Aircraft Carriers Provide Best Value To The Nation In Uncertain Times

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D.

Which military platform or system is best suited for the uncertain and dangerous times in which we live? If you could choose one would it be a long-range bomber (B-1, 2, 52 or the new LRS-B), fighter aircraft (F-15, 16, 18, 22 or the new F-35), the M-1 Abrams tank or Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicle or the Virginia-class attack submarine, Arleigh Burke missile destroyer or the new LPD 17 amphibious warfare ships. Each of these are among the best in their class the world over.

But if you were to have to pick just one platform or system to address the range of threats this nation will confront for the rest of the 21st Century, provide the greatest strategic and operational flexibility and demonstrate the strength of American commitment and resolve as well as sheer power, it would have to be the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN). The U.S. Navy’s fleet of CVNs are unique in their ability to provide sea control over vast swathes of the world’s oceans, project power hundreds of miles inland, support the full range of naval missions, enable joint expeditionary forces, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and show the flag. Other platforms and forces can do some of these missions, often with proper support. The CVN as the centerpiece of a carrier strike group can do them all.

Today, the U.S. Navy has a fleet of 10 Nimitz-class CVNs, not sufficient even to a world without great power conflict.  The Navy had to do a quick shuffle to get the USS Harry S. Truman ready to sail to the Middle East in order to cover the gap in capabilities created when the USS Theodore Roosevelt was withdrawn.  Increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Pacific mean that the Navy, in general, but the CVN force, in particular, is increasingly pulled in multiple directions.

The Nimitz class (CVNs 68-77) are marvels of modern design, systems engineering and naval construction. The new class, the Ford (CVN 78), includes an array of technological advances that will allow these ships to remain at the forefront of naval operations for their prospective 50 year lifespan. It will operate at sea for longer and generate at least a third more sorties than its predecessor while employing some 700 fewer sailors. Improvements in design and operations will permit the air wing to be more responsive, efficient and lethal with 400 fewer personnel. The Ford class also has advanced features that will, over time, allow for the deployment of new system support and new ways of operating. Overall, these improvements will result in an estimated $4 billion in reduced total ownership costs over the 50 year life of each Ford class as compared to the Nimitz class.

Despite its unique features and obvious capabilities, the Ford has come in for more than a little criticism. At a targeted price of $12.9 billion for the first new CVN, the Ford is an expensive platform, some have argued too expensive particularly given the rise in cost over the initial estimates. Others have argued that regardless of how useful aircraft carriers are, they have become too vulnerable in the age of long-range sensors and ship-killing ballistic and high speed cruise missiles. The critics argue either for building a larger number of small aircraft-carrying ships or for eliminating them altogether in favor of missile carrying surface combatants, submarines and long-range bombers.

But how expensive is the Ford, really? In terms of cost per ton CVNs are cheaper than any class of combatants save amphibious warfare ships. This includes classes of ships such as destroyers and submarines of which the Navy acquires multiple hulls every year allowing for learning curve effects on costs. CVNs are built once every five years which poses a challenge for reducing costs by moving down the learning curve. While each other class of warship is dominant in certain mission areas, only the CVN provides the breadth of capabilities, massive magazines and inherent flexibility.

When it comes to cost increases, it turns out that the CVNs have done better than other ship types. According to a RAND Corporation study, since 1950, annual cost escalation rates for construction of ships have ranged from 7-11 percent per year, with the highest being 10.9 percent for surface combatants and the lowest 7.4 percent for CVNs. There are estimates that the cost escalation of the next two Ford-class CVNs will be below 7 percent.

So this leaves the question of vulnerability. Many critics of large deck aircraft carriers have referenced the deployment by Beijing of the DF-21, supposedly a precision guided anti-ship ballistic missile intended to home in on U.S. CVNs. But the U.S. Navy, generally, and the CVN, in particular, is not built just for war with China. There are many missions it can perform and many adversaries it can confront where the threat is not as severe. But even vis-à-vis China, locating a carrier strike group and the CVN in the vast expanse of the world’s oceans is not an easy thing for any military. Moreover, the U.S. will have many opportunities to interfere with the kill chain the Chinese military must operate in order to successfully hit a moving ship with a missile launched from a thousand miles away.

Instead of looking at the price of the Ford-class CVN, it would be wiser to consider its value. For the money, this new class of warships is clearly best value.

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