The Buzz

How Not to Build an Aircraft Carrier

More than one director of the Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) shop in the Pentagon has expressed serious concern that the Navy has not even been able to replicate the Sizzler [the NATO name for the Club] in tests.

No matter what kind of missile is being used, it makes much more economic sense to defend against an aircraft carrier than to build one. Anti-ship cruise missiles cost from $750,000 to $3 4 million, depending on range and guidance. Anti-ship ballistic missiles may cost from $10 to $20 million each. Hitting what amounts to a relatively small target in a big ocean is a challenge, but the odds of doing so increase with each missile and torpedo fired at the carrier.

Since missiles and torpedoes cost significantly less than the carrier and its planes, a determined foe would likely do everything in its power to launch a saturation attack meant to overwhelm the defensive systems of the carrier strike group to increase the chance of getting just one to impact the ship and at least cripple flight operations. Sinking $22.25 billion with $1 million — or even with $20 million — is a good return on investment.

Some in the Navy have advocated for smaller, far less expensive carriers. Another, perhaps better, alternative is to build far less expensive carriers without making them smaller by eliminating nuclear propulsion and returning to austere electronics and weaponry. Either alternative would allow the Navy to increase the size of the fleet.

A larger number of less expensive carriers would allow more carriers on station, more diverse stationing, and less of the excessive wear and tear on people and materiel due to overly long deployments.

Others argue that the right approach is to devote more resources to a larger undersea fleet. Submarines are much more capable of surviving the coastal missile defenses an enemy will field. Their cruise missiles can execute deep strikes, at least against fixed targets.

The current nuclear submarine fleet is very expensive — the latest Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, for instance, costs $2.4 billion — but advances in Air Independent Propulsion systems are rivaling the performance of the nuclear fleet and at $200 million to $900 million, AIP boats cost a fraction of their nuclear counterparts.

Conclusion

The Ford-class carrier program is in much deeper trouble than the Navy and the DoD are willing to admit. As further testing reveals further serious deficiencies, cost overruns will balloon and promised combat capabilities will shrink.

There is the very real possibility that, as currently configured, Ford will prove to be unsuitable for combat because the EMALS catapults or the AAG arresting gear might be unreliable at sea under surge conditions or because the reactor and electrical system might not function in the face of battle damage. Or, worse, because of all of the above.

If the AAG fails operational tests, it can be replaced with the legacy Mk. 7 hydraulic arresting gear—though the retrofit will be painfully expensive and may delay the program by a year or more. If the EMALS fails operational tests, installing a steam catapult substitute would require an extensive redesign of the entire ship.

To avoid these disastrous consequences, it is inevitable that the Navy’s Ford program management and its contractors will expend maximum effort on weakening and delaying the overall operational tests — and on abrogating the most crucial ones. If the Secretary of Defense and Congress do not act vigorously to protect the current operational test plan and schedule, the taxpayer will have spent at least $44 billion to buy three carriers that are likely to fare worse in combat than existing carriers and that in wartime will jeopardize the lives of the nearly 4,300 sailors aboard each carrier.

There’s a near-certainty that upcoming testing of Ford will require major redesign and retrofits to it, and corresponding design changes for Kennedy and Enterprise. To avoid further wasteful retrofits, the schedule for these second and third ships needs to slowed down and the plans for the as-yet unnamed fourth ship, CVN-81, should be put on complete hold until the final IOT&E report is released, currently scheduled for Fiscal Year 2020.

Commensurate with the needed slowdown, the $1.29 billion and $1.37 billion requested in 2017 for Kennedy and Enterprise, respectively, should be reduced — perhaps halved — and the savings reapplied to fully funding the most crucial and urgently needed developmental and operational tests as recommended by DOT&E: the shock tests, the live-fire ship vulnerability tests, the sortie generation tests and simulation, the Dual Band Radar multiple target tracking and traffic-control tests and the EMALS and AAG reliability tests.

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