The U.S. Navy’s Big Mistake — Building Tons of Supercarriers
The Pentagon behaves as if aircraft carriers will rule forever … they won’t
by DAVID W. WISE
This story originally appeared on May 27, 2015. With 314,000 views in 2016, it was our most popular story of the year.
“History,” it has been written, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Today it’s rhyming with Gen. Billy Mitchell. In the 1920s, Mitchell challenged conventional thinking by advocating air power at sea in the face of a naval establishment dominated by battleship proponents.
The hubris of the “battleship Navy” was such that just nine days before Pearl Harbor, the official program for the 1941 Army-Navy game displayed a full page photograph of the battleship USS Arizona with language virtually extolling its invincibility.
Of course, the reason that no one had yet sunk a battleship from the air — in combat — was that no one had yet tried.
In fact, Mitchell sank a captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland, in an aerial demonstration back in 1921, but the Navy said that the test proved nothing. Two of the observers that day were officials from Japan.
In addition, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a student at Harvard at the time and no doubt read accounts of the event that were widely reported in the newspapers.
The aircraft carrier decisively replaced the battleship as the Navy’s sea control capital ship, but its reign in that capacity was, in reality, quite brief. The aircraft carrier established its ascendancy in the Battle of Midway and was the centerpiece of five major sea battles between 1942 and 1944.
Yet, following the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the U.S. Navy repositioned the aircraft carrier as a platform to project power ashore. The United States did not lose a fleet carrier in the war after the Hornet went down in 1942, because Japan’s surface fleet had been devastated. Nor did Tokyo effectively use its submarines.
That track record, just as the boast in the Army/Navy game program, however, is not an indication that a carrier cannot be sunk — or put out of commission — but rather the fact that since 1945, the U.S. Navy has never engaged another navy in battle that tried.
“Projecting the past into the future is risky business — especially when we’re unsure what that past was,” James Holmes, a naval warfare expert at the U.S. Naval War College wrote.
Which brings us to today. The U.S. Navy has fallen into a troubling pattern of designing and acquiring new classes of ships that would arguably best be left as single ship — or at most in limited numbers. It’s also building several types of new aircraft that fail to meet specifications.
The Navy is developing a new class of supercarriers that cannot function properly, and has designed them to launch F-35 fighters that are not ready to fly their missions. This is all happening during an era of out-of-control budgets, which bodes poorly for American sea power and leadership ahead.
That the Navy is concentrating larger percentages of its total force structure on large, high signature and increasingly vulnerable ships endangers America’s future. Fortunately, there’s better options to the status quo if the Navy moves now.
Before asking whether it makes sense to continue to invest in aircraft carriers, we must ask the question whether we can afford them.
The Pentagon commissioned the USS George H.W. Bush in 2009 at a cost of $6.1 billion. America’s most recent aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, will cost more than double that in constant dollars. The carriers’ air wings cost about 70 percent again the cost of the ship itself.
In an era when personnel costs — including healthcare and pensions — are consuming the military from within, the fact that these craft require 46 percent of the Navy’s personnel to man and support places them in the crosshairs in an extreme budget-constrained environment.
The Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments stated that being the most expensive piece of military equipment in the world makes “them a prime — and perhaps even a necessary target — in this era of belt tightening.”
If 11 carriers — as required by legislation — is the minimal number required to have an effective supercarrier force, then carrier proponents are hoist upon their own petard.
“If our fleet of small numbers is so fragile that it cannot afford the loss of a single ship due to budgeting, how will it survive the inevitable losses of combat?” Commander Phillip E. Pournelle wrote in Proceedings.
That day has already come. As of early 2014, the Navy only has 10 operational supercarriers. Sequestration delayed the deployment of the Harry S. Truman and has the Navy scrambling to come up with funds to refuel the Abraham Lincoln, raising the question whether the latter will ever come back into service.
It appears dubious that the Ford will have overcome major development issues to come into service in 2016.
Furthermore, if sequestration persists, the Navy might have to mothball four of nine air wings, making the discussion of 11 carrier platforms moot. Due to these substantial constraints, the Congressional Budget Office and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel both floated the possibility of the Navy going down to as few as eight supercarriers.
The Navy, like the other services, has proven itself incapable of running an effective weapons acquisition program in recent decades. Instead, the services pay increasingly more money for progressively fewer units that often fail to meet original specifications.
The current shipbuilding plan calls for the Navy to have 306 ships while the actual number has dwindled to 285. The CBO recently concluded that there is approximately a 30 percent gap between what the Navy would require to meet its shipbuilding plan and what it will likely obtain through the appropriation process.
The Navy’s own acquisitions chief recently told Congress that given the current trends and budget outlook, the Navy could slip to as few as 240 ships in the next several decades.
The commitment to aircraft carriers is literally cannibalizing the rest of the Navy and simultaneously interfering with its ability to meet emerging requirements and threats.
Work began in 2005 on the Ford at an estimated procurement cost of $10.5 billion, which later increased to $12.8 and most recently to $14.2 billion and rising. Unfortunately, as the General Accountability Office noted in a recent report — issued when the Ford was 56 percent complete — that “our previous work has shown that the full extent of cost growth does not usually manifest itself until after the ship is more than 60 percent complete.”
Stating that the “plan may prove unexecutable,” the GAO added that the Ford will be unlikely to fill the gap created by the scheduled decommissioning of the Enterprise. Worse, the Ford would “likely face operational limitations that extend past commissioning and into initial deployments.”
The already stretched multi-year procurement budget assumes that the Navy will spend $43 billion to procure the Ford and two other carriers of this class at the pace of one every five years, which does not include any additional cost overruns.
Unfortunately, cost estimates for the F-35Cs slated to fly off the Ford’s decks have almost doubled while performance concerns continue to mount.
Calling the Navy estimates “optimistic,” the GAO exhorted the service to “improve the realism” of the budget projections. Meanwhile the CBO has floated various options including canceling future procurement of Ford-class carriers. The Navy is currently trying to shift part of the funding for completion until after delivery of the first ship in an apparent attempt to obscure the extent of the overruns.
The surface fleet procurement program has suffered a massive disconnect between emerging capabilities and system design. Naval Operations chief Adm. Jonathan Greenert discussed the revolution in precision-weaponry such that “instead of sorties per aimpoint, we now commonly speak of aimpoints per sortie.”
But instead of leveraging this massive improvement in precision weapons, the Ford-class carriers were designed prior to his tenure and the costs have driven through the roof. This was in order to include new, untested technologies that dramatically increased the number of sorties that could be launched even though the performance ratios were going dramatically in the opposite direction.
Vulnerable to attack
The economies of scale that favored the carrier as a force projection instrument were made possible by the ability of such behemoths to operate close to shore with impunity. That age is drawing to a close.
The famed Adm. Horatio Nelson observed that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” In the new age that is dawning, the “fort” is an increasingly sophisticated range of over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles that render surface ships vulnerable, and which will deny them proximity to the coastlines where U.S. carriers have reigned for decades.
These include ballistic missiles fired from a wide range of platforms, including easy to conceal mobile launchers. In a sweeping 2013 paper on the carrier’s future, Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix estimated China could produce 1,227 DF-21D ballistic anti-ship missiles for the cost of a single U.S. carrier.
Although one missile might not sink a carrier, a single missile might cause sufficient damage to take it out of commission.
Further, the radar signature of a 100,000-ton ship is very large and the sensors used on the carrier’s current defense systems only increase that signature.
In such an attack, the fleet must be able to defend against a large number of incoming weapons approaching on evasive trajectories at greater than twice the speed of sound, while the attacker needs to only score a few hits. These new anti-ship missiles “put U.S. forces on the wrong side of physics,” the U.S. Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson warned.
Emerging anti-ship technology also places the aircraft carrier on the wrong side of basic arithmetic.
In its capacity as a force projection platform, the carrier operates by launching various types of attack and tactical fighter aircraft from its decks. The unrefueled radius of the Navy’s current F/A-18E Super Hornet falls within 390–450 nautical miles. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will have an unrefueled combat radius of 730 nautical miles.
The Department of Defense, however, estimates that the range of the DF-21D anti-ship missile to be 1,500–1,750 nautical miles and some speculate the range to be greater.
Recognizing the fact that these numbers will require placing the carrier strike groups well outside of their range, former Naval War College Dean Robert Rubel observed that “a successful defense of a carrier does no good if the carrier cannot in turn succeed in attacking enemy naval forces.”
Although a sustained attack from land-based ballistic missiles would be more than a challenge for the Navy’s current “hard kill” defense systems, the situation is potentially more serious.
The Navy’s plan to disrupt ballistic missile command-and-control systems with electronic measures would be inhibited by the same “range” arithmetic that keeps such craft far from shore.
“Even more ominous,” military analyst Robert Haddick wrote, “are the squadrons of maritime strike fighters capable of launching scores of long-range, high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles, in volumes that threaten to overwhelm the most modern fleet defenses.”
A reality-check exercise would be to conduct a theoretical battle with the rapidly developing People’s Liberation Army Navy. The Chinese have around 100 fast missile boats — primarily of the Hubei class with stealth catamaran hulls — that carry eight anti-ship cruise missiles with current ranges of 160 nautical miles.
A coordinated attack would also likely include aircraft and Sovremenny-class destroyers and, in the next decade, an estimated 75–80 submarines — both nuclear and diesel — armed with torpedoes and some with wave skimming, supersonic anti-ship missiles supplied by or copied from advanced Russian models.
Russia has been developing sea- and bomber-launched anti-ship missiles for decades. Russia is also a major arms merchant, making these anti-access systems potentially among its most attractive wares. In addition, those that are not purchased could also be reverse-engineered. Iran has, for obvious reasons, a very strong interest in and an unknown arsenal of such weapons.
As the costs of these weapons come down, the rate of proliferation will increase and place this technology in the hands of smaller states and potentially non-state groups. With such proliferation, the latitude of carrier task groups to own the coastlines along which they wish to operate in a power projection role will evaporate.
A troubling sign of things to come is a Russian firm that is reportedly selling a “Club-K” cruise missile concealable in shipping containers deployable on trucks, rail cars or merchant ships.
Although the saliency of this issue is now greater due to rapid advances in capabilities, there is nothing new in the vulnerability of aircraft carriers in specific and surface ships in general. Like the battleship admirals prior to Pearl Harbor, carrier advocates take solace from an unblemished record resulting from “the Cold War [having] ended without a Leyte Gulf,” Holmes noted.
A U.S. carrier group only came face-to-face with a Russian carrier task force during the Cold War once. During the tensions surrounding the Yom Kippur war, the presence of a “locally superior Russian force” resulted in the American ships having to reposition further west in the Mediterranean.
Soviet Adm. Sergei Gorchakov reportedly held the view that the U.S. had made a strategic miscalculation by relying on large and increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers. The influential U.S. Adm. Hyman Rickover shared this view. In a 1982 congressional hearing, legislators asked him how long American carriers would survive in an actual war.
Rickover’s response? “Forty-eight hours,” he said.
Now let’s take a look at the unofficial record derived from war games. In 2002, the U.S. Navy held a large simulated war game, the Millennium Challenge, to test scenarios of attacks on the fleet by a hypothetical Gulf state — Iraq or possibly Iran.
The leader of the red team employed brilliant asymmetric tactics resulting in 16 U.S. ships, including two supercarriers, going to the bottom in a very short span of time. The Navy stopped the war game, prohibited the red team from using these tactics and then reran the exercise declaring victory on the second day.
As with Billy Mitchell and the Ostfriesland, according to the Navy the sinkings never happened. But, as Robert Gates noted in his memoirs, “the enemy always gets a vote.”
Ballistic missiles are just the most recent challenge to carrier vulnerability. “I would argue that you can put a ship out of action faster by putting a hole in the bottom [with a torpedo] than by putting a hole in the top [with a weapon like the DF-21],” former U.S. Naval Operations chief Gary Roughhead said.
This extends to diesel submarines. Although the number of simulated “sinkings” by ships of the Navy is officially unacknowledged, there are reports of around a dozen U.S. aircraft carriers being “sunk” in exercises with friendly countries including Canada, Denmark and Chile.
In 2005, the USS Ronald Reagan was “sunk” by the Gotland, an electric diesel sub that the U.S. Navy borrowed from Sweden between 2005 and 2007 and which was never detected in exercises by U.S. carrier groups during all that time.
Although it’s true that the Soviets and the Americans never faced off in an actual naval battle, there is every reason to believe that they would have had some success against the “invulnerable” carriers. As far back as 1968, a fast nuclear powered Russian submarine matched the Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific.
In 1995, Israeli Adm. Yedidia Ya’ri wrote in the 2005 Naval War College Review that the Russian SS-N-22 “Muskit” anti-ship missile “can probably penetrate any existing defense system, hard or soft-kill, especially when launched in salvos.”
In 2012, test of a slower and higher-flying surrogate of the Muski missile demonstrated that “the Aegis system could not be relied on for effective defense of itself or the aircraft carriers it was escorting,” Winslow Wheeler of the Straus Military Reform Project noted.
One carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, used up three of its nine lives having been run into by an undetected Soviet sub in 1984, overflown by two undetected Russian planes — an Su-24 and an Su-27 — in 2000, and surprised by a Chinese Song-class attack submarine that surfaced undetected inside its perimeter and within torpedo range in 2006.
In March of this year, the French Navy reported that it had sunk the USS Theodore Roosevelt and half of its escorts in a war game, but hurriedly removed that information from its website.
The world, of course, is not standing still. Missile ranges and speeds will increase. Missiles will become more elusive and accurate — and could be nuclear-tipped. Sensors will see further and more accurately, significantly reducing the fog of war. Surface ships, no matter where located, will be increasingly vulnerable.
Supercavitating torpedoes — such as the Russian Shkval — already travel at 200 knots and can track ships for more than 1,000 kilometers. Above the surface, supersonic anti-ship missiles that currently travel at Mach 2 will be replaced by hypersonic missiles that will travel at Mach 5, and Mach 10 and Mach 25.
And well above the surface, newer electronic warfare weapons will reach into space and attack satellites and communications on which the modern information awareness of battle depends.
The future is drones and submarines
The modern aircraft carrier strike group stands at the very pinnacle in the history of warfare in terms of conventional lethality and sophistication. Unfortunately, in the modern context it resembles a Rube Goldberg device — the most complicated system that can be devised to perform a mission.
In order to deliver firepower on a target, the U.S. Navy fields an increasing unaffordable supercarrier which must be escorted by one Aegis cruiser, two destroyers, a nuclear attack submarine and a combined strike force crew of more than 6,000 to carry and launch an air wing of increasingly unaffordable airplanes with inadequate range.
The supercarrier requires an exponential and compounding set of very expensive investments. The total acquisition cost of a carrier strike group exceeds $25 billion, an air wing another $10 billion and the annual operating costs of perhaps $1 billion.
Yet, a cruise missile fired from a wide range of lower signature ships costs less than a third of each bomb delivered by a fighter from the deck of a carrier. Nor do these platforms require a carrier’s defensive shield — and they can launch from beyond the range of carrier-based aircraft.
In another time, the battles of Crecy and Agincourt signaled the end of the age of the armored knight who could be defeated from a distance with advanced, low cost, armor-piercing arrows. The age of the cavalry ended with advances in artillery, mechanized armor and the machine gun in World War I.
A similar shift is occurring now and will displace the modern equivalent of the dashing cavalry officer — the fighter pilot. The knight class never passes willingly — as they take justifiable pride in their acumen and truly believe in their mission. However, the carrier and its air wing cannot be allowed to drive strategy or procurement.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Navy continues to pursue the next generation of fighter, the F-35C, and the next two Ford-class carriers to launch them in spite of an explosion of costs and questions about performance, including its stealthiness.
In what seems like a perversion of logic, the air-Navy “union” has even proposed using some of the new unmanned systems being developed by the Navy, not to replace the fighter, but as an aerial refueling tanker to try to keep the manned aircraft relevant.
USNI News has also reported that the Navy plans to reduce the UCLASS drone to perform only surveillance functions in order to preserve manned fighters. More Rube Goldberg. It’s in no way to dishonor the bravery and skill of fighter pilots to recognize the facts of physiology and physics. Unmanned vehicles and missiles can operate at speeds and turn radiuses that are impossible for a human to withstand.
With the pilot no longer in the equation, the vehicles can also achieve greater stealth. Unmanned craft and missiles cost dramatically less and remove the loss of the pilot from the equation, thus opening up an entire range of strike options than would otherwise be unavailable or suicidal.
Although TV viewers were in awe of images of precision weapons during Desert Storm, precision guided munitions had improved in effectiveness by 12 to 20 fold by the time of the second Iraq war. Those improvements will continue to be matched by increases in range accompanied, in some instances, by hypersonic speed.
In the meantime, new passive and active methods– including the use of VHF and UHF from other sources — will make stealth increasingly elusive to achieve. Worryingly, Defense News has reported claims by Chinese sources that its DWL002 passive radar had already rendered the F-35 obsolete.
Concurrently, improvements and the ubiquitous placement of sensors feeding into massive computational systems will make total battlefield awareness — with the world being the battlefield — a reality. “Sooner or later most of the world’s oceans will fall under the shadow of land-based precision weaponry,” Holmes wrote.
The next two Ford-class carriers will not be completed for another decade — assuming the problems with the first vessel are resolved — and will have a life of 50 years. Can anyone possibly believe, given the pace of technological improvements, that by 2065 supercarriers and the manned aircraft that fly off of them will be anything other than relics?
Given these arguments, the Navy cannot and should not continue to pursue a force structure of 11 carriers. In 2013, an unmanned X-47B with a range three times the current carrier strike group — and twice that projected for the F-35C — landed on the deck of a carrier. Yet the Navy is spending too little on the revolution in unmanned systems.
In a recent joint think-tank symposium, both CSBA and Center for a New American Security called for decommissioning at least two carrier strike groups and possibly diverting savings from the F-35 program to “facilitate this revolution.”
In other words, over the next four or five decades the Navy would transition from large carriers launching fifth-generation fighters to supercarriers launching unmanned systems and to smaller amphibious assault ships — and other lower cost platforms — launching a variety of unmanned systems.
The Navy’s penchant for building ever larger and more complex carrier strike forces is analogous to an effort to build ever larger mainframe computers while the world is already moving from distributed systems to the cloud. Precise weapons can also be placed on a wide range of craft — even fishing boats — raising the specter of the USS Cole suicide attack on steroids.
“Because the most critical naval competition will be a battle of signatures, a small signature-controlled combatant with long-range precision strike will be a decisive component of any fleet,” Hendrix pointed out in Proceedings.
The economics and efficacy of substituting modular and expendable payloads for large hulking platforms is compelling. Such a naval force structure would “more distributed, networked, numerous, elusive, small, long-range and hard to find,” David Gompert and Terrence Kelly of the RAND Corporation noted.
Although the supercarrier would remain in the fleet until the Ford comes out of service, the Navy must move away from its carrier-centric architecture. Large surface ships are increasingly vulnerable, and the Navy should not be build and operate them if the costs are unacceptable.
New and very low-cost landing ships such as the USNS Montford Point and John Glenn can be built at about 1/25th to 1/30th the cost of a supercarrier and project advanced missiles, drones, helicopters, V-22 Ospreys or jump jets. Instead of an arsenal of 90 missiles on an existing Aegis craft, the new Afloat forward stage base ship Lewis B. Puller can hold 2,000 missiles at one-fourth the cost of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
Another logical response to the strategic and technological realities facing the Navy would dictate a very marked emphasis on the improvement and development of a subsurface strategy — both manned and unmanned. Submarines are less vulnerable to cyber and electronic interventions than air- and surface-weapons.
“The sea acts as a massive electromagnetic barrier to interference and as a de facto armor against most forms of attack such as anti-surface cruise or ballistic missiles like the DF-21D ‘carrier killer,’” retired Commander Victor Vescovo stated in Proceedings.
The increasing vulnerability of carriers presents the U.S. in a crisis with a Hobson’s choice of acquiescence or possible exposure of the fleet to heavy losses and potential escalation.
The emerging doctrine of AirSeaBattle, besides possibly coming too late to be of use, would similarly present the U.S. with a policy option that seems to ensure escalation.
The pivot to Asia should result in a pivot in procurement to subsurface vehicles — including stealthy unmanned underwater drones and gliders — not with the objective of scrapping for a fight, but for deterrence and to preserve the peace.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening. The fleet of nuclear attack submarines — as opposed to strategic submarines armed with nuclear warheads — is now slated to drop from 54 in 2013 to cover the entire world to possibly as low as just 39 by 2030.
At present, the Navy is straining to build two attack submarines a year, while it could afford to build 10 at the cost of just one carrier and its air wing and, arguably, to much greater strategic effect. In addition, unlike most of the surface ship acquisition programs, attack submarine programs have had a generally good record for coming in on schedule and budget.
One of the most effective components of an effective submarine procurement program should be a back-to-the-future program involving very quiet diesel submarines. Diesel submarines are very hard to detect and can be procured at a rate of three or four per the cost of each nuclear submarine.
But here, as with Navy carrier policy, the leadership will encounter strong resistance from one of its “unions,” in this case the submariners who are committed to the nuclear Navy.
Sound policy will also require overcoming resistance to replacing manned subs with all manner of unmanned underwater vessels — from the very small to large-displacement unmanned vehicles.
Submarines, which were unsung game changers in both world wars, must continue to develop in terms of offensive capability as launchers of cruise missiles, non-nuclear ballistic missiles and eventually hypersonic missile.
The U.S. Navy is unquestionably the most powerful in the world today in the aggregate. Unfortunately, repeating that phrase like a standard campaign applause line isn’t helpful. While the entire U.S. Navy dominates in tonnage and sheer firepower, that may not be meaningful in a specific locale with the force on deployment.
Then again, although Navy war games often disallow this reality, the very fact that the American Navy is the most powerful to fight a specific type of naval engagement practically guarantees that a future opponent will be so rude as to play a different game.
Yet, the Navy projects into the future a force structure that really is an updated version of what fought in the Pacific in the 1940s, and which was really untested in the Cold War. The alternative force structure hinted at here would equip the Navy possibly for the next 30 to 40 years.
Projected advances in sensor technology, as Greenert noted, will “make stealth difficult to maintain above and below water.” So, too, will the increasing range and precision of hypersonic weapons and the disabling stealth of deniable cyber-attacks. At that point, going into the 2050s and 2060s yet a different force structure and battle concept will be required.
One thing is certain, however. The aircraft carrier will not be the relevant weapon in the second half of the century. Continued overinvestment in them only ensures that the nations and possibly non-state groups that understand the future will be the ones that control the waves.