The Buzz

Is the US Navy Planning Big Changes to America's Future Aircraft Carriers?

The Navy may change the size, shape, technological configuration and mission characteristics of its aircraft carriers in the future after careful study of the emerging global threat environment, senior service officials said.

Senior Navy officials are now assessing and finalizing the initial results of coordinated, long-term analysis on the future of aircraft carriers designed, among other things, to explore whether alternative configurations, engineering models, shapes, sizes and technologies were needed to address anticipated future threats to the platforms.

A senior official did not specify the results of the study but did say they would be available soon. 

"We are getting ready to brief Congress on our findings," a senior Navy official told Scout Warrior. 

Many by now are familiar with ongoing debates about whether aircraft carriers themselves could soon become obsolete with the advent of longer-range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles and next-generation hypersonic attack weapons. 

The Navy may consider alternative aircraft carrier configurations in coming years as it prepares for its new high-tech, next-generation carrier to become operational later this year, service officials have said.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers - the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials have said.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

Although no particular plans have been solidified or announced, it seems possible that these future carriers could be engineered with greater high-tech sensors and ship defenses, greater speed and maneuverability to avoid enemy fire and configurations which allow for more drones to launch from the deck of the ship. They could be smaller and more manueverable with drones and longer-range precision weapons, analysts have speculated.

At the same time, it is possible that the Ford-Class carrier could be adjusted to evolve as technologies mature, in order to accommodate some of the concerns about emerging enemy threats. Navy engineers have designed the Ford-Class platform with this ability to adapt in mind. As a result of the unfolding trajectory of carrier technologies and other defensive weapons, many senior leaders have been clear that future carriers will indeed be able to operate in extremely high-threat environments. 

In particular, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, recently told The National Interest that Russian and Chinese weapons will not keep carriers at bay.

Also, given evolving ship defense technologies such as radar, lasers, fire-control improvements, aerial sensors, electronic warfare and other systems, the study may recommend that the existing configuration of the Ford Class carriers remain fundamentally unchanged. Carriers also travel in "carrier groups" with nearby well-armed cruisers and destroyers designed, at least in part, to defend carriers from enemy attack. 

The USS Gerald R. Ford is the first is a series of new Ford-class carriers designed with a host of emerging technologies to address anticipated future threats and bring the power-projecting platform into the next century.

Once its delivered, the new carrier will go through “shock trials” wherein its stability is tested in a variety of maritime conditions such as its ability to withstand nearby explosions; the ship will also go through a pre-deployment process known as “post-shakedown availability” designed to further prepare the ship for deployment.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers - the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials have said.

Although no particular plans have been solidified or announced, it seems possible that these future carriers could be engineered with greater high-tech sensors and ship defenses, greater speed and manueverability to avoid enemy fire and configurations which allow for more drones to launch from the deck of the ship. They could be smaller and more manueverable with drones and longer-range precision weapons, analysts have speculated. At the same time, it is possible that the Ford-Class carrier could be adjusted to evolve as technologies mature, in order to accommodate some of the concerns about emerging enemy threats. Navy engineers have designed the Ford-Class platform with this ability to adapt in mind. 

Future Carriers: 

The Navy plans to build Ford-class carriers for at least 50-years as a way to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis. This schedule will bring the Ford carriers service-life well into the next century and serve all the way until at least 2110, Navy leaders have said. 

Regarding the potential evaluation of alternatives to carriers, some analysts have raised the question of whether emerging technologies and weapons systems able to attack carriers at increasingly longer distances make the platforms more vulnerable and therefore less significant in a potential future combat environment. Some have raised the prospect of having faster, more agile smaller carriers better able to maneuver away from enemy fire and potentially launch more drones; equipping carriers with additional ship defensive technologies or missile interceptors is also an option being discussed. 

Pages