Magazine | May 4, 2015, Issue

Drydock Time

The USS Gerald R. Ford, price: $14 billion (
Aircraft carriers belong to the fleet of yesteryear

A battle of the hawks is raging on Capitol Hill. Defense hawks say the nation’s security will be endangered if the caps imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act aren’t lifted, allowing for more defense spending. Fiscal hawks assert with equal vehemence that the nation’s long-term economic health — the foundation for all government activities, including defense — will be permanently harmed if burgeoning deficits and debts are not addressed. Defense hawks argue for a massive investment to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s strongest power. Fiscal hawks argue for innovative improvements in efficiency to sustain U.S. leadership.

This argument as it regards the U.S. Navy is taking place with special vigor. The budget will have serious consequences for the size of the fleet and its ability to maintain combat readiness, which in turn will have consequences for U.S. strategy. If the Navy wants to address its budget crisis, its falling ship count, its atrophying strategic position, and the problem of its now-marginal combat effectiveness — and reassert its traditional dominance of the seas — it should embrace technological innovation and increase its efficiency.

In short: It needs to stop building aircraft carriers.

This might seem like a radical change. After all, the aircraft carrier has been the dominant naval platform and the center of the Navy’s force structure for the past 70 years — an era marked by unprecedented peace on the oceans. In the past generation, aircraft have flown thousands of sorties from the decks of American carriers in support of the nation’s wars. For the first 54 days of the current round of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, the USS George H. W. Bush was the sole source of air power. But the economic, technological, and strategic developments of recent years indicate that the day of the carrier is over and, in fact, might have already passed a generation ago — a fact that has been obscured by the preponderance of U.S. power on the seas.

The carrier has been operating in low-threat, permissive environments almost continuously since World War II. At no time since 1946 has a carrier had to fend off attacks by enemy aircraft, surface ships, or submarines. No carrier has had to establish a sanctuary for operations and then defend it. More often than not, carriers have recently found themselves operating unmolested closer to enemy shores than previous Cold War–era doctrine permitted, secure in the knowledge that the chance of an attack ranged between unlikely and impossible.

Such confidence in the dominance of the carrier encouraged naval architects to put more capabilities into their design, going from the 30,000-ton Essex-class carrier in 1942 to the 94,000-ton Nimitz-class carrier in 1975. Crew size of a typical carrier went from 3,000 to 5,200 over the same period, a 73 percent increase. Costs similarly burgeoned, from $1.1 billion for the Essex to $5 billion for the Nimitz (all in adjusted 2014 dollars), owing to the increased technical complexity and sheer physical growth of the platforms in order to host the larger aircraft that operated at longer ranges during the Cold War. The lessons of World War II, in which several large fleet carriers were lost or badly damaged, convinced Navy leaders to pursue a goal of a 100,000-ton carrier that could support a 100,000-pound aircraft capable of carrying larger bomb payloads, including nuclear weapons, 2,000 miles or more to hit strategic targets, making the platform larger, more expensive, and manned with more of the Navy’s most valuable assets, its people. Today’s new class of carrier, the Ford, which will be placed into commission next year, displaces 100,000 tons of water, and has a crew of 4,800 and a price of $14 billion. The great cost of the Cold War–era “super-carriers” has resulted in a reduction of the carrier force, from over 30 fleet carriers in World War II to just ten carriers today. While the carrier of today is more capable, each of the ten can be in only one place at a time, limiting the Navy’s range of effectiveness.

This points to the first reason the U.S. should stop building carriers: They are too valuable to lose. At $14 billion apiece, one of them can cost the equivalent of nearly an entire year’s shipbuilding budget. (Carriers are in fact funded and built over a five-year period.) And the cost of losing a carrier would not be only monetary. Each carrier holds the population of a small town. Americans are willing to risk their lives for important reasons, but they have also become increasingly averse to casualties. Losing a platform with nearly 5,000 American souls onboard would not just raise an outcry, but would undermine public faith in elected officials — and the officials know it. It would take an existential threat to the homeland to convince leaders to introduce carriers into a high-threat environment.

Yet any hesitance to do so would create a cascading failure. Carriers are the central cogs in the U.S. war-fighting machine. They don’t just launch planes for air strikes: They also provide airborne command and control, host the staffs of strike-group and fleet-commanding admirals, and provide underway refueling and resupply of other ships in their strike group. In addition, they house much of the fleet’s ordnance in their cavernous magazines. If they were removed from the arena as a result of a political decision not to risk their damage or loss, current plans to defend U.S. interests would collapse.

For this reason, the modern carrier violates a core principle of war: Never introduce an element that you cannot afford to lose. There can be no indispensable person or platform in war, for as soon as that element is identified, the enemy will risk everything to destroy it, and in that moment a war can be lost. The carrier has done well in the benign environments of recent decades, but in the face of current rising threats, in which U.S. credibility is on the line, there are serious questions about its continued worth.

In 1996, China found itself embroiled in a controversy with a government in Taiwan that was intent on declaring its formal independence. To send a message, China conducted a series of tests that involved firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan and built up forces to conduct an amphibious exercise in the Taiwan Strait. In response, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft-carrier strike groups to the strait. China, chastened, embarrassed, and well aware of the United States’ recent demonstration of its ability to project power at will into Iraq and the former Yugoslavia from seaborne air bases, set about developing a series of capabilities that could credibly threaten American aircraft carriers and push them back beyond the combat range of their aircraft. In the years that followed, China developed long-range aircraft equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, surface ships with long-range missiles, and land-based ballistic missiles capable of knocking a carrier out of action. Today, any carrier operating within 1,000 miles of the Chinese coast knows that it can be targeted at any moment. And the problem looks even more serious when we consider that China has often exported military technologies to other nations willing to pay for them.

The United States, the center of technological innovation, thus finds itself in the position of being out-innovated. To counter emerging “anti-access/area denial” (A2AD) technologies that include ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach ships over a thousand miles from shore, the U.S. Navy has invested billions of dollars in anti-A2AD capabilities — such as electronic-spectrum jamming, directed-energy weapons, electromagnetic rail guns, and ballistic-missile defenses — in a vain attempt to defend the carrier. An objective outside observer can easily identify who is imposing costs on whom in this competition. The same outside observer would also discern where the difficulty with the carrier design lies.

The efficacy of the carrier lies not in the ship but in the capabilities of its planes. Today, most of those planes are F/A-18 Hornets — a superb aircraft that has undergone many improvements in its lifetime but remains limited by its original light-attack-mission requirements.

In the past 14 years of combat operations, in which Navy aircraft have flown tens of thousands of sorties, we have learned a number of things. First, nearly 80 percent of a Hornet’s 9,000-flight-hour lifetime is spent maintaining the flight qualifications of its pilots.

Second, if we factor in the life-cycle costs of the aircraft — including the cost of buying it, maintaining it, fueling it, and training its pilots — and then divide that cost by the number of bombs dropped in combat, we arrive at an average cost per bomb of nearly $8 million. This is seven times the cost of a Tomahawk precision-strike cruise missile.

Third, the current average combat range of a carrier light-attack plane is only 500 miles. This means that, even steaming at 30 knots, the carrier would spend 15 hours under an A2AD threat in order to carry its planes close enough to hit land targets. The Navy has consistently opposed investing in the type of unmanned long-range combat strike platforms that could renew its relevance, and today’s carrier planes do not have sufficient in-flight refueling capacity to significantly extend the range of the attack aircraft. Proposals to use large “big-wing” U.S. Air Force tankers to extend the refueling capacity beyond what carriers can provide ignore the fact that these aircraft will not be able to operate within the A2AD threat bubble unescorted by single-seat fighters, whose pilots cannot remain physically effective throughout the long 14-hour missions.

Recently, in apparent recognition of these strategic challenges, Navy leaders and their supporters in industry and think tanks have begun to advance the argument that, when dealing with A2AD-capable powers, it is not necessary to project power ashore: Rather, the Navy and its carriers should conduct a campaign to control the sea, slowly destroying their opponent’s navy and interdicting its trade over time to eventually degrade its capabilities and roll back its defenses. This approach is very much in line with what the U.S. Navy did in World War II, but it ignores the overarching strategy the U.S. pursued in that war.

The Navy conducted a prolonged sea-control campaign to destroy the Japanese navy, and thereby create space and support for its Marine and Army brethren to capture islands. Navy construction battalions then built on those islands the airfields necessary to host the Army Air Forces’ long-range bombers, which bombed the next island to be captured, and then the next, until the bombers were within range of the Japanese home islands. At that point a conventional bombing campaign was planned to weaken Japanese industry, degrade living conditions, and destroy military power in advance of an all-out invasion. Only the dropping of the atomic bombs halted this inexorable drive. The point of the entire World War II Pacific campaign was not to gain sea control and attrite Japanese naval forces, but rather to bring U.S. forces within range of the Japanese capital in order to project power and bring the war to an end.

Today, it appears, in an attempt to find a continued justification of the aircraft carrier in war plans designed to deal with A2AD capabilities, the Navy proposes to set aside the capacity for this sort of power projection and its promise of a shorter and less expensive war, and accept in its place a strategy based on a drawn-out, expensive, and disruptive campaign of sea control and economic blockade. This is a mistake. The Navy should instead invest in upgrading the aircraft in the carrier’s air wing with unmanned combat strike vehicles to increase their range, or abandon the carrier as the centerpiece of naval warfare and buy numerous additional guided-missile submarines, which can operate with impunity within the A2AD bubble and can each carry 150 long-range precision-strike cruise missiles. Instead the Navy has chosen the strategically untenable position of resigning itself to longer wars.

Some emphasize that the carrier serves other roles, such as providing overawing peacetime presence, diplomatic influence, and unmatched humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and they are correct. The carrier performs superbly in all these roles, but the nation’s citizens don’t pay $14 billion for a ship to hand out water, food, and blankets. They pay that much money, the cost of 350 new public schools, to ensure that the Navy they maintain can fight and win, decisively, the nation’s wars. The carrier, with its present air wing, can no longer do that.

In many ways, the United States is repeating the historical pattern of former great powers. Great powers typically rise and rule on the back of a key technological breakthrough or combination of breakthroughs. Once established, they tend to invest in the status quo, continuing to refine their technological edge. The philosophy comes down to the old adage “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Such an approach, however, provides a fixed target for other rising powers to focus on. In this manner the infantry was overcome by the chariot, the chariot was overcome by spears and arrows, spears and arrows were overcome by gunpowder and artillery, and so on. The United States has sat atop the pinnacle of power alone for nearly three decades. It reached its heights through investments in carriers, tanks, fighters, and bombers. Today’s Navy looks remarkably like it has for the past 70 years, just smaller and more expensive. It is an evolutionary force, not a revolutionary force, and it’s an easy target for rising powers that seek to overtake it.

The nation’s sovereign citizens deserve better. They deserve an innovative solution to the United States’ strategic problems. Rather than attempting to find a war to fit the fleet it has, the Navy should build a fleet to win the war it’s likely to fight. Rather than dedicate such new technologies as directed energy, electromagnetic rail guns, and hypersonic propulsion systems to propping up and defending a legacy platform, it should free these systems to find a place in a revolutionary new fleet that is marked by lower costs and ruthless efficiency. This fleet should be constructed with a focus on swift, decisive victory through power projection into the enemy’s decision centers in order to bring about rapid change in that enemy’s policies.

Resources recouped from ceasing construction of a $14 billion carrier could be redirected to the construction of seven missile-laden destroyers, or seven submarines, or 28 frigates, or 100 joint high-speed vessels, or any combination thereof. It is true that the size of the Navy has shrunk, with the result that areas of critical national interest are no longer patrolled regularly; but it is also true that the size of the Navy has shrunk because of decisions that the Navy itself has made. The size of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget has remained nearly constant, at $16 billion per year when adjusted for inflation, but when the Navy elects to purchase more-expensive ships within a stable budget, it is electing to buy fewer ships. That the ships it chooses to purchase have become less combat-effective over time only exacerbates the problem and raises serious questions about judgment; and expecting Congress to correct acquisition misjudgments through increased deficit spending is irresponsible. The simple fact is that there is enough money to purchase surface and sub-surface ships in sufficient numbers to complicate any A2AD strategy, thereby regaining the strategic initiative and imposing costs on those who would make themselves our enemies.

We dare not risk being the classic great power, satisfied with the strategic status quo and oblivious to rising competitors. The Japanese, with the destruction of the battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor, left the U.S. no alternative but to invest in the carrier. We dare not risk suffering such a lesson of imposed change again. Carriers had their day, but that day ended perhaps a generation ago, and we have been too busy to notice. Congressional leaders, torn between the desire to cut the defense budget and the need to strengthen the military, will find that it is possible to achieve both objectives if they simply let go of old paradigms. It’s time to move on and lead again.

– Mr. Hendrix, a retired Navy captain, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the director of its Defense Strategies and Assessments Program.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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