If value is defined as worth, importance, or usefulness, then it can be argued that over the course of the past 100 years no single asset in the U.S. military arsenal has provided more value than the aircraft carrier—nuclear-powered (CVN) for the last 50 years—and its embarked air wing (CVW). The integrated CVN/CVW remains the most effective instrument for shaping the national military strategy, with proven applicability across the range of military operations from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) to high-end maritime strike warfare. The current downturn in Department of Defense funding necessitates a critical review of all military programs to ensure the DOD fields the most important and useful military capabilities. The aircraft carrier program deserves such scrutiny. During a budget downturn, the value proposition should motivate national leaders to ask, “How can we not afford to build carriers?”
The Budget Control Act of 2011 catalyzed a budget correction that has caused the DOD and Congress to examine force structure in all of the military services. Historical percentages of annual budget outlays—roughly a third of the budget goes to each service—are being only marginally affected in this debate. As long as naval power is viewed as an equal choice in the budget debate, defense budgets will not reflect the priorities that will most effectively sustain the national military strategy. Dr. Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments discussed the allocation of budget resources to defense in 2010: “It involves exploring all available options for diverting the country from its path toward a declining military posture, and doing so within the context of an overall integrated strategy.”1
Budget decisions should preserve national military capability such that when the President calls “911,” he can count on available and immediate military response. Now is the time to shift resources to the naval expeditionary force that will strengthen America’s position as the sole global superpower, capable of influence in any region of the world at the time of the President’s choosing. The integrated power of the CVN/CVW is one of the best examples of this type of response.
Bryan McGrath, an assistant director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower and one of the primary authors of the U.S. Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy, opined that at a time when Congress is considering dramatic reductions in military spending, thinking deeply about spending more on one facet of military power is out of fashion. In support of American sea power, he stated that “Such thinking must be encouraged however, as the benefits of shifting to a maritime-influenced grand strategy will be realized in the sustainment and advancement of U.S. global leadership, while failing to do so sets the conditions for the military to do little more than manage U.S. decline relative to other rising powers.”2
Why Carriers—and Why 11?
When the nation’s defense budget shrinks, as it does cyclically, aircraft carriers are targeted due to their cost. However, when one considers their weapon-system capability, long service life, and extensive combat power—keys to the flexibility of response and strategic impact that carriers provide our nation—they are exceptionally cost-effective. These ships have an extended service life nearly 50 percent greater than other ship classes and carry more firepower than any combat system in the nation’s arsenal. The salient aspect of the military capability of aircraft carriers is the embarked air wing. The combination of advanced strike-fighters, airborne electronic attack aircraft, airborne early-warning aircraft, and antisubmarine-warfare helicopters, all with netted sensors and weapons, provides a shipboard integrated-capability package that is responsive and relevant in any operational scenario in any theater.
The combined CVN/CVW capability has evolved through the years to meet the threat. The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) remained relevant through her 51 years in service, participating in every major conflict from the Cold War through Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The embarked air wing on her maiden deployment was generations behind the advanced air wing that sailed on her during the final deployment in 2012, yet equally as relevant and capable, stressing the limits of modern technology. The inherent integrated design of the ship–air wing team ensures relevancy in any future conflict.
As a maritime nation with an economy directly tied to international trade and investment, the United States needs its Navy forward to allow the free flow of commerce and to reassure allies and trading partners of American commitment to their economic well-being, as well as to dissuade, deter, prevent, coerce, or compel potential adversaries to act in accordance with our national interests and those of our allies. A U.S. aircraft carrier’s presence provides a visible deterrent to those who would disrupt maritime commerce and reassurance to those who value freedom of the seas.
From a historical perspective, during the Cold War and then through 2000, Navy and DOD policy mandated a fleet of 15 nuclear-powered and conventionally powered aircraft carriers to counter Soviet influence with continuous and simultaneous presence in three different areas of responsibility (AORs): one ship in the Mediterranean Sea, one in the Indian Ocean, and the third in the Western Pacific. Through that period, 15 seemed to be the right number, allowing the Navy flexible deployment cycles that served to preserve equipment and manpower. That policy is no longer in effect. As defense budgets became more pressurized with combat requirements, carrier recapitalization commanded a greater share of the top line, so decision-makers chose to allow conventional carriers to be decommissioned while increasing the interval between nuclear-powered carrier construction, reducing the force from 15. In 2011, Congress, concerned with the decline in carrier force structure and ability to “prepare naval forces necessary for the prosecution of war,” decreed in section 5062 of U.S. Code Title 10 that “The naval combat forces of the Navy shall include not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers.” But is 11 the right number? The inherently flexible response capacity of the carrier fleet can mask the decision of how many ships the country needs. The DOD has accommodated the reduction from 15 carriers to 11 (10 temporarily) by extending deployment lengths, thereby increasing the stress on sailors and equipment and by accepting risk that the immediate presence of a CVN and its air wing will not be required simultaneously in each of those three AORs to address burgeoning conflict.
While the threat of mutual assured destruction by nuclear weapons has diminished, the number of regional conflicts that could intensify into major combat operations has increased. Arguably then, with a more dispersed threat of escalation, the need for more carriers becomes evident. The Western Pacific and Arabian Sea regions have garnered the most presence over the last three decades. Today, if events somewhere in the Mediterranean (Syria, most recently) were to boil over, then one of the other two regions will have to forgo CVN presence until another asset could be surged forward—a process that will take weeks, if not months—or an on-station carrier strike group will have to be extended, further stressing the force, as happened with the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in late 2013.
The nation was the beneficiary of serendipity not once, but twice in 2013. When President Barack Obama was seeking additional military options in response to a vexing and growing Syrian problem, the Nimitz was at the chop line between the 5th and 7th Fleet AORs in the Indian Ocean, thus readily available to re-task into the Red Sea and eventually the Mediterranean. Later in the year, when a ravaging typhoon struck the Philippines, one of our closest Pacific Rim strategic partners, the USS George Washington (CVN-73) was on station in a matter of hours to provide much needed relief to a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions. Both cases in 2013 underscore two truths for our Navy and our nation:
• The strategic relevance, worth, and value proposition of our present-day CVN fleet across a broad range of missions from lower-end but strategically important HA/DR, to high-end strike potential in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
• “You must be present to win.” In both cases, a CVN was available and close at hand, just as with Haiti in early 2010 and Banda Aceh in 2004.
Serendipity won’t always be on our side. In fact, with reduced CVN force structure leading to reduced forward presence, the odds mount against us being able to respond as we have in the past. Recent sequestration impacts have exacerbated this challenge, reducing the operating status of home-based carrier strike groups by delaying workups, cutting back on underway training, and placing air wings at reduced flying status. The result was there were no other military options but to extend the Nimitz or use the George Washington. The nation is living with force-structure issues in our vital submarine and amphibious-assault-ship fleets based on budget decisions made years ago. We have the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistake. The strategic national cost of unresponsiveness at some point becomes untenable.
Enter the Ford Class
CVN service life is 50 years—unequaled by any other ship class. The operations-and-maintenance cycle has to be carefully crafted to provide consistent and reliable forward presence in regions of conflict. CVN presence capacity is made possible by a dynamic class-maintenance schedule that includes six-month planned incremental maintenance availabilities at predictable intervals as well as two dry-docked maintenance periods exceeding a year in length in each half of the carrier’s life—with that life bisected by a 44-month refueling complex overhaul. The optimum mix of operations and maintenance provides a significant 50-year return on the U.S. taxpayer’s initial investment ensuring consistent forward presence in areas of conflict. Thus the requirement becomes stronger for maintaining a fleet of at least 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers; to field any fewer would diminish American influence when and where it matters most.
The Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), inaugurating the first new class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in more than 40 years, was christened at Newport News, Virginia, on 9 November 2013. At a delivered cost only about 18 percent more than the last Nimitz-class CVN, the Ford provides a 70 percent increase in maximum sortie-generation capability over the Nimitz class; a completely redesigned flight deck that uses a NASCAR-like concept to recover, rearm, and refuel high-end aircraft capable of high sortie rates; a completely redesigned, more efficient, and more powerful nuclear-propulsion system, greatly reducing the requirement for steam, hydraulic, and pneumatic piping systems, along with the manpower necessary to maintain them; a multifunction radar suite that will detect and engage the most advanced threats; and revolutionary launch and recovery systems that contribute to more efficient flight operations while reducing total operating costs and stress on the aircraft.
The improved nuclear-propulsion system, manned at only half of the Nimitz propulsion-plant crew size, and a zonal electric distribution scheme will increase electric power-generation capacity by more than 300 percent, powering revolutionary technologies such as directed-energy weapons, the electromagnetic aircraft-launch system (EMALS), and dual-band radar. EMALS will use groomed electrical power to launch today’s aircraft, as well as advanced airframes in the future air wing, such as the Joint Strike Fighter and unmanned systems. Compared to current-generation steam-powered catapults, EMALS provides a more controlled, selectable launch force that decreases fatigue on airframes, thus helping to preserve expensive aircraft service life.
Likewise, the advanced arresting-gear (AAG) system reduces the stresses resulting from arrested carrier landings. AAG will provide the necessary growth margin to catch heavier, or if technology matures in another direction, even lighter aircraft not envisioned today. The dual-band radar condenses all of the necessary radar functions into fixed flat-panel arrays that optimize power, cooling, and space requirements while minimizing the maintenance necessary for current rotating systems. Improvements to the Ford class over Nimitz will reduce crew size by between 500 and 900 sailors and reduce the 50-year total ownership costs (acquisition, operations, sustainment, disposal) by more than $4 billion. Finally, technology insertion into the Ford-class design will increase ship operational availability by 25 percent, due to reduced maintenance requirements, thereby allowing the CVN force to meet the nation’s needs while maintaining flexibility for unforeseen events.
Preserving the Asymmetric Advantage
No other country in the world has yet to replicate the American carrier strike group, featuring a 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier capable of operating up to 75 advanced aircraft. The carrier’s aircraft are nodes for data-sharing, operating netted sensors, and linking weapon systems to generate effects far down-range. The carrier’s nuclear power plant provides the ship unmatched responsiveness, flexibility, and mobility as well as the unique ability to operate forward, far away from American shores, unconstrained by the need to refuel. The nuclear-power “fuel fraction” makes possible the inclusion in the ship design of extra capacity for aircraft fuel, armament, and additional warfighting capability—a growth margin for future technology in shipboard warfighting systems and advanced aircraft. The attendant asymmetric advantage is clear and unmistakable. China has developed the Liaoning-class aircraft carrier, taking short cuts in technology development to avoid the century of modernization and learning that the U.S. Navy experienced to field the Nimitz and Ford classes and carrier-suitable aircraft. Other nations aspire to build similar capability. This asymmetric advantage grants us access to maritime domains that no other country can influence across the full range of military options.
As Trefor Moss, an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly, reported:
Aircraft carriers have become the ultimate accessory for Asia’s aspiring powers. If you have one—or, even better, a collection—then you’re in the big-power club; if you don’t, you’re still just toiling in the minor leagues of world affairs. Even so, the regional carrier competition has reached a new level of intensity of late, as Japan, India, and China (kind of) unveiled new ships within days of each other.
In theory, the equilibrium should be preserved so long as these countries’ military expansion plans keep pace with one another. China, India, Japan, and Russia all appear to be aiming for a fleet of two to four operational carriers by the 2020s, and so while we might reasonably characterize what they are doing as an arms race, at least no single player looks like getting too far ahead of the rest of the pack. Remember also that this particular race already has a front-runner who left the others for dust a long time ago, namely the U.S. Navy . . . .3
The Center for Naval Analyses studied U.S. Navy aircraft carrier force structure in 2009, concluding that “Carriers are not Cold War relics; they are flexible platforms that give the United States an edge that no other country has (but many want).”4 Recently, cutting-edge technology was used to launch and recover an unmanned, fighter-sized aircraft from the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), a first in aviation history. This serves as a critical demonstration of the relevancy of the CVN in the future asymmetric fight.
The DF-21 Threat
Many defense experts have debated the potential vulnerability of the CVN to antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), such as the People’s Republic of China’s DF-21D—hyped in the media as the “carrier killer.” Threats to the aircraft carrier have existed—torpedoes, mines, kamikaze, long-range bombers, cruise missiles, and now the ballistic missile—since the first one was built in the early 20th century. The history of warfare is replete with new technologies begetting new capabilities, begetting new threats, begetting new tactics, and so on. Emerging threats must be analyzed and effectively countered through the development of new capability. Through this lens, the shadow of the DF-21D is not a reason to cede the decision space or battle space to the adversary. To the contrary, we need to refine our tactics to fight effectively in that threat environment and defeat the DF-21D kill chain. Additionally, many critics argue that the aircraft carrier is most vulnerable. Actually, given that the DF-21D is a threat to any ship or fixed base within its tactical radius, the CVN is best postured to defeat the ballistic-missile threat with inherent maneuverability, embedded defensive systems, and layered strike-group defense.
Duncan Lennox, a Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems editor based in London, addressed the salient points to consider in the kill-chain discussion:
The ASBM is unlikely to become a major game-changer in the Asian region for several reasons. If a ballistic missile were to be launched at an aircraft carrier some 1,500–2,000 km away, then it would take around 10–13 minutes to reach its target. The missile could correct its trajectory during flight, but would also need to make final corrections in the last 20–30 seconds of flight.
A carrier should be aware that the missile is approaching and can move about 300–350 m in 20–30 secs. A U.S. carrier would also be expected to have protection from ballistic missiles, provided by SM-3 interceptors on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke–class destroyers within the carrier strike group.5
The 2002 Defense Science Board study topped a long list of critical works that have consistently shown that the large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier provides the best combination of sustained on-station time, sortie-generation capability, sea-keeping, and defensive ability at the most reasonable value for the defense dollar. Non-nuclear alternatives require a logistical tail for consistent refueling during transit and on-station time. Smaller ships lack the ability to generate sorties at a volume and pace to project power and establish control of the battle space as well as defend the ship. Additionally, smaller ships lack the ability to conduct flight operations in a wide variety of weather and sea conditions, and do not have the defensive systems or capacity to defeat or absorb an incoming attack and maintain or rapidly reconstitute the ability to fight. In terms of cost, “light-carrier” options usually demand 70 percent of the cost of a large-deck CVN while providing less than half of the power-projection capability, and in some cases are incapable of operating a fully integrated air wing with critical capabilities such as advanced electronic attack and airborne early warning. It has been said, “If you want to win the high jump, you don’t look for seven guys that can jump one foot. You find one guy who can jump seven feet.” Disaggregating the combat capability of a modern CVN is an expensive concept when every dollar is rightly scrutinized for other uses.
The state of our nation’s fiscal affairs mandates that we decide not only what type of military force we can afford, but also what type of military force we need. We must optimize the value proposition and field those military capabilities that provide the United States with strategic benefit at best value. We must also take a long view, recognizing that decisions primarily influenced by current fiscal conditions may have enormous strategic impact 10, 20, and 30 years from now. The aircraft carrier provides us with an unequaled hard, soft, and smart power advantage in a single, responsive, flexible, and mobile package, unfettered by geopolitical constraints. Thus, it is imperative to prioritize investment in this asymmetric capability as one means to maintain credibility as a globally responsive military force.
1. Sandra Erwin, “Five Key Questions About the Defense Budget,” National Defense Magazine, August 2010, www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2010/August/Pages/FiveKeyQuestionsAbouttheDefenseBudget.aspx.
2. Bryan McGrath, “The Value of Preponderant American Seapower,” Information Dissemination, 19 October 2010, www.informationdissemination.net/2010/10/seapower-manifesto.html.
3. Trefor Moss, “Asian Powers’ Carrier Craze,” South China Morning Post, 23 August 2013, www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1298598/asian-powers-carrier-craze.
4. Center for Naval Analyses, CNA White Paper: CVN Capabilities and Presence (Alexandria, VA: CNA, 23 November 2009).
5. Duncan Lennox, “China’s ASBM Project: Keep Calm and Carry On,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, 16 February 2011.