The U.S. Navy: The Sinking of a Carrier

By Norman Polmar

The Nimitz evolved from the first "super carrier," the United States (CVA-58), which was laid down—and canceled—in April 1949, almost 50 years ago. Each super carrier built since then has been an improvement over its predecessors, an evolutionary development. But the CVX, according to the Navy's Director of Air Warfare, was being designed on a "clean sheet of paper." It would

feature improved characteristics in selected areas, such as launch and recovery equipment, flight deck layout, C4I [command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence] systems, information networks, and propulsion systems [and] features that will make them more affordable to operate.

This "entirely new class" has been canceled because of funding shortfalls. Although the Navy never announced a total development and design-cost for CVX, the fiscal year 1999 defense program indicated just more than $1 billion in development costs. The program had passed development Milestone 0 in March 1996 but was never adequately funded by the Navy. Despite this situation, Navy leaders continued to promote the concept of a clean-sheet design. Indeed, this stance continued even after Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson announced that the CVX definitely would have nuclear propulsion.

Admiral Johnson's decision was based on a draft study, "CVX Feasibility," prepared by the Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) in 1997. The report stated that "for maximum availability, the ship should have a nuclear power plant." But the Navy's powerful nuclear propulsion community, led by Admiral Frank (Skip) Bowman, already saw nuclear power as a given for the CVX, according to a top defense writer. According to Admiral Bowman, "Without this endurance and flexibility [provided by nuclear-propelled, carriers], we would be hard put to do what we are doing today."

Despite acquiescence to the nuclear propulsion community, the CVX continued to be underfunded. Then, this spring, Congress cut almost $100 million from its development. Subsequently, a Navy official was reported as saying, "We just cannot afford the investment needed to achieve the hoped-for long-term savings."

Thus, the CVX has been scuttled. The next carrier, the unnamed CVN-77, has been described by the Navy as a "transition" between the Nimitz and the CVX, incorporating new technologies resulting from research and development for the CVX. Now that ship, too, will be a further improvement on the Nimitz design, with few of the features that were being considered for the CVX. Subsequent large carriers—if built—will be similar.

The Navy thus has lost the chance to develop a new carrier design that it hoped would provide a more efficient warship and have significantly lower procurement and life-cycle costs.


Norman Polmar is an analyst, consultant, and author specializing in naval, aviation, and science and technology issues. He has been a consultant or advisor on naval-related issues to three U.S. senators, the Speaker of the House, and the Deputy Counselor to the President, as well as to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has written or coauthored more than fifty published books and numerous articles on naval, aviation, technology, and intelligence subjects.

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