As Obsolete as a Battleship: Why Is the U.S. Navy Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

April 17, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarPentagon

As Obsolete as a Battleship: Why Is the U.S. Navy Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

We take a look. 


Sound policy will also require overcoming resistance to replacing manned subs with all manner of unmanned underwater vessels — from the very small to large-displacement unmanned vehicles.

“History,” it has been written, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Today it’s rhyming with Gen. Billy Mitchell. In the 1920s, Mitchell challenged conventional thinking by advocating air power at sea in the face of a naval establishment dominated by battleship proponents.


(This first appeared several years ago and is being reposted due to recent reader interest.)

The hubris of the “battleship Navy” was such that just nine days before Pearl Harbor, the official program for the 1941 Army-Navy game displayed a full page photograph of the battleship USS Arizona with language virtually extolling its invincibility.

Of course, the reason that no one had yet sunk a battleship from the air — in combat — was that no one had yet tried.

In fact, Mitchell sank a captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland, in an aerial demonstration back in 1921, but the Navy said that the test proved nothing. Two of the observers that day were officials from Japan.

In addition, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a student at Harvard at the time and no doubt read accounts of the event that were widely reported in the newspapers.

The aircraft carrier decisively replaced the battleship as the Navy’s sea control capital ship, but its reign in that capacity was, in reality, quite brief. The aircraft carrier established its ascendancy in the Battle of Midway and was the centerpiece of five major sea battles between 1942 and 1944.

Yet, following the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the U.S. Navy repositioned the aircraft carrier as a platform to project power ashore. The United States did not lose a fleet carrier in the war after the Hornet went down in 1942, because Japan’s surface fleet had been devastated. Nor did Tokyo effectively use its submarines.

That track record, just as the boast in the Army/Navy game program, however, is not an indication that a carrier cannot be sunk — or put out of commission — but rather the fact that since 1945, the U.S. Navy has never engaged another navy in battle that tried.

“Projecting the past into the future is risky business — especially when we’re unsure what that past was,” James Holmes, a naval warfare expert at the U.S. Naval War College wrote.

Which brings us to today. The U.S. Navy has fallen into a troubling pattern of designing and acquiring new classes of ships that would arguably best be left as single ship — or at most in limited numbers. It’s also building several types of new aircraft that fail to meet specifications.

The Navy is developing a new class of supercarriers that cannot function properly, and has designed them to launch F-35 fighters that are not ready to fly their missions. This is all happening during an era of out-of-control budgets, which bodes poorly for American sea power and leadership ahead.

That the Navy is concentrating larger percentages of its total force structure on large, high signature and increasingly vulnerable ships endangers America’s future. Fortunately, there’s better options to the status quo if the Navy moves now.

Too expensive

Before asking whether it makes sense to continue to invest in aircraft carriers, we must ask the question whether we can afford them.

The Pentagon commissioned the USS George H.W. Bush in 2009 at a cost of $6.1 billion. America’s most recent aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, will cost more than double that in constant dollars. The carriers’ air wings cost about 70 percent again the cost of the ship itself.

In an era when personnel costs — including healthcare and pensions — are consuming the military from within, the fact that these craft require 46 percent of the Navy’s personnel to man and support places them in the crosshairs in an extreme budget-constrained environment.

The Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments stated that being the most expensive piece of military equipment in the world makes “them a prime — and perhaps even a necessary target — in this era of belt tightening.”

If 11 carriers — as required by legislation — is the minimal number required to have an effective supercarrier force, then carrier proponents are hoist upon their own petard.

“If our fleet of small numbers is so fragile that it cannot afford the loss of a single ship due to budgeting, how will it survive the inevitable losses of combat?” Commander Phillip E. Pournelle wrote in Proceedings.

That day has already come. As of early 2014, the Navy only has 10 operational supercarriers. Sequestration delayed the deployment of the Harry S. Trumanand has the Navy scrambling to come up with funds to refuel the Abraham Lincoln, raising the question whether the latter will ever come back into service.

It appears dubious that the Ford will have overcome major development issues to come into service in 2016.

Furthermore, if sequestration persists, the Navy might have to mothball four of nine air wings, making the discussion of 11 carrier platforms moot. Due to these substantial constraints, the Congressional Budget Office and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel both floated the possibility of the Navy going down to as few as eight supercarriers.


The Navy, like the other services, has proven itself incapable of running an effective weapons acquisition program in recent decades. Instead, the services pay increasingly more money for progressively fewer units that often fail to meet original specifications.

The current shipbuilding plan calls for the Navy to have 306 ships while the actual number has dwindled 285. The CBO recently concluded that there is approximately a 30 percent gap between what the Navy would require to meet its shipbuilding plan and what it will likely obtain through the appropriation process.

The Navy’s own acquisitions chief recently told Congress that given the current trends and budget outlook, the Navy could slip to as few as 240 shipsin the next several decades.

The commitment to aircraft carriers is literally cannibalizing the rest of the Navy and simultaneously interfering with its ability to meet emerging requirements and threats.

Work began in 2005 on the Ford at an estimated procurement cost of $10.5 billion, which later increased to $12.8 and most recently to $14.2 billion and rising. Unfortunately, as the General Accountability Office noted in a recent report — issued when the Ford was 56 percent complete — that “our previous work has shown that the full extent of cost growth does not usually manifest itself until after the ship is more than 60 percent complete.”

Stating that the “plan may prove unexecutable,” the GAO added that the Fordwill be unlikely to fill the gap created by the scheduled decommissioning of the Enterprise. Worse, the Ford would “likely face operational limitations that extend past commissioning and into initial deployments.”

The already stretched multi-year procurement budget assumes that the Navy will spend $43 billion to procure the Ford and two other carriers of this class at the pace of one every five years, which does not include any additional cost overruns.

Unfortunately, cost estimates for the F-35Cs slated to fly off the Ford’s decks have almost doubled while performance concerns continue to mount.

Calling the Navy estimates “optimistic,” the GAO exhorted the service to “improve the realism” of the budget projections. Meanwhile the CBO has floated various options including canceling future procurement of Ford-class carriers. The Navy is currently trying to shift part of the funding for completion until after delivery of the first ship in an apparent attempt to obscure the extent of the overruns.

The surface fleet procurement program has suffered a massive disconnect between emerging capabilities and system design. Naval Operations chief Adm. Jonathan Greenert discussed the revolution in precision-weaponry such that “instead of sorties per aimpoint, we now commonly speak of aimpoints per sortie.”

But instead of leveraging this massive improvement in precision weapons, the Ford-class carriers were designed prior to his tenure and the costs have driven through the roof. This was in order to include new, untested technologies that dramatically increased the number of sorties that could be launched even though the performance ratios were going dramatically in the opposite direction.

Vulnerable to attack

The economies of scale that favored the carrier as a force projection instrument were made possible by the ability of such behemoths to operate close to shore with impunity. That age is drawing to a close.

The famed Adm. Horatio Nelson observed that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” In the new age that is dawning, the “fort” is an increasingly sophisticated range of over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles that render surface ships vulnerable, and which will deny them proximity to the coastlines where U.S. carriers have reigned for decades.

These include ballistic missiles fired from a wide range of platforms, including easy to conceal mobile launchers. In a sweeping 2013 paper on the carrier’s future, Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix estimated China could produce 1,227 DF-21D ballistic anti-ship missiles for the cost of a single U.S. carrier.