These Rumors of a Nine-Carrier Navy? Over the Long Term, They Could Be Off by Nine

As costs rise and budgets shrink, one officer says the U.S. Navy should entirely abandon giant flattops

News reports indicate the U.S. Navy could eliminate one of its 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers starting in 2015. And according to one prominent naval writer, that single cut should be the beginning of a slow process of completely axing the giant ships from the American fleet.

“The nation must plan a graceful transition that stops building carriers, plans a path for those already built to see them through their service life and creates new means of operational effectiveness in the future,” Capt. Henry Hendrix, an historian and strategist, wrote in a 2013 study for the Center for a New American Security think tank.

The main reason is simple: money. Unless budgets increase, carriers somehow get cheaper or the Pentagon makes deep cuts elsewhere, the Navy cannot afford to maintain today’s 10-flattop force—to say nothing of the 11 carriers it’s required by law to have over the long term.

Hence the recent news that the Navy might propose an early retirement for the 22-year-old flattop USS George Washington—subject to the president’s approval and Congress’ appropriation, of course. And whether or not the sailing branch decommissions George Washington, it’s already planning on keeping just two carriers deployed at a time, down from three or four.

The carrier USS ‘Ronald Reagan’ in San Diego. Navy photo

By the numbers

A thousand-foot-long nuclear aircraft carrier costs $13.5 billion to build—a 100-percent increase in just the last decade—and no less than $500 million per year to operate, repair and upgrade. After absorbing billions in budget cuts due to the economic crisis and the sequestration law, the Navy gets around $40 billion a year to operate its ships and planes and just $13 billion or $14 billion to build new vessels.

The current 10 Nimitz-class flattops—part of a frontline fleet of 283 warships—account for $5 billion of the $40-billion operations and maintenance budget. In other words, three percent of the fleet consumes 13 percent of the operations budget and a whopping 20 percent of the shipbuilding budget, assuming the Navy continues to acquire a new carrier every five years, each serving for 50 years.

Of course, in most scenarios a single 100,000-ton-displacement flattop delivers more useful combat power than a lightly-armed 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ship ($500 million to build)—more, even, than several 10,000-ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyers ($2 billion apiece). It’s not necessarily helpful to directly compare the big, pricey carriers to cheaper, more numerous and less powerful surface warships.

The issue is how much value one attributes to a carrier versus an LCS or destroyer. That’s a question that Hendrix struggled with.

“Given that the aircraft carrier is the benchmark for current naval presence missions, for the purposes of discussion, assume it has a presence value of 1.00 on a sliding scale where a riverine detachment, on the low end, has a value of 0.01,” Hendrix wrote in the CNAS study:

This means that the current acquisition cost of 1.00 presence is $13.5 billion, which raises the question of whether an alternative combination can achieve this level of presence at a lower cost. What is the presence value of a destroyer? Can one assign it a 0.2 presence value? Would spending $10 billion on five destroyers to create a 1.00 naval presence value at an operating cost of $1.8 million per day be a better investment?

Hendrix answered his own question with a proposal: that the Navy stop building big carriers with Gerald R. Ford, the $13.5-billion flattop nearing completion in Virginia. A carrier would leave service every five years or so, allowing the flattop fleet to gradually shrink until the giant ships leave service entirely in 2065.

In their place, Hendrix proposes that the Navy spend its $14-billion shipbuilding budget and $40-billion ops budget on a mix of surface combatants, amphibious assault ships carrying drones and jump jets plus a reinforced submarine fleet with improved land-attack missiles.

In his estimation, a fleet of cheaper and more numerous small ships is superior to an ever-shrinking number of unaffordable big ships like today’s carriers. “The U.S. Navy must be ready to support the nation’s interests,” Hendrix wrote. The question is how it does so.

The Navy has not confirmed the reports of George Washington’s planned 2015 retirement. Politics could intervene and Congress could add money to keep all 10 flattops in the inventory, for now.

But the underlying budgetary trends threatening the flattop fleet are unlikely to change any time soon. And that calls for creative thinking, according to Hendrix. “If it is true that when money gets tight, people get smarter, then the United States needs some very smart people right now.”

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