Why America Still Needs Aircraft Carriers
The critics are wrong: Flattops are the platform of the future, not the past.
When Adm. Jonathan Greenert assumed office in September 2011 as the 30th chief of U.S. naval operations (CNO), he issued "Sailing Directions" that included three tenets to guide how the U.S. Navy would organize, train, and equip its future force: "Warfighting First," "Operate Forward," and "Be Ready." Combined, they provide the lens through which we should view important operational and budgetary decisions facing our service in both the near and long term.
Since Day One of Greenert’s tenure — faced with the prospect of diminishing defense budgets — the U.S. Navy has been grappling with the challenge of maintaining sufficient core warfighting capacity and capability, both of which ensure the Navy remains "forward" or capable of strategically influencing global events while maintaining its readiness to respond on demand. For the aviation arm of the Navy, executing the "Operate Forward" tenet is central to who we are as a force and to supporting the defense strategic guidance outlined by the White House in 2012.
To sustain global leadership, we must have enough ships to maintain an enduring and capable naval presence in those areas of significant interest to the United States. To be effective, our capability must be credible — and fully appreciated by any potential adversary. As we deal with declining budgets, there will be pressure to pursue a strategy suggested by some critics (who are mostly focused on near-term cost and perceived vulnerability) to eliminate some big-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs) and convert the "savings" into some quantity of smaller surface combatants and L-class amphibious ships. In theory, this strategy would increase the presence density of U.S. naval forces and meet the capacity demands outlined in current defense strategic guidance. But let’s examine this emerging strategy a bit more closely.
Numbers alone do not guarantee attainment of the goals of naval presence, which include, as J.J. Widen has noted, assistance, cooperation, assurance, influence, persuasion, deterrence, compellence, and coercion. The Navy must, as Greenert’s "Sailing Directions" states, provide "offshore options to deter, influence and win in an era of uncertainty." Devolving the qualitative value of naval presence afforded by a CVN and her embarked air wing into the quantitative value of a larger number of smaller surface combatants neglects the fundamental purpose of naval presence: deter, influence, and win in an uncertain environment.
There are a number of navies around the globe that can sustain a force consisting of smaller surface combatants, but none that can equal the global presence of the U.S. Navy. What clearly distinguishes the U.S. Navy from the rest of the world is its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and extremely effective (and becoming more so) embarked carrier air wing (CVW). But the strength of the U.S. Navy derives from more than just hardware. It derives from the adaptability and flexibility of this combat-proven team that throughout the past 70 years has evolved to overcome potential adversary capabilities. Time and again, the innovative and evolutionary character of naval aviation has proven its value to deter — or substantively and decisively contribute — to major conflicts around the globe, protect commerce and free trade, and ultimately contribute to the security of the United States.
Smaller fleets around the globe are relatively limited in what they can accomplish, both at sea and ashore. Naval gunfire is traditionally effective on shore and the revolution in precision strike weapons, such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), has increased the range, precision, and explosive yield of its kinetic effects. However, these are principally kinetic effects, limited to what we call the "right side of the kill chain." An aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing, meanwhile, have the capability to operate across the full spectrum of warfare, including the electromagnetic spectrum and the non-kinetic or "left side of the kill chain."
Additionally, an air wing operating from a nuclear-powered aircraft is capable of transcending the air-land boundary with high-end effects (precision strikes), mid-level effects (non-kinetic shows of force), and lower-end but strategically significant effects (security cooperation or humanitarian assistance/disaster relief). In the end, the CVN/CVW combination is the only maritime force anywhere in the world capable of delivering effects along the entire spectrum — from assistance to coercion — with the ability to rapidly transition into large-scale major combat operations if required. Emerging and re-emerging navies around the world understand this. That’s why countries aspiring to extend their influence are building aircraft carriers.
As the Department of Defense considers future force design, it must recognize that in many scenarios, the United States can deploy a CVN/CVW combination in place of a large onshore footprint, while taking full advantage of international air and sea space, without requiring over flight or basing rights. Affordability — the central tenet in big-deck carrier critics’ arguments — fails to consider the cost-avoidance value of these marvels of power, efficiency, and adaptability. Seen this way, the dollar cost of the carrier is a bargain and the political advantages are overwhelming, especially for a war-weary nation looking to avoid protracted commitments in foreign lands.
But the United States is also struggling to repair its fiscal house, and the aircraft carrier is expensive — being arguably the most complicated and technologically advanced weapon system in the history of warfare. But if one views that investment through the lens of a 50-year service life (which, by the way, is how long our CVNs are designed to last) that includes warfighting upgrades, modernization, and upkeep, carriers promise a pretty good return. Consider the legendary 51-year history of the recently retired USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Designed in and for a different age, "Big E" was combat-ready and credible in her first deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, just as she was combat-ready and credible during her final deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan in 2012.
Today, the U.S. Navy is building the Ford class of aircraft carriers. Many recent articles quote values ranging from $13-15 billion as the cost to build the first ship of the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). Those figures, however, include not only the cost of building the first of ship, but also all of the design and development costs for the entire Ford class — a class of ship that will be in service for the next 94 years. Factoring the design and development cost of the entire class into the price of the first ship is like saying the first iPhone cost $150 million or the first Toyota Prius cost more than $1 billion. When the design and development costs are removed from the inflated "shock value" cost of the CVN 78, it is only 18 percent more expensive than the most recent ship built in our current Nimitz carrier class. Moreover, the design and development investment in the Ford class will deliver a product that is more capable and has lower life cycle costs ($4 billion less) than its predecessors, and which will continue paying dividends for nearly a century.
Even in light of that return-on-investment timeline, affordability remains a key consideration and the Navy is leveraging the learning on CVN 78 to further reduce costs on the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). In real terms, CVN 79 will cost more than $1 billion less to build than CVN 78, and will require
fewer man-hours to build than the last carrier in the current class. In the end, the Navy is building one Ford class carrier every 5 years, which represents about 0.4 percent of the defense budget during that time frame. If we take a long strategic view and keep the USS Enterprise in mind, that is pretty good return on investment.
Finally, some critics have questioned whether an aircraft carrier can remain relevant in tomorrow’s threat environment. The answer to that question lies not only with the aircraft carrier, but also with her embarked air wing. The USS Midway (CV 41) was commissioned in 1945, with an air wing consisting of Corsairs and Avengers. During her final combat cruise in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, her air wing was comprised of Intruders, Hornets, Prowlers, and Hawkeyes. Likewise, the air wing complement on Ford class carriers at the end of their service life, we postulate, will be radically different than the air wing CVN 78 will carry at the time of her commissioning.
Unlike other classes of ships, the aircraft carrier does not need to be retired when its primary weapons system becomes obsolete. Similarly, defensive systems are more easily upgraded aboard an aircraft carrier than any other ship. The USS Midway’s 1945 five-inch guns, for example, had been replaced by the Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile system as well as Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) capable of defending the carrier against Anti Ship Missiles (ASM), aircraft, and littoral warfare threats by 1991. Likewise, by the time she retires in 2065, the Ford’s Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, and CIWS will likely be replaced by entirely new defensive systems that we can’t even imagine today — and her two nuclear reactors and unprecedented electrical power will provide plenty of "juice" to integrate the directed energy weapons of the future. Greenert has used the USS Enterprise as a prime example in his "Payloads Over Platforms" theme for the future design of our Navy, and it is a testament to the aircraft carrier’s proven track record of strategic adaptability. This record of strategic adaptability is proof-positive that we ought never to cede battlespace to any potential adversary.
For more than 70 years, the unmatched range, speed, endurance, and flexibility of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier strike force has presented the United States with global freedom of action while operating — even when contested — in international waters and air domains. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a "permission slip" for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power.