The Navy's carrier program, which had enjoyed relatively smooth seas for the past two decades appears to be sailing into troubled waters. Since 1979—when Congress overrode President Jimmy Carter's veto to authorize the supercarrier Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)—lawmakers have funded five additional carriers of the Nimitz (CVN-68) class with little debate or controversy.
But now serious questions are being raised. A number of events have triggered this increasing attention by congressional staffers, Department of Defense officials, and even some naval officers. These include: the rapid change in the road map of how the Navy will get to the CVX—the post-Nimitz carrier design; questions about the cost of the next carrier, CVN-77; the declining numbers of aircraft on board U.S. carriers; problems with the F/A-18 Hornet, the principal carrier-based aircraft; the loss of antisubmarine warfare capabilities on carriers; and the issue of a common support aircraft.
Individually, these issues are troubling; taken together, they indicate, in the words of one observer, that "naval aviation seems to have run out of fresh ideas. It has apparently abandoned the idea of designing a totally new class of aircraft carrier, the CVX, as it bows to budgetary constraints."
The Navy had long touted CVN-77, planned for funding in fiscal year 2001, as a transition ship to the next-generation aircraft carrier. She will be the tenth Nimitz-class CVN, and like every successive ship since the Nimitz, she was to incorporate new features. In CVN-77, these would include:
- Multifunction (fixed) radar arrays
- Improved topside arrangement
- Improved self-defense
- Improved materials and processes (including cruise ship or commercial off-the-shelf technology)
All of these features have been long proposed, and to some extent, have been incorporated in previous carriers. The Navy's plan was to follow CVN-77 with the CVX, to be funded in fiscal year 2006, as the first completely new carrier design since the late 1940s. Now, citing fiscal constraints and the need to maintain a 12-carrier force, it will move toward a "new" ship—still designated CVX—in a manner it calls progressive and evolutionary. This approach is intended to "flatten out" the technical risk, cost, and schedule for achieving a new carrier design.
Not only is this approach negating the original CVX "clean sheet" concept, but it also ignores the report of the highly innovative study undertaken by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NavSea) in early 1995. This effort proposed six design concepts for the CVX (see table 1). Most of these designs carry significantly fewer aircraft than a Nimitz-class CVN, but other, larger carrier concepts also have been suggested, and they, too, have been rejected by the Navy.
Costs also are a major consideration, with Navy leaders claiming that Congress would not fund the high research and development cost of moving rapidly to an innovative CVX design. Such a view begs the fact that the Navy did not argue for such funds—which many observers considered likely to be voted in view of the continuing question, "Where are the carriers?" whenever a crisis erupts.
The CVX/CVN-78 is to join the fleet in 2013, to replace the Enterprise (CVN-65), and is expected to operate at least until 2063. It seems ludicrous to envision a "new" carrier class based largely on concepts developed in the late 1940s—when the super carrier was originated—to be operational in the latter half of the 21st century.
Questions also are being asked about carrier air wings in the 21st century. With the recent retirement of the A-6E Intruder and the demise of the F-14 Tomcats about 2010, the F/A-18C and E models will be the only fighter-strike aircraft in the fleet. A myriad of problems plague the F/A- 18. A recent General Accounting Office review says that "correcting current and potential future deficiencies could result in the development effort exceeding the congressional cost cap. Also, the Navy's F/A-18E/F unit procurement cost estimates are understated."
The Marine Corps' decision not to procure the F/A-18E/F had a profound impact on the aircraft's cost, as has fixing the drop-wing and other problems. The drop-wing fix also may affect performance—for an aircraft that already "may not be as capable in a number of operational performance areas as the most recently procured C model." The changes also may increase the aircraft's radar cross section.
Higher-than-planned costs to fix and procure the F/A-18E/F for carrier use could impact future air wings in two ways: fewer aircraft will be bought, meaning a further cut in air wing size, and a shift of funds to the F/A-18-E/F could delay the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Delay of the JSF, in turn, would affect its cost and have a major impact on U.S. Marine Corps aviation and the Royal Navy's carrier program.
There are other concerns about future air wings. The recent decision to retire the newly arrived ES-3A Shadow electronic surveillance aircraft raises questions about naval aviation programming. Last year, the Navy stated that the ES-3A "supports all facets of Navy, Marine Corps, and joint operations. As one of carrier aviation's newest additions, the ES-3A has already demonstrated tremendous reliability and safety, as well as a robust mission capability." Even that enthusiastic endorsement has not saved the plane from the Navy's budget cutters.
There are reports as well that the EA-6B Prowler, the electronic countermeasures aircraft for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, may have to be retired earlier than planned. According to one press report, "A virtual doubling of the EA-6B fleet's missions, along with hard flying and severe reductions in the number of operational planes available, had accelerated their deterioration."
This would be a major loss to carrier air wings and to ground based Air Force operations in view of the increasing air defense threat throughout the world. The two-seat F/A-18F has been suggested as a replacement, but that Hornet variant cannot lift the electronics payload of the Prowler, nor can it accommodate the existing plane's three systems operators (plus pilot).
There also is concern over the carrier air wing's antisubmarine warfare (ASW) assets. When the Cold War ended, each carrier had a squadron of S-3B Viking ASW aircraft and SH-3H Sea King or SH-60F Seahawk ASW helicopters. The Vikings—now "sea control" aircraft—are losing their ASW capability, being employed primarily in the surface surveillance, antiship, and tanker roles. Similarly, the Seahawk squadrons are being provided only four SH-60F ASW helicopters plus four HH-60H special operations-rescue aircraft. The result is a major reduction in carrier ASW capability at a time when the Navy is citing the increased effectiveness of Third World submarines.
A final aircraft concern is the so-called common support aircraft (CSA), envisioned as a single airframe to replace the S-3B Viking, ES-3A Shadow, E-2C Hawkeye, and C-2A Greyhound. There are indications that the CSA is behind schedule. The Navy's goal is to acquire a suitable replacement by 2013, at latest, but previous efforts of this kind, such as the advanced tactical support (ATS) aircraft, have failed.
The Navy has acknowledged that carriers will be more dependent on land-based air support, which could ease the requirements on the CSA and possibly other aircraft requirements. This approach, however, concerns all naval officers to whom this author has spoken. It also brings to mind the Royal Navy's problems in the Falklands campaign of 1982, when the Royal Air Force was unable to provide support effectively in several roles because the nearest available airfield was 3,300 nautical miles from the Falklands.
Aircraft carriers are important for the future of U.S. foreign policy and military effectiveness. Only astute and effective leadership—coupled with an objective and honest perspective—will guide the carrier fleet through the anticipated rough seas.