The Supercarrier is NOT Superfluous

By Captain Christopher J. Murray, U.S. Navy

Marginal Savings, Significant Limitations

Since as far back as 1957, carrier studies have been commissioned, and the conclusions have been consistent: Large-displacement, nuclear-powered carriers capable of launching and recovering an 80-aircraft air wing consisting of current and future-generation aircraft provide inherent mission flexibility and breadth, mobility, survivability, connectability, sea-keeping, and sustainability. No fewer than 76 studies were conducted in the CVX next-generation aircraft carrier “Analysis of Alternatives,” underpinning the design of the new Gerald R. Ford class. These studies, held in three parts from October 1996 to October 2000, concluded that the Nimitz -class follow-on should be designed for a large air wing, should have catapults and arresting gear, should benefit from nuclear power, and should be based on a modified Nimitz -class design due to budget limits. 1

A September 1998 Defense Acquisition Board affirmed these studies and endorsed the Ford -class design. In a forthcoming study, the RAND Corporation assesses high ratings for the Ford class across a wide range of parameters, including mission flexibility, humanitarian support, operating-area access, availability, and interoperability vs. smaller design concepts. The same RAND research found that the Ford -class design accommodates 75 days of ship stores, steams 14 days between underway replenishments, carries 9,275 metric tons of aviation fuel, has 375,000 cubic feet of ordnance storage, and produces 500,000 gallons of fresh water per day. All of these metrics far exceed those of any comparable-mission ship design.

As noted by the multitude of studies conducted over the last several decades, smaller, mid-sized carriers provide only marginal cost savings but result in significant operational limitations. The CVX analysis concluded that a 75-aircraft-capacity ship (100,000 tons) costs 8 percent more than a 55-aircraft ship (65,000 tons) and generates 100 percent more strike sorties; a 75-aircraft-capacity ship costs 5 percent more than a 65-aircraft-capacity ship (80,000 tons) and generates 35 percent more strike sorties. 2 Therefore, it is easy to rate the relative capability of the 45,000-ton America class that Captain Hendrix and Lieutenant Colonel Williams point to as the future.

The Center for Naval Analyses noted in its November 1997 study that the “size of the carrier matters most when the carrier is operating alone, at the beginning of the conflict, and in a high threat environment,” and RAND notes that a “small CVN (less than 90,000 tons) cannot meet the threat.” 3

The America and similar amphibious-assault vessels are ideally suited for their mission: close-in amphibious support to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Stripped of their rotorcraft, the deck size is postulated to handle two squadrons of F-35s—an unconstrained prediction based on PowerPoint slides more than real-world demonstration. The reduced capability of a 45,000-ton ship carring short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) strike-fighters to generate sorties would be so dramatic as to make this platform far less capable across the range of military options than it would be with a full MAGTF air-combat element with its combination of rotor, tilt-rotor, and STOVL aircraft.

A “high/low” or “light/heavy” mix with the supercarriers as surge forces would be prohibitively expensive to acquire, operate, and sustain. The inherent flexibility of the large-deck nuclear carrier fielded in the correct numbers is the most cost-effective way to service combatant-commander missions. Congress has mandated by law a floor of 11 carriers and 10 carrier air wings.

But perhaps 11 will not be enough in an unknown, future world order of regional conflict prowled by ambitious and aggressive hegemons. Most experts fear that our carrier capability is stretched too thin, and they are very concerned about what will happen in 2013 when the 51-year-old nuclear supercarrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is retired. Her replacement, the Gerald R. Ford , is not scheduled to be commissioned until late 2015.

Obsolete? No, an Expanded Role

Does the Navy believe 11 carriers are enough to meet the challenges demanded of them by successive presidential administrations? In June 2000—before the attacks of 9/11 and our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq—the Navy told Congress that it needed 15 carrier battle groups. Unfortunately, with only 11 carriers, large areas of the globe are suffering from a “presence deficit.” According to Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, those areas include the Black Sea, the Baltic region, the Indian Ocean, and areas off the African coast. In addition, South America, the Caribbean, and the Balkans have not seen a carrier in years. 4

Hendrix and Williams note an “issue of concern is the highly experimental and expensive move toward high-sortie-generation technology like the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which flies in the face of transition to precision-strike systems that promise one-target:one-weapon ratios.” There is no logic at all in connecting the launch system for aircraft and the probability-of-kill of a weapon. In fact, EMALS and the advanced arresting-gear systems planned for installation in the Ford will facilitate the sortie-generation rates necessary in future maritime battles. But most important, their advanced design and inherent technology allow the use of smaller aircraft-launch-and-recovery-equipment teams and lower sustainment costs while expanding the flexibility of our carrier decks to accommodate the broad array of possible aircraft. Overall, the technology embedded in the Ford design allows crew-size reduction to 4,660 from nearly 6,000 required to operate Nimitz -class carriers.

Likewise, assumptions about reduced range and combat effectiveness of the carrier air wing are not borne out by facts. Contrary to critics’ charges that aircraft carriers are obsolete, carriers have played an expanded role since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Carrier-based pilots have flown most of the critical early sorties in almost every “hot” encounter of the past 20 years. With fewer and fewer overseas bases available to the United States, Navy and Marine air wings have been called on to provide the majority of initial air power in almost every major military contingency, and only after the initial phase was the Air Force brought in for sustained air operations.

When special-operations forces and CIA operatives went into Afghanistan after 9/11, carrier-based aircraft provided the essential air cover, at combat ranges of 900 nautical miles, as no land bases were available to the United States within range of Afghanistan. In 2003, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, five Navy carriers provided essential air-superiority and ground support for the early operations in Iraq, executing repeated deep-strike missions at durations of up to ten hours. More than half of all American sorties in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom were conducted by carrier-based pilots, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused American requests to operate Air Force jets from land bases. And today, fully 30 percent of the missions in Afghanistan are being serviced by a single carrier air wing operating in the North Arabian Sea. 5

Carriers also have played a growing role in providing urgently needed disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Following the 2004 Asian tsunami, the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) led relief efforts. Not only did the carrier’s flight deck provide the main staging area for distribution of desperately needed supplies, her medical facilities and production of millions of gallons of potable water helped save thousands of lives. 6 Last year, it was a carrier strike group that brought early and urgently needed aid to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, and most recently, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was first to arrive off the Japanese coast as part of Operation Tomodachi, during which 1,100 flight-hours of search-and-relief operations were conducted and 260 tons of relief supplies delivered over a four-week period. 7

Still No Substitute

The assumption that new, smaller, unmanned aircraft as well as STOVL capability will supersede carrier power projection and air dominance violates first, the laws of physics, and second, rules of engagement. To fulfill the “one target:one weapon” goal, aircraft will have to be capable of launching with an employable payload against a representative target. Weapons in this class weigh 500 to 2,000 pounds, a design constraint for smaller and/or STOVL designs when payload carriage and weapons bring-back are key performance parameters. Unmanned aircraft offer many advantages, which is why the Navy is demonstrating the N-UCAS X-47 and developing the follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.

These unmanned aircraft will become a part of the carrier air wing as early as 2018, complementing a mix of survivable first-day-of-war penetrators and high-capacity strike-fighters with a persistent, long-range ISR and strike capability. But the artificial intelligence needed for these vehicles to operate autonomously is far into the future, circa 2050. These limitations and realities constrain presumptions about autonomous networks of smaller, unmanned vehicles to fantasy, not reality, in the next four decades. Notably, these systems will not cost less than similar, manned systems because the mission set requires investment in high-end technology. The conclusion that UCLASS is a more cost-effective solution to fifth-generation mission sets is uninformed.

Canceling the F-35C in favor of buying more F-18E/F aircraft would certainly be less expensive, as proponents of that recommendation assert. However, this course of action would fail to pace the threat. The Joint Strike Fighter promises to be a revolutionary airframe. In addition to its extended range, the fifth-generation capabilities highlighting data fusion, all-aspect stealth, advanced weapons, and significant ISR capability will change the nature of air warfare and will provide day-one access to the carrier strike-group commander.

Superior Sortie Capability

In concert with the F/A-18E/F, the combined fourth- and fifth-generation advantages of these airframes will be multiplied by the sortie-generation capacity of the large-deck carrier. With a task force of five or more carriers operating continuously in all weather conditions, day and night, launching more than 260 sorties per day per deck, the offensive power will overwhelm the adversary. This level of capability involves significant investment, yet yields huge warfighting returns.

Much has been made of the cost of the F-35 and the large-deck aircraft carrier. It is one thing to point at the high dollar cost and quite another to assess the value of the weapon system—the operational capability. Comparison of our newest carrier system against a 1976 Nimitz baseline is inappropriate, as budgets that are three decades old and existed in a different world order are irrelevant.

In its forthcoming study, the RAND Corporation notes that the Ford -class Selected Acquisition Report data showed research/development-testing/evaluation expenditures add almost 40 percent of the procurement cost for the first ship and non-recurring costs add almost 29 percent. The first ship costs 5 percent more than follow-on ships and non-recurring costs are proportional; design stability reduces cost.

A 2006 study revealed that the average annual nuclear-carrier price inflation was 7.4 percent from 1950 to 2000. This was attributed mostly to increases in capability and government-furnished equipment, as well as economic factors such as labor and material costs. Notably, RAND found that costs rose much less steeply for aircraft carriers than they did for surface combatants, nuclear-powered submarines, and amphibious ships. 8

An analysis of the contract costs of all ships in the Nimitz class shows that the follow-ship costs are fairly steady. Thus, follow-on vessels of the Ford class will cost less to launch in constant-year dollars. Additionally, Ford capability improvements, which resulted in three times more electrical power and a 25 percent increase in sortie generation, achieved a $5.5 billion total-ownership cost reduction—a reduction of maintenance requirements by 30 percent, as well as the concomitant personnel-billet reduction of approximately 1,000. Acquisition of a smaller ship design would yield two small 40-aircraft air-wing carriers that cost 50 percent more to operate than a single 80-aircraft air-wing carrier—and at a dramatically reduced sortie-generation capacity.

More Bang for the Buck

Similarly, RAND found that lower-cost aviation platforms are certainly possible, but large (more than 50 percent) cost reductions lead to STOVL platforms with greatly reduced mission flexibility, higher aircraft costs, and more technical risks. Medium cost reductions (20–50 percent) could provide a conventional launch platform but lose the operational flexibility, striking power, sustainment, and independence from the logistics constraints and price uncertainty for propulsion fuel that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier provides.

Savings in this case will not be proportional to the loss in operational capability. Smaller reductions (less than 20 percent) could come from reducing the cost of Ford -class ships, an enterprise with the clear focus of the Navy. RAND’s conclusion is that the choice should be dictated by future missions, operating assumptions, and planned aircraft levels—in other words, not likely to favor the small-deck option.

Several countries with interest in maritime influence are sailing or building aircraft carriers, China being the most recent fledgling notable. The British, French, and Italians have a long history of carrier operations. For the United States, the inescapable culmination of the carrier debate is the investment the country makes in worldwide presence, sea control, maritime-domain primacy, and influencing potential areas of conflict. The debate is not about the dollar cost, it is about the value of American influence.

Dr. Robert Farley, assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, notes that the question moving forward, both for the United States and for other countries, is not simply, “Do we need aircraft carriers, and if so which kind?” Rather, the question should be formulated as, “What do our naval aviation choices indicate about the role we play in international society?”

F-35Bs may be “good enough” for a country like Italy, but not for the Royal Navy. Heavy investment in submarines and ballistic missiles may be the best choice for a China interested in fighting and winning wars, but not for a China that wants to play a role in the most important political decisions made in international society. The mighty carriers of the U.S. Navy carry not just F/A-18s, but also a set of understandings about what it means to be a powerful nation. 9

The expeditionary Navy/Marine Corps team is the country’s most effective political-military instrument, with reach across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic realms. The American emphasis on sea power needs to expand, especially against a rising China that seeks to limit our influence in the western Pacific. The supercarrier would be Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “next-generation” maritime asset to ensure access and influence across the range of military options, in all phases of operations, deterring and preventing conflict, then winning decisively in combat against all competitors.

When the return on this investment is amortized over 50 years of service, the value to the American taxpayer is obvious. When the bow of the Ford moves into view around the headland with the Stars and Stripes snapping in the wind, allies breathe more easily and potential adversaries have second thoughts. It is this undeniable power and influence that America should continue to wield. The supercarrier is the preeminent symbol and arbiter of this power.

1. Program Executive Office, “Aircraft Carriers” brief (May 2011).

2. Center for Naval Analyses, CAB 98-93.09 (September 1998).

3. Center for Naval Analyses, CAB 97-83 (November 1997).

4. Steve Cohen, “Where are the Carriers?” blog (25 October 2010), .

5. Chief of Naval Operations remarks (13 January 2011), people/cno/Roughead/Speech/SNA.pdf>.

6. Cohen, “Where are the Carriers?”

7. U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs Office, “7th Fleet observes moment of silence, reflects on Operation Tomodachi,” 11 April 2011.

8. Mark. V. Arena, Irv Blickstein, Obaid Younossi, and Clifford A. Grammich, Why Has the Cost of Navy Ships Risen? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006), .

9. Robert Farley, “Over the Horizon: Symbol and Utility in The Great Carrier Debate,” World Politics Review , 11 May 2011, .

Captain Murray is head of Strike Aircraft Plans and Requirements in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.


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