With their ability to move globally, project power against the land from a sovereign base at sea, act as the centerpiece for the organization of naval forces to exert sea control and to deploy a wide array of aerial platforms, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) may be this nation’s number one asymmetric military advantage.
Our prospective adversaries have acknowledged as much by their extensive and expensive efforts to place the CVN at risk.
A new class of CVNs, the Ford, multiplies the advantage provided by the older ships. Its electromagnetic launch system, advanced arresting gear, placement of the tower, state-of-the art power generation system and new radar will allow the Ford to generate some 25 percent more sorties than its older brethren. Its defensive system and stealth features will provide improved protection against a range of threats. Investments in information technology and automation will enable Ford-class CVNs to operate more effectively and efficiently with a smaller crew.
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Since its inception, the CVN force has been able to reinvent itself, its roles and missions, operating concepts and even tactics as new aircraft and aerial systems became available. It is no different for the emergent Ford-class and its older brethren. The addition of the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and carrier-based unmanned aerial systems promise a significant, potentially even revolutionary, improvement in the performance of the air wing.
The replacement of the C-2 Greyhound aircraft with a variant of the V-22 Osprey for the carrier onboard delivery mission will enhance carrier battlegroup operations. When capabilities such as the Next Generation Jammer for the EA-18 Growler and longer-range, more sophisticated air-delivered weapons are included, the CVNs will be able to challenge efforts by prospective adversaries to deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate at and from the sea.
The CVNs have proven themselves among the most operationally responsive, tactically flexible and technologically advanced platforms in the U.S. arsenal. From the start, they have played a central role in the global war on terror. At the same time, CVNs have held resident in their design and functions the ability to respond to changes in potential conflict scenarios. Across the conflict spectrum, CVNs have and will continue to make a unique and potentially decisive contribution to U.S. military superiority.
Despite its unique features and obvious capabilities, the Ford has come in for more than a little criticism. At a targeted price of $12.9 billion for the first new CVN, the Ford is an expensive platform; some have argued too expensive particularly given the rise in cost over the initial estimates.
How expensive is the Ford, really?
In terms of cost per ton, CVNs are cheaper than any class of combatants save amphibious warfare ships. This includes classes of ships such as destroyers and submarines of which the Navy acquires multiple hulls every year allowing for learning curve effects on costs. CVNs are built once every five years which poses a challenge for reducing costs by moving down the learning curve.
When it comes to cost increases, it turns out that aircraft carriers have done a better job at containing costs than other ship types. According to a RAND Corporation Report, since 1950 annual cost escalation rates for construction of ships have ranged from 7-11 percent per year, with the highest being 10.9 percent for surface combatants and the lowest 7.4 percent for CVNs.
The Navy wants a force of 12 aircraft carriers as part of its plan for a 355 ship fleet. Achieving this goal over the next several decades will require reducing the interval between the start of construction, currently five years to four or even three years.
The acquisition strategy that has been successfully employed to procure surface combatants and submarines could also be applied to buying aircraft carriers. The Navy bought the first two Ford-class carriers, CVNs 78 and 79, as single ships. Initiating a block buy procurement for the next several CVNs will save money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, buying aircraft carriers in a block under a single contract will:
Reduce the unit procurement costs of the carriers covered by the contract through the use of Economic Order Quantity (EOQ) purchases (i.e., up-front batch orders) of materials and components for the ships, and by giving the shipyard and supplier firms the confidence they need about future aircraft carrier construction to invest in optimizing their workforces and capital plants for a multiple-ship production run.
The Navy’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development & Acquisition, James F. Geurts, has argued that using the block buy approach for the next two Ford-class ships will save at least one billion dollars. The heads of the Senate and House seapower subcommittees have publicly asserted that a block buy along with other smart acquisition initiatives, could save up to $2.5 billion. Huntington Ingalls, whose Newport News shipyard will build all the Fords, claims that it could save $1.5 billion on a three ship block buy, as well as shorten the average construction time by up to two years.
While other classes of warships may be dominant in certain mission areas, only the CVN provides the breadth of capabilities, massive magazines, mobility and flexibility required to address the spectrum of conflict. The carrier battle group, with its combination of surface combatants, submarines and aircraft is the most powerful military unit ever created.
If one CVN is good, more are better. Buying the next Ford-class ships in a block will speed up the creation of the 355 ship Navy, allow for an increase in the number of CVNs and reduce the cost of individual ships.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.