For background on the state of America’s carrier fleet and the threat environment it faces, see part 1.
For an opposing point of view, see part 2
Perhaps the most visible symbol of American military might, the US Navy’s aircraft carriers serve as the backbone of America’s war machine. These ships have participated in military conflicts lasting decades, launching thousands of aircraft off their decks each year. Perhaps less commonly known is that these one-hundred-thousand-ton warships, twice the size of the Titanic, have participated in humanitarian missions across the globe, providing water, food, and other necessities to people devastated in tragedies like the 2010 Haitian earthquake or the tsunami that followed the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. These nuclear-powered behemoths have played a pivotal role in shaping the world’s view of the United States. However, the effectiveness of these massive ships does not mean that they are the best choice for their mission. Their role is one could have been performed more effectively and affordably by a smaller class of aircraft carriers.
Just as with computers, having a greater number of carriers increases redundancy and therefore the durability of the US Navy. Smaller aircraft carriers require less raw material, smaller dry-docks for construction, fewer sailors per ship, and a smaller construction team. Each of these factors is tremendously beneficial in increasing the survivability and destructive potential of the US Navy in a time of war. These benefits manifest themselves in several ways. First, smaller carriers’ ability to be constructed in multiple locations is a major advantage. Currently, a single company, Huntington Ingalls, constructs every new US Navy aircraft carrier at a single shipyard: the famous Newport News shipyard in Virginia. This sole-sourced shipbuilding makes Newport News an important strategic target. In a single strike, an enemy, be it a terrorist with nuclear weapons or a rival global power, has the ability to destroy every United States aircraft carrier in production (next year that number will be two) and one carrier undergoing a midlife refueling and upgrade. Such a strike would also leave the United States without a currently viable facility in which to build new carriers. This loss of three carriers and indefinite loss of construction capability would be a devastating blow. Additionally, being able to construct carriers in multiple locations would allow competitive bidding for the rights to build such ships, an opportunity lost when the Navy is forced to sole-source each carrier from Huntingdon Ingalls. Competition regularly reduces prices for the government and thus permits either a lower military budget or construction of a larger fleet of ships.
Not only is the lack of redundancy in shipbuilding a problem, but so is the small size of the carrier force itself. Currently, the US fleet possesses just ten active aircraft carriers, a number that will return to the congressionally mandated level of eleven upon the activation of the new USS Gerald Ford in 2019. In contrast, the Navy at the end of World War II maintained twenty-eight fleet-level carriers (plus seventy-one smaller escort carriers). Even with the benefit of more modern technology, the US Navy was maintaining fifteen carriers when the USSR dissolved.
While the US not maintaining fewer ships during peacetime may make sense, one needs to consider that a nation cannot rapidly build out a fleet for war the way the United States did during World War II. Building a ship capable of launching F-35s and defending against incoming cruise missiles is very different from throwing a large aircraft deck onto a battleship or commercial ship in the manner many early aircraft carriers were completed. Deciding the necessary number of carriers is a difficult question for the navy, and the fleet’s magic number of eleven is the result of careful analysis. Specifically, eleven carriers are required to keep 3.5 carriers on station indefinitely (the 0.5 represents a carrier sailing to replace one returning from deployment). That is, only 3.5 of the eleven are available due to midlife upgrades and periods of relief between crewed deployments. At times of war, however, the Navy has the capacity to surge to a total of at least six, the number deployed during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The problem with our current supercarrier solution is that when the number of carriers drops to ten, just three carriers are available for regular (non-wartime) deployment. In some instances, a carrier gap has resulted in no carriers being deployed in the Middle East, and once with no carriers deployed across the globe. A drop to nine total carriers reduces our available forces to 2.5. This struggle to keep a deployable fleet is solved by the greater number of ships that lighter carriers would permit.
Establishing the cost of smaller carriers is difficult but not impossible due to limited examples of carriers similar to what the U.S. would construct. There are two existing baselines: the new Ford class will on average cost about $11.4 billion dollars, and the cost of a smaller America-class amphibious assault ship (basically a very small carrier) is about $3 billion. The Ford class weighs in at approximately one hundred thousand tons while the LHAs only weigh forty-five thousand tons. A reasonable size for one of the proposed light carriers is the size of the old USS Midway: sixty-five thousand tons. From there one can estimate a baseline of $6 billion or so (an overly conservative estimate given that the UK’s new 70,000 ton Queen Elizabeth class only cost $4 billion apiece), since the ship is closer in size to an LHA than a Ford-class ship but also inherits more expensive technology to complete its mission. A little simple math shows us that for the cost of two Ford class ships the navy could purchase four light carriers. This implies the Navy could trade eleven Ford class ships for at least twenty-two light carriers. This shift would imply the ability to deploy seven or eight ships at a given time versus the three the Navy can deploy today. This increase in deployable carriers will give the Navy more flexibility, as the US may send ships to more locations or in greater numbers to a single location, depending on need. This flexibility is in addition to the redundancy provided by a larger force of carriers and the greater distribution of risk.
While much may be made of the technological advances the Ford class is bringing to the Navy, it is in spite of, and not because of, the massive size of our carriers that the technology is being deployed. In fact, supercarriers slow the pace of innovation. The Ford class will introduce a number of new features the older Nimitz-class ships lacked: electromagnetic catapults, new arresting gear, a newly designed nuclear reactor, reduced radar cross section, etc. While these features make sense under the modern assumption that newer and more advanced technology is always better, they have demonstrably set back the Ford’s activation date and driven up the ship’s cost by billions of dollars. The Ford is hardly the only weapon system to suffer from the US military’s “feature creep” problem. Defense analysts could point to the wide mission sets designated for the F-35 or Zumwalt-class destroyers.
As the US military seeks to replace its aging fleet of aircraft and ships, it relies increasingly on the massive purchase of individual platforms developed over many years and designed to carry out a wide variety of missions. The result is that these platforms are forced to take on features their initial designs did not account for and are therefore less suitable to perform. This drives up cost and delays activation. Examples of this are everywhere in the recent history of American military acquisitions: Zumwalt-class destroyers, Ford-class aircraft carriers, littoral combat ships, and most famously, the F-35 fighter jet. By building smaller ships more frequently, the Navy could avoid feature creep on its aircraft carriers. Buying a new carrier every two or three years instead of every five or seven would allow new technology to be implemented piece by piece on new ships instead of all at once. This more gradual addition of technology would give designers time to properly vet technology before installing it on ships, as the rush to fit parts onto the “big one” in the shipyard would be gone. More and smaller ships would also mean that the Navy’s operations would be disabled less often by struggles to get new technology operational. Trouble with the electromagnetic catapults of the Ford class has garnered attention and produced criticism nationwide, including from the President as they have delayed the activation date of the ship and left the Navy a carrier down from its needed levels. The distribution of new technologies across more frequent construction would reduce this embarrassing problem.
Another benefit of a smaller carrier platform is the opportunity to share systems and development costs with allies. The UK’s Queen Elizabeth class weighs approximately seventy thousand tons while the French Charles De Gaulle weighs in at just under forty-five thousand. By building ships of a size more in line with our allies, the United States has the opportunity to conduct a greater number of joint training missions, partner in developing new technology, and better collaborate in the event of a naval conflict. While the costs of joint programs like the F-35 have given the appearance of shared development increasing costs, the evidence suggests otherwise. As an example, Canada’s decision not to purchase the F-35 will decrease the number of orders for the aircraft, and thereby increase the unit cost by almost one million dollars. Given the US decision to purchase more than two thousand F-35s, the increase in cost for just a single unit has a substantial impact. Shared development of carrier systems could increase capability and drive down cost.
It is worth noting that these light carriers will be exceptionally capable warships. Most criticisms of the smaller design rely on claims that they are less capable than the Ford- or Nimitz-class carriers and therefore restrict naval operations. This is not conclusively backed up by evidence. Criticisms of the size of the air wing, power plant size, and catapult type are all either incorrect or rely on arguments devoid of the whole picture.
The largest determinant of a carrier’s ability to project power is the size of its carrier air wing (the number of aircraft it carries). Currently deployed US aircraft carriers operate with between sixty and seventy aircraft. Interestingly enough, on its last deployment the USS Midway, the last US carrier with a displacement as low as sixty-five thousand tons, operated with sixty-five aircraft. In other words, the US is not taking advantage of its larger-sized carriers to operate larger air wings. Clearly, then, the number of aircraft a smaller carrier would be restricted to is not a problem for the vast majority of carrier operations. Additionally, these light carriers would be able to carry the same sized jets as the Ford class as long as they have catapults. The Midway deployed multiple times with the F/A-18, the aircraft of choice for the US Navy’s carriers today. The F-35 would also be capable of taking off from the Midway’s deck. Admittedly, the smaller carrier is inferior to the larger in one important respect: the sortie rate. Due to their smaller decks, light carriers would be slower to launch and recover aircraft. Such restrictions are ultimately unimportant, however, as the larger number of carriers in the fleet would permit multiple ships to operate in the combat zone and thus make up for the shortfall when a higher sortie rate is required.
A second criticism of light carriers is the potential lack of a catapult for launching aircraft. Critics may note that the UK’s seventy-thousand-ton Queen Elizabeth class lacks a catapult and instead uses what is called the short take off/vertical landing approach (STOVL). What they fail to realize is that the British have taken this approach by choice. The Midway utilized steam catapults and the Queen Elizabeth class was initially constructed with the option to use catapults. As such, an American light carrier would have the ability to install a catapult, possibly one of the new electromagnetic systems the Ford class uses, and launch the new F-35C model. Such aircraft are more capable than their vertical landing cousins and would be valuable for the Navy to continue operating.
One final criticism of the small carrier approach has to do with their smaller power plants. One of the defining features of the new Ford class is its increased energy production. The larger nuclear plants allow for a surplus of electric power that may be used in the future for laser systems and advanced electronic warfare. While such a large power plant is clearly an advantage of the Ford class, there’s little reason to prioritize massive carriers for this reason alone. Smaller carriers may also have nuclear plants, as may their surface ship partners. Without knowing the future threats our Navy faces, it may even make sense to build a battleship-sized nuclear-powered platform to defend strike groups, something in the vein of the “arsenal ship” first proposed in the 1990s. A more diverse set of platforms with specialization would move the fleet away from the ‘feature creep’ of the one-size-fits-all ships the Navy is moving toward today. Moreover, the importance of a carrier’s travel range has diminished to nothing. While a nuclear carrier may sail the world multiple times over, its sailors need fresh food to eat and other ships in the strike group still require fossil fuels, leaving the carrier tied to needs beyond its own power plant and limiting its range.
While the one-hundred-thousand-ton supercarriers of the last several decades have symbolized American military might and functioned as platforms from which we have launched multiple wars in the Middle East, they poorly suit the needs of the American military today or tomorrow. Smaller aircraft carriers, of approximately sixty-five thousand tons, provide a more flexible, and affordable navy that will be better suited to coordinating with our allies. With a lighter and more numerous carrier fleet, the United States would be better suited to protecting the homeland and maintaining global security.
Will Cohen and James Miller are writers for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.