the most cost-effective deals around, defense analyst Loren Thompson explained in a 10 February 2014 Forbes commentary. “The U.S. Navy operates more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, and its carriers are by far the best. But the cost of designing, developing and building such vessels is a minuscule portion of the federal budget. Navy shipbuilding costs will total $15-20 billion annually through the end of the decade, representing 3 to 4 percent of defense spending and less than 1 percent of all federal spending.” Put another way, the $12.8 billion for the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) represents about 31 hours of annual federal spending. Shortsighted decisions taken today could hamstring the Navy––and the other four armed services––for decades.

Because it is such a large, long-lived acquisition program, the next-generation Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be a budgetary target even in the best of fiscal times. However, when times get tough, as they are in the late fall of 2014, and as the reverberations from the 2011 BCA continued to ripple throughout the federal government, various pundits and observers contemplate alternatives to the carrier program of record.

In his commentary in September in The Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson noted, “Defense spending has become just another line item in the budget, increasingly disconnected from our strategic interests and potential threats. It’s a money pot of possible reductions . . .”

While all U.S. defense spending has seen a reduction of some 20 percent since 2010, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, with across-the-board cuts that affect R&D, acquisition and operations, it is the “big-ticket” items––such as CVNs––that can generate excess zeal to cut more.

Forbes has called for keeping military budgets strong while reining in overall federal spending and to this end, he supported legislation that would avoid automatic defense cuts by shifting those reductions to non-defense programs, including education and entitlement programs. Good luck on that.

Value to the Nation

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert is welcomed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) on Nov. 27, 2014. US Navy Photo

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert is welcomed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) on Nov. 27, 2014. US Navy Photo

As Congress and the Obama administration look for ways to address defense-spending issues, the value of carrier aviation continues to be underscored by real-world operations. Nuclear carriers and their air wings of some 75 multi-mission aircraft represent a unique warfare capability that––as demonstrated by Bush in 2014––can quickly close to an operating area and provide credible and sustainable combat power. Aircraft carriers and their air wings deliver powerful and timely military effects with significant diplomatic and ultimately warfighting value to our nation.

During an interview with Al Arabiya News, Rear Adm. DeWolfe “Chip” Miller, commander of the Bush carrier strike group (CSG), said the U.S. campaign will protect U.S. interests and blunt ISIS’ progress.

“The president has made our work here clear,” he said. “We are working on supporting humanitarian assistance operations like Mount Sinjar and the Mosul Dam. We are also protecting American citizens and facilities inside Iraq.”

The value of carrier battle group forward presence was proved yet again as the Bush CSG was the only force available to respond during the first ten days of this crisis––where it and when it mattered.

Even first-year econ majors know value is what a person is willing to pay for something. U.S. aircraft carriers, the centerpiece of the carrier strike group are, indeed, valuable, even if measured only by the nation’s willingness to allocate increasingly scarce resources for the first and follow-on carriers of the Ford class. And this value is clearly tied to the peacetime-crisis-wartime contributions that aircraft carriers make to America’s security––what Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director, Air Warfare (N98), called “responsive and relevant” tactical air power at and from the sea.

There’s a Ford . . .

USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN 78, Dry Dock Flooding. Huntington Ingalls Industries Photo

USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN 78, Dry Dock Flooding. Huntington Ingalls Industries Photo

Gerald R. Ford, the first of the ten-carrier Ford-class program was christened at Newport News Shipbuilding on 9 November 2013. Ford is the Navy’s first new-design carrier in almost 40 years and is the result of careful study, development, design, and construction improvements since the last new-design carrier— the USS Nimitz (CVN-68)—joined the operating forces in 1975. Many ship hull sizes and shapes, propulsion systems and flight deck layouts were carefully studied before settling on the new design that incorporates the latest technologies to improve capability and reduce cost over the ship’s 50-year lifetime.

Those attributes also provide the flexibility and growth margin that will keep these ships relevant throughout five-decade lifetimes. Initially the Navy planned an evolutionary approach that would spread the significant cost and risk associated with developing the new technologies over three ships. Before this plan could be executed, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directed the Navy to use a “leap ahead” strategy that would make a transformational transition to the new ship class in a single ship. The decision necessitated timeline compression for the ship design, development of many emerging technologies, and construction. The depth and breadth of technology insertion is unprecedented and brought increased complexity and risk to the program.

Ford-class ships are designed with upgraded hull, mechanical, electrical and electronics capabilities. The class also incorporates such advanced features as a new, more efficient nuclear propulsion plant, a revolutionary electro-magnetic aircraft launch system, advanced arresting gear, dual-band radar and a nearly three-fold increase in electrical generation capacity when compared with Nimitz-class carriers. Those important technological improve­ments will increase operational efficiency, lead to significantly higher sortie generation rates and more ordnance on target and facilitate future technologies such as directed energy weapons and un-manned aircraft. At the same time, main­tenance and manpower requirements will be greatly reduced, allowing the Navy to reap more than $4 billion dollars in projected life-cycle savings per ship across its 50-year service life. This per-ship savings considers the total operating cost, which includes the acquisition, operations, manpower and disposal cost for each ship when compared with the Nimitz-class ships they will replace.

The $12.8 billion investment for Ford includes about $3.3 billion in non-recurring engineering cost that should be spread over the planned 94-year life of the ten-carrier Ford-class program. (From contract design of CVN-78 to the decommissioning of the last of the class spans nearly a century of operations.) Factor out those sunk costs and the cost of CVN-78 will be approximately $9.5 billion––still a high-visibility item as the Navy and the nation go about looking for ways to meet budget cuts. Although the Government Accountability Office has raised concerns about hitting the $12.8 billion bogey, the Navy stated that the ship will be delivered under the cost cap.

Taking the Long View

An F/A-18F Super Hornet from the Diamondbacks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). US Navy Photo

An F/A-18F Super Hornet from the Diamondbacks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). US Navy Photo

As demonstrated in each of the past 60-plus years, the nation’s “responsive and relevant” aircraft carriers and carrier strike groups are indeed a necessary investment in America’s security.

The aircraft carrier is a carefully vetted, valuable long-term investment and should not become the “money pot” or “bill-payer” for the nation. The multi-dimensional contribution of carrier strike groups to our country’s security and prosperity makes them a necessary expense in the defense budget. An essential obligation or “sine qua non,” the investment in America’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier fleet provides the nation’s most effective general-purpose response-option in all situations that require flexible, responsive and when necessary, lethal air power.

  • This article fails to mention the cost of current versus future fighters and the effect on the articles entire premise.

    The F-18 is mentioned but not the F-35, we wonder why not?

    The disaster that is the F-35 will increase costs exponentially while reducing the effectiveness of a Carrier group.

    Let’s not delude ourselves any longer the F-35 is more costly and less mission capable than promised and required for its term of service. The F-35 alone could drastically alter the title of this article to “F-35’s the plane that sunk the US carrier advantage”

    • vincedc

      Remember when they said that about the F/A-18A? Actually, I remember when they said it about the A-10. The startup costs is always too high on the first flight until they get the bugs worked out.

      • loupgarous

        I’m old enough to remember when they said it of the F-111, the F-16, the F-14, the AH-64, the M1 Abrams MBT, and the Osprey. Not that there haven’t been failures – the Bradley cost my son and his squad their lives. But I can’t really say any intelligent man anticipated the widespread use of IEDs, and the one that got my son’s track was three 156mm shells buried in the road and wired to go off together. I don’t think even the severest critic of the Bradley could have anticipated that..

        • DOwnleg

          I am so sorry to hear that. I was in the Army decades ago, and getting out just as the Bradley was being looked at to replace the M113, if my memory is right. It was not a perfect vehicle. Still, an M1 Abrams is vulnerable to some of the stuff out there. I with you relief from your grieving.

  • The_Usual_Suspect61

    Those who beat their swords into EBT cards end up working for those who who kept their swords. If we cannot defend ourselves and our way of life, we won’t remain a free nation for long.

    • Ctrot

      I am going to steal that “swords into EBT cards” line in the future, just so you know. 😉

    • Larwit1512

      I love that line, I’m going to steal it too.

    • Jay

      Yeah, $600 billion a year is not enough!

    • David J Gill

      When you look at the numbers you can see why that is kind of a dumb thing to say. In 2014 the Defense budget was $596 billion and the Welfare (EBT= Electronic Benefit Transfer) budget was $16.5 billion. So “beat a few swords into EBT cards and still have 36 times as many swords remaining.” It’s not as self righteous and insulting to say, but it’s accurate.

      • The_Usual_Suspect61

        $2.096 trillion spent on social programs in the same year.

  • mikehorn

    A useful comparison would be cost to maintain an airfield in another country vs a carrier. They can do somewhat different things, but it would put the carrier cost in perspective. Ramstein, Yokota, Kunsan, Guam, Al Udeid, Bagram, others. They all do great work at those places, but what do they cost to maintain? Al Udeid opened in the recent past, what was its cost?

    No, I’m not about to argue land vs sea basing. We need both. But the upfront cost of a carrier isn’t that much for what it can do.

    • Rick Elkin

      I agree…The carrier gives you the option of taking your airport with you, so you are not constrained by the laws of a nation in which you might have a land base…PLUS, you can usually get a carrier a good deal closer to “the action” which will give your aircraft a longer loiter time in the target area is you are flying in support of any sort of ground operation.

      • mikehorn

        But land bases can launch bigger planes, possibly more capable planes depending on mission. Carriers have problems maintaining stealth coatings, which is the main reason all stealth is USAF right now. It’s a corrosive saltwater thing. But the carrier can move, a type of stealth on its own. Most other nations lack the tracking ability to pinpoint our carriers, and those that do are mostly our friends. It requires satellites that have global coverage, plus a fleet of dedicated recon aircraft. Russia had the capability 30 years ago, current status a question mark. China might or might not have the capability now, but probably will in 10-20 years. Iran, no. ISIS, no. Syria, no.

        These things are always trade offs of different capabilities. Our wealth has allowed us to maintain both so far. Our economy and tax revenue are serious strategic assets.

        • Rick Elkin

          The aircraft carrier also serves the same purpose as our Battleships did back in the 20th Century. When a belligerent country saw a Battleshiip off his coast, he would have to stop and think twice before doing offensive to us or our allies. The carrier off his coast today does the same thing with it’s sheer size and the number of attack aircraft it can carry. Sometimes that is enough to sway the bad guys from any offensive action…

          • mikehorn

            No arguments, especially on weight of ordinance they can deliver. Note the B2 has a similar effect even sitting in its hangar at Whiteman AFB near St Louis. An aircraft that can decapitate most governments within 30 hours gives a large amount of deterrence.

            Carriers have precision munitions too, but must exert far more effort getting in and out. Their deterrence is in other ways.

          • Rick Elkin

            Part of the problem of NOT building more carriers is the simple fact that China WILL build more. I believe they are already working on a 2nd. They may not be as sophisticated as ours are, but if they continue to build and improve them we will have no choice but to continue as well. B

            Both Russia and China have made it clear that they are going to do whatever they can to improve their Navies… And we have a choice…We can either continue to build superior vessels or we can let the ability to do so slip away. Once we have lost the technology it won’t be easy OR inexpensive to get it back.

  • AKO

    The financialization of the American economy.

    American De-Industrialization
    Continues Unabated

    The U.S. is becoming dependent on countries such as UK, Russia, France and Germany for critical weapons technology.

    • loupgarous

      And our allies are dependent on us for critical weapons technology, too.
      Your point is?

      Russia, though, not so much. Putin lost the Mistral helo carriers/phibs and anything else he had on order from the West. What’ll be really entertaining is when stuff breaks on those Russian ships touring the Mediterranean during their joint exercises in the Mediterranean.

      Even more interesting is when Europe gets the memo that wolves are on the prowl and the Cold War’s back on.

    • loupgarous

      And our allies are dependent on us for critical weapons technology, too.

      Your point is?

      Russia, though, not so much. Putin lost the Mistral helo carriers/phibs and anything else he had on order from the West. What’ll be really entertaining is when stuff breaks on those Russian ships touring the Mediterranean during their joint exercises in the Mediterranean with the Chinese (I think this will be described by future military historians as the “What the Heck Were They Thinking Exercises?” for its impact on European defense spending and preparation for war).

      Even more interesting is when Europe gets the memo that wolves are on the prowl and the Cold War’s back on. China runs a trade surplus with the US that was $544 hundred million last month. I find it ridiculous that we’re actually funding the Chinese military to that extent.

  • Rick Elkin

    The bottom line here is that we are now effectively down to 9 carriers until the Gerald R. Ford is commissioned in 2016. With all of the strife currently going on in the world and the Chinese starting to flex their “naval muscles” in the western Pacific it is important that we always have a carrier ready to deploy where it is needed…BUT, we also have to consider that the crews are away from home for 7-8 months at a time when they are called on to help….More carriers would solve that problem. A carrier is very simply “4 1/2 acres of sovereign US territory, where it is needed and when it is needed” as quoted by NNS back in the late 1990’s.

    • ARNHEITER

      The USN has CVN 68/69/70/71/72 /73/74/75/76/77.That is 10 not 9.

      • Rick Elkin

        CVN 72 is in an SLEP and will be followed by CVN 73…A SLEP will take the ship out of service for 3-4 years!

    • Jay

      That’s scary. Only 9 — which is 8 more than any enemies might have. Apocalypse.

      • Rick Elkin

        A time will come real soon when you will be very thankful that we have those 9…China is now building it’s second carrier and the UK is building 2 semi-carriers that will be able to handle the STOVL F-35 that’s also being built for the Marine Corps. If not for CVN-77 being where it was we would not have been able to attack IS so quickly in Iraq/Syria…Those carriers are far more important than most people think…How many countries can take along their air bases wherever they go???

        • Jay

          Ahh, no, that time will not come for me. I don’t live in the US. Not my football team anymore. But if you think attacking IS in Iraq and Syria QUICKLY is a good thing, great for you. But you’re talking tactics and assuming attacking any country is a good thing. But check back in a couple of years, maybe less and tell me how those attacks helped anyone involved (other than pants shitting Americans who seem to be afraid of everything for the past decade).

          • Rick Elkin

            It’s a matter of response time and being able to keep up a round the clock pounding of the bad guys which is difficult to do from non-movable bases far away from where the action is. A carrier can be in place in just a few days to respond to any attacks by the bad guys…We may seemt o be “panys shitting”…But from Dec. 7, 1941 until Sept. 11, 2001 no one had actually physically attacked the USA…The 9/11/2001 attack would have rattled any population in the free world!

          • Jay

            I’m a retired Marine with lots of time on big grey boats so thanks for the Lecture On the Obvious on power projection. And if you can’t pound (that’s kill) all the “bad” guys, there’s always torture and signature drone killings (plenty of collateral damage of innocents) to keep the self licking ice cream cone of The War on A Tactic operating at peak efficiency. A great way to keep all those freedom lovers appropriately “rattled” to surrender ever increasing amounts freedom and dollars — all in the name of keeping everyone safe from those bad, bad guys, of course. The definition of insanity comes to mind. I’ll be opting out of any further episodes of this less that enlightening discussion.

  • Rick

    Undoubtedly the United States gets a great ROI on it’s investment when a carrier is needed. Just like the money the nation spends on all of its armed forces is money well spent when their services are needed.
    However, within the massive establishment that is the Pentagon there are undoubtedly huge amounts of waste, fraud and abuse, particularly waste. Instead of whining about budget cuts, DOD should be figuring out how to live within its means and still get the job done, including building the needed ships, planes, tanks, artillery pieces and more.
    As long as DOD has a blank check and people who advocate it retaining that blank check on the basis of the national security argument, they’ll keep spending like there is a bottomless pot of money. Squeeze that budget and tell DOD to get the job done anyway, there’ll be no excuses and the outstanding men and women serving in our Armed Forces will figure it out, as long as people and institutions get out their way.

  • ARNHEITER

    Regarding the strikes against ISIS in northern IRAQ—did they all require USAF tanking?

    • Matthew Schilling

      The USN can’t refuel its own jets?

      • mikehorn

        Last I heard only some USAF tankers can refuel navy planes. They have different systems to deliver the fuel. The Navy can equip its planes with drogue “buddy stores”, which is the most common way, and doesn’t really require a dedicated tanker aircraft, only one that has hard points capable of taking the refueling stores. The USAF opted for the boom/receptacle method decades ago, which navy planes aren’t equipped for. The USAF system requires a bigger plane than a carrier can operate, but which carries more fuel, and the USAF has bigger planes to refuel. Different missions, different needs.

    • mikehorn

      Probably a bit of both USAF and USN. The USAF tankers equipped with drogues are bigger and can loiter longer, but must operate from land bases. The USN system is right there on the carrier, but carries less fuel.

  • loupgarous

    We can either make it a contest when Putin and Xi expand into our territory, or just give up now. A question that ought to be asked of every Congressman and Senator and Presidential candidate is “which of those alternatives do you prefer?”.

  • hokie_1997

    The author’s carrier cost argument dramatically oversimplifies the true cost of maintaining and aircraft carrier “system of systems” over its lifetime.

    1. We don’t (or at least we shouldn’t) send a CVN to sea without at least a CG, 2 DDGs, 24/7 MPA support and an AOE for logistics support. Escorts and sustainment ships are not free.

    2. An aircraft carrier needs a not insubstantial number of specialized aircraft and helos for its own defense and sustainment.

    3. Due to maintenance requirements, the Fleet actually needs to procure and crew >1 CVN for each CSG it wants to keep forward deployed. An airfield doesn’t really have that problem.

    I am not saying a carrier isn’t a good ROI. However, throwing at cost numbers for a single CVN as if it represents the entire cost of the capability is horribly myopic.

  • Secundius

    May it’s time to look at WW2 history, and take a lesson from that playbook. It currently cost’s 4-Billion USD. per Ford class Large Aircraft Carrier. That same amount will buy you 2.4 Queen Elizabeth class Medium Aircraft Carrier’s and ~15 Principe de Asturias (or SCS-75 design) Light Aircraft Carriers. 10 Large, will get you 24 Medium and ~150 Light, make your choice. The more Carrier’s we have, the more we can deploy.