The aircraft carrier is history’s most powerful warship design and the ultimate symbol of U.S. power. It has led the nation into battle around the world, from Midway to the Middle East. Despite that impressive history, there almost certainly will come a day when the nation will decide to stop relying on it. The question for the Navy is not, Should the Navy stop building aircraft carriers? but Could it stop, when that day arrives?
There are numerous organizations and individuals with strong incentives to advocate for carriers—the ships will not be easy to let go of. Fortunately, the Navy has a long history of applying the right forces to improve itself in the face of institutional and individual resistance. It will take a massive force to overcome the inertia of the 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN).
Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”1 Today, a lot of salaries depend on the aircraft carrier, meaning—whenever the day arrives—it will be difficult to convince numerous key constituencies that the time has come to shift away from a carrier-centric fleet. These groups are varied but fit into three broad categories: the military, the defense industry, and political leaders.
The Military. Within the Navy, the aviation community obviously has the most to lose from the end of carriers. It would lose its primary operating platform, even as aviators already face the “twilight of manned flight.”2 Reducing reliance on carriers would shift many missions to surface ships and submarines, transforming the Navy’s budget and upsetting the power balance among warfare communities within the Department of the Navy. And halting production of aircraft carriers would cut the number of carrier and airwing command billets, restricting the path for aviators to reach flag rank.
But not only aviation would lose out. The entire community of nuclear-trained surface warfare officers would eventually cease to exist. In addition, Naval Reactors—the colloquial name for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program—would lose 20-some percent of its nuclear power plants. That portfolio reduction would reduce its influence to the submarine force alone, against its current role overseeing more than 45 percent of the Navy’s major combatants.3 The Navy itself has strong incentives to keep building aircraft carriers to prevent a shift of strike missions, along with a corresponding reallocation of budget resources, to the Air Force.
The Defense Industry. Defense contractors also have strong motives to continue to build aircraft carriers. The defense industry often seeks to maintain large, stable contracts in a justifiable effort to avoid the costs associated with transitioning between complex projects. That stability is crucial: It is not financially feasible to employ a large, skilled workforce with just intermittent work.4
To protect itself, the military-industrial complex musters an impressive lobbying effort. Entire organizations, such as the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition (representing more than 2,000 companies), advocate for the “importance of our nation’s aircraft carriers” and emphasize the importance of a “stable industrial base.”5 Retired flag officers working for defense contractors bolster those efforts, and they are present in large numbers. Four of the last five Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs) work for large defense contractors.6
This enables contractors to put up a stiff fight when active-duty leaders attempt to change production priorities. For example, 128 senior retired officers wrote a 2019 letter to Congress opposing a Department of Defense budget request that included just six fewer F-35s than originally planned. Lockheed Martin organized the letter (and 50 of the senior officer signatories may have had conflicts of interest).7 That same year, the Army attempted to reduce purchases of an advanced variant of Chinook helicopters to buy instead two new vertical-lift aircraft. Even though then–Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said, “Boeing . . . expressed support for our modernization strategy, and said they would support our budget,” Boeing instead fought the cuts and succeeded in having them reversed.8 If the services cannot cut small numbers of F-35s and Chinooks without such a response, imagine the uproar that would likely result over a plan to cancel a Gerald R. Ford–class carrier, a contract an order of magnitude larger.
The Government. Even if the military and defense industry were to agree to stop building aircraft carriers, political realities would resist the decision.
“Political engineering” is the practice of sourcing parts and services from as many states and congressional districts as possible to ensure continued production, and in this regard the new carriers’ design is impressive. As of 2019, carrier construction and maintenance involved companies from 46 states and 293 Congressional districts, meaning practically every senator and two-thirds of representatives have strong incentives—constituent jobs—to keep building aircraft carriers.9
In 2019, the Navy proposed not refueling the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) to retire her early and redirect the funds to other projects, including unmanned aerial and surface vehicles. The Capitol Hill responses ranged from “ridiculous idea,” to “highly, highly skeptical,” and “zero chance” the House Seapower Subcommittee would take up the proposal.10 The White House withdrew the plan—meeting the same fate as President Barack Obama’s attempt not to refuel the Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and the George Washington (CVN-73).
The Navy could not convince Congress to retire a single carrier early. Obtaining Congressional approval to stop building large carriers entirely seems dubious. Any effort to alter the fleet’s structure will be impossible without buy-in from all three components—military, industrial, and political.
Overcoming human nature may be even more difficult than convincing key institutions. As Admiral William Sims said at the Naval War College’s 1921 graduation, “Ever since men first began to use weapons to fight each other, military men have been reproached for excessive conservatism, a polite term often intended to imply a dangerous class reluctance to accept new ideas.”11
The natural human tendency to resist change can lead to conclusions people might not otherwise make. In the face of antiship ballistic (ASBMs) and cruise missiles (ASCMs), it is assumed that escorts’ defensive missiles will provide an umbrella of protection. But Standard Missile interceptors must track and hit targets with a cross-sectional area of approximately one square meter, traveling thousands of miles per hour in three dimensions, outside the atmosphere in some cases.12 By comparison, ASBMs and ASCMs aim at a target with a cross-sectional area of more than 20,000 square meters traveling at approximately 30 knots in only two dimensions.13 The argument that Aegis missiles will succeed every time but ASBMs and ASCMs will fail every time is evidence of a strong desire to inflate one’s own capabilities while diminishing those of foes.
A well-designed and expertly manned aircraft carrier certainly can absorb a lot of punishment without sinking. Yet a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command went so far as to argue that if a submarine attacked an aircraft carrier, the ship’s “hull structure [would be] itself a great defense against torpedoes.” But even if that is true, if modern munitions hit the hull, the ship is unlikely to remain combat effective for very long.14
In any case, changing the fleet’s structure ultimately will not be a result of carrier vulnerability; carriers have always been vulnerable. Rather, change will come because the ability to launch an overwhelming strike against land or sea targets, will wane compared to other options, and those better options will make moot the present compromise between the carrier’s vulnerabilities and its awesome capabilities. As Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said after World War II in response to critics who questioned the carrier’s survivability in the age of nuclear weapons, “Vulnerability of surface craft to atomic bombing does not necessarily mean that they have become obsolete. What determines the obsolescence of a weapon is not the fact that it can be destroyed, but that it can be replaced by another weapon that performs its functions more effectively.”15
The search for those more effective platforms and weapons, too, offers evidence of the natural tendency to dismiss the new in favor of the familiar. One retired rear admiral took a scornful stance against critics of carriers, writing that defunding carrier strike groups was an idea coming from “left-leaning and libertarian think tanks as well as pundits of various stripes.” He argued that, without carrier forces, “The only alternative is to build, arm, man, and maintain foreign bases around the world forever.” Aircraft carriers are certainly part of the U.S. Navy’s future, but they are far from the only viable option. To dismiss other fleet structures as “absolute lunacy” will not help the Navy retain the dominance it has worked so hard to attain.16
There are many reasons to keep building carriers, and many deep thinkers have skillfully articulated them.17 Even Admiral Sims, in the same speech in which he criticized the “dangerous class reluctance to accept new ideas,” noted: “If, in general, such controversies have been based upon honest differences of opinion, sometimes strongly influenced by natural conservatism, still they were not free from the influences of our fallible human nature.”18
But Admiral Sims also noted the need to consider change. He said the Navy’s reluctance to adopt new ideas, weapons, and methods was
not the result of a lack of intelligence or patriotic interest, but was due chiefly to the long period during which our country was relatively free from foreign entanglements, and, consequently, when we so lacked the pressure of the probability of war . . . that we naturally thought we could afford to let other navies experiment with . . . new designs and weapons before we adopted them. We can no longer safely do so.19
The United States and the Navy face a similar challenge today. Whenever a determination is made that fewer aircraft carriers are required, the speed of modern competition will demand that decision be enacted quickly. To overcome the aircraft carrier’s institutional and individual inertia, four forces can move the Navy in a new direction. The best way to evolve is a combination of powerful leadership from the senior ranks and innovation from the junior ranks, working together to earn strong industrial and political support.
Top-Down Force. Most important will be a decision by Navy leaders to move beyond the carrier-centric fleet. The shift will involve a great deal more than just building a different kind of ship. There will be effects on recruitment, training, weapons, tactics, maintenance, and supply. Only the Navy’s flag officers have the knowledge, skill, and resolve necessary to understand those impacts and lead the service through such a tumultuous transition.
Despite stumbles, the Navy’s leaders historically have had great success overcoming inertia to implement change. Admiral Hyman Rickover spearheaded the development of the nuclear Navy, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt drove difficult personnel reforms, and the interwar Navy made incredible strides developing naval aviation, despite the stodgy old “battleship admirals” of legend.
More recently, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps issued strategic guidance with fundamental changes, such as waiving the once-sacrosanct requirement to have 38 amphibious ships supporting insertion of two Marine expeditionary brigades.20 His efforts to refocus the Marine Corps on great power competition likely will have to overcome great inertia—one defense industry analyst already has argued the Commandant’s guidance threatens the “demise of the Marine Corps.”21
Yet none of these changes is as tectonic as would be the Navy forsaking nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Designing such a new fleet structure would be an endeavor that has not been undertaken during the lives of any admiral or master chief.
Bottom-Up Force. In the quest to evolve, those aging admirals and master chiefs will benefit from the input of the youngest ensigns and petty officers. Innovative, unburdened by tradition, and with immense technical knowledge, the officers and sailors in the fleet can challenge conventions and offer realistic solutions.
Junior officers and sailors have a long history of overcoming inertia to implement needed change. As a junior officer, Lieutenant Commander William Sims himself spearheaded gunnery improvements despite resistance, even debating then-Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan on the benefits of all-large-caliber warships.22 World War II submarine captains and crews worked to troubleshoot defects with their torpedoes, even as the Bureau of Ordnance denied any problem. More recently, Major Leo Spaeder wrote a powerful article urging the Marine Corps to define its identity; his words may have influenced the Commandant’s strategic guidance.23
In all those cases, the critics went beyond citing a problem to providing solutions. As today’s officers and sailors “read, think, and write,” they need to move past discussions of carrier vulnerability.24 The Navy needs a fleet that is technically, financially, and operationally realistic.25 Most important, this new fleet needs to meet Nimitz’s standard by showing that the carrier-centric fleet “can be replaced by another weapon that performs its functions more effectively.”26
Internal Force. A much less likely means of overcoming the carrier’s inertia is a substantial budgetary shift. With each Gerald R. Ford–class carrier costing approximately $12 billion, a massive cut in the Navy’s budget would force it to select cheaper platforms regardless of capability. However, barring the simultaneous collapse of Russia and China, leaving the U.S. Navy to sail uncontested as it did in the 1990s, it is unlikely Congress would slash the budget enough to affect carrier production.
External Force. The final, and least desirable, means of implementing fleet change is naval combat. The CSS Virginia’s 1862 attack on wooden Union ships spurred rapid ironclad production. The 1941 Japanese destruction of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse with airplanes alone reinforced the need for aircraft carriers. A Chinese missile attack that disabled the Gerald R. Ford would provide terrible momentum to redesign fleet structure.
100 Years and 100,000 Tons
We have not yet reached the stage where such change is required. With essentially no conventional naval combat in the past 70 years, and with the last credible attack on an aircraft carrier coming at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, it is hard to know when the aircraft carrier might pass into obsolescence.27 Whenever that moment does arrive, it will behoove us to act on our own terms. We will not like the alternative—Admiral Sims again:
It may be stated in general terms that most arguments in favor of fundamentally new weapons have failed, except those that resulted in shedding the blood of the unbelievers; that defeat alone has been accepted as a final demonstration.28
In March 1920, the USS Jupiter entered Norfolk Navy Yard to be converted into the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier.29 Over the next 100 years, aircraft carriers performed splendidly, transforming the Navy into the most effective naval force in history. Despite this illustrious service, the Navy will eventually—whether in 100 days or 100 years—leave the carrier in its wake.
When the service decides it is time to change, institutional and individual opposition will not make it easy. The Navy and its people must persevere to keep it the most powerful force afloat, relying on strong leadership from the top and innovative solutions from the ranks. Whatever course it charts, the Navy will need a large rudder to overcome the aircraft carrier’s 100,000 tons of inertia.
1. Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1934), 109.
2. CDR Brendan Stickles, USN, “Twilight of Manned Flight?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 4 (April 2016).
3. Department of Energy and Department of the Navy, “The United States Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program” (Washington, DC: November 2015), 1.
4. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 17 December 2019), 4.
5. “What We Do,” Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition.
6. Mandy Smithberger, “Brass Parachutes: The Problem of the Pentagon Revolving Door,” The Project on Government Oversight, 5 November 2018, www.pogo.org.
7. John A. Tirpak, “Retired Generals Press Congress to Fund More F-35s, Discourage ‘Legacy’ Buy,” Air Force Magazine, 1 May 2019; Mandy Smithberger, “Officers Advocating for More F-35s Often Had Financial Stakes,” The Project on Government Oversight, 19 August 2019, www.pogo.org.
8. Roxana Tiron and Tony Capaccio, “Boeing Helicopters Gain as Lawmakers Reject Army’s Planned Cut,” Bloomberg Government News, 12 September 2019.
9. “America’s Aircraft Carriers: Action Days Infographic,” Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition, September 2019, www.acibc.orgf.
10. Megan Eckstein, “After Hearings, Lawmakers Call Truman Carrier Retirement Plan ‘Ridiculous,’” USNI News, 28 March 2019; David Larter “The Pentagon Again Tried to Decommission the Carrier Truman, Cut an Air Wing, Document Shows,’” Defense News, 30 December 2019.
11. CDR Benjamin F. Armstrong, USN, ed., 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 104.
12. “U.S. Navy Sees Chinese HGV as Part of Wider Threat,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 27 January 2014.
13. “Building a Giant: Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78),” Huntington Ingalls Industries, 11 October 2013 (figure converted from stated five acres).
14. ADM Richard C. Macke, USN (Ret.) “Now Hear This – Demise of the Aircraft Carrier? Hardly,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 10 (October 2015).
15. RADM I. J. Galantin, USN, “The Future of Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 84, no. 6 (June 1958): 23–35.
16. RADM Michael R. Groothousen, USN (Ret.), “The Enduring Relevance of America’s Aircraft Carriers,” The American Spectator, 2 March 2016.
17. ADM Robert J. Natter and ADM Samuel J. Locklear, USN (Ret.), “Former 4-Star Fleet Commanders: Don’t Give Up on Carriers,” Defense News, 22
18. Armstrong, 21st Century Sims (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 113.
19. RADM William S. Sims, USN, “Military Conservatism,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 48, no. 3 (March 1922): 347–63.
20. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance (Washington, DC: July 2019), 4.
21. Dan Gouré, PhD, “Will Commandant Berger’s Planning Guidance Mean the End of the Marine Corps?” Real Clear Defense, 13 December 2019.
22. LCDR William S. Sims, USN, “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement and Gun-Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 32, no. 4 (October 1906): 1337–66.
23. Major Leo Spaeder, USMC, “Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, 28 March 2019.
24. ADM John Richardson and LT Ashley O’Keefe, USN, “Now Hear This—Read. Write. Fight.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 6 (June 2016).
25. CAPT Arthur H. Barber III, USN (Ret.), “Rethinking the Future Fleet,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 5 (May 2014).
26. Galantin, “The Future of Nuclear-Powered Submarines.”
27. CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Connecting the Dots: Capital Ships, the Littoral, Command of the Sea, and the World Order,” Naval War College Review (Autumn 2015): 46.
28. Armstrong, 21st Century Sims, 105.
29. Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, Volume I: 1909–1945 (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006), 41.