Sea battle: Big ships vs. big money

U.S. navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrives at the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka base in Yokosuka, near Tokyo Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)


Naval experts are defending the aircraft carrier as a critical piece of America’s national security strategy, amid criticism that the nation’s largest warships could be replaced by smaller, cheaper vessels.

Today’s threats actually increase the need for the aircraft carriers’ unique benefits, which can not be achieved by smaller ships, analysts at the Hudson Institute argued in a report that will be formally unveiled Thursday at an event on Capitol Hill.

“While there are some capabilities that offer portions of the capabilities that the carrier provides, no approach provides them all,” the report says.

But some key lawmakers and defense analysts argue that it may be time for the military to consider smaller, less expensive ships to launch jets, especially as the acquisition of the first Gerald R. Ford-class carriers is delayed and runs significantly over budget.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week that the Pentagon must be willing to pursue options other than traditional carriers that can deliver similar capabilities on time and on budget.

“We must be willing to question whether we need to go back to building smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers that could bring new competitors into this market. We might even have to consider rebalancing our long-rang strike portfolio with fewer carriers and more land-based or precision-guided weapons,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said. “If we can’t do better, everything must be on the table.”

The first ship of the new class, the Ford, is already at least $2 billion over budget and could have compromised capability levels because of delays in developing technology while the ship is being built, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this month. The total cost of the ship could approach $13 billion. The second ship of the class, the John F. Kennedy, is similarly overbudget and expected to cost more than $11 billion.

In addition to the high cost of aircraft carriers, critics also say having smaller ships would ensure a lesser effect on the overall mission if a ship was lost. If a smaller carrier was destroyed in combat, for example, there would not be the same loss of life and equipment as on the 4,000-plus manned carriers of today.

But using smaller carriers would result in a “major decrease” in warfighting capability and getting rid of carriers would leave a “gaping hole” in the military’s ability to project air power overseas, especially as the number of foreign bases decreases, the report argues.

These criticisms being leveled at the ships may just be another valley in a long history over which the perceived value of large aircraft carriers has fluctuated, according to the Hudson Institute report. After World War II, for example, carriers were not seen as especially important to the nation’s national security strategy. The Vietnam War, however, saw a resurgence in the emphasis placed on carriers by strategists.

Defense programs running significantly delayed and over-budget is not unique to the Ford-class carrier acquisition, the report says. In general, companies that oversell the technology they can deliver at a low price are rewarded by winning contracts, and the way the budget process works encourages funding to be secured so early that officials don’t have enough knowledge to make decisions, the report says.

“The decades-old culture of undue optimism when starting programs is not the consequence of a broken process, but rather of a process in equilibrium that rewards unrealistic business cases and, thus, devalues sound practices,” it says.

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