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U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers: Simply Obsolete or Still King of the Oceans?

The Ford-class ships are engineered with a redesigned island, slightly larger deck space and new weapons elevators in order to achieve an increase in sortie-generation rate. The new platforms are built to launch more aircraft and more seamlessly support a high-op tempo.

The new weapons elevators allow for a much more efficient path to move and re-arm weapons systems for aircraft. The elevators can take weapons directly from their magazines to just below the flight deck, therefore greatly improving the sortie-generation rate by making it easier and faster to re-arm planes, service officials explained.

The next-generation technologies and increased automation on board the Ford-Class carriers are also designed to decrease the man-power needs or crew-size of the ship and, ultimately, save more than $4 billion over the life of the ships.

The Navy is analyzing the results of an extensive study into the future of aircaft carriers - will the Navy change shape, design or size of its future carriers? Do modern weapons make the carrier, in its current configuration, too vulnerable and therefore obsolete? What will the Navy recommend?

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

Senior Navy officials worked with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to explore whether alternative configurations, engineering models, shapes, sizes and technologies were needed to address anticipated future threats to the platforms.

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.

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. 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.

According to a report from Scout Warrior's Michael Fabey, the CSBA report recommends a high/low mix of traditional carriers along with new, more agile smaller carriers.

“The Navy should also pursue a new “high/low mix” in its aircraft carrier fleet,” CSBA says in its report, CSBA “Restoring American Seapower, A New Fleet Architecture for The United States Navy,” released Feb. 9 of this year.

“Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counterterrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” CSBA says “Over the next five years, the Navy should begin transitioning from large deck amphibious ships into smaller aircraft carriers with the goal of delivering the first such ship in the mid-2030s.”

The CSBA refers to the ships as light aircraft carrier (CVL), saying it “initially be a legacy LHA/LHD, but eventually replaced by a purpose-built 40,000- to 60,000-ton CVL with catapults and arresting gear.” 

The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, has 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 Navy and other analysts are also considering 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 - or one of the first several Ford-Class Carriers -  may 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.

Future Carriers

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