How Fast Could America Build More Aircraft Carriers?
In spending more than another $2 billion annually on aircraft carriers—not crews or planes or escorts—the Navy would get back to 15 super-carriers in perhaps 22 to 27 years.
On Saturday, Newport News Shipbuilding will hold a keel-laying ceremony for USS John F. Kennedy, the second of the Gerald Ford-class carriers. Ohio Governor John Kasich is running for president, and he wants yet more aircraft carriers. About five more super-carriers, though over time, as he was careful to stress at a Republican Party forum in South Carolina on Monday. Left unclear in his remarks was just how much time he meant. Cutting the carrier fleet has occupied most of that sort of discussion recently, but let’s also consider how feasible expanding it might be. Building a bunch more Fords would take decades, but the Navy could get some smaller ships much more quickly.
How’s that? Consider the investment during the Cold War. Between 1968 and 2009, Newport News built, and the Navy commissioned, ten Nimitz-class carriers—about one every four years. The Navy currently buys one every five years. Just about everyone at Huntington Ingalls Industries would be delighted to return to the faster building rate, but that’s still just an extra ship every twenty years. At that pace, the Navy would graduate back from 10 to 15 carriers, Fords or follow-ons, in about a century. That’s probably not what the governor had in mind.
To further illustrate the challenge of what Kasich is recommending, consider doubling the current rate of super-carrier construction. Whether the work is entrusted to another firm with its own learning curve, or to the incumbent with a bigger monopoly, is a significant strategic decision. Either way, super-carriers aren’t Liberty Ships, so they can only be built so fast. Thus, you’ll first need to build another dry dock the size of that monster in Hampton Roads. Then, expand the work force—even the current yard would experience a long lead time in hiring and training more staff, and without unduly disrupting construction of the Kennedy. The entire supply chain would experience a similar surge, almost of wartime proportions. Then, in spending more than another $2 billion annually on aircraft carriers—not crews or planes or escorts—the Navy would get back to 15 super-carriers in perhaps 22 to 27 years. That might be closer to what the governor had in mind, but it’s still not swift.
But for that matter, is another yard even a plausible option? Every one of those Nimitzs, and both Fords so far, have been products of Newport News. The US Navy hasn’t bought a super-carrier from another builder since 1961, when it got the Kitty Hawk from New York Shipbuilding and the Constellation from the New York Naval Yard. Both those facilities are long since closed, and the work forces highly retired. Other American yards can build big ships, but not that big. Kasich did clearly mean Ford-class ships for “projecting power,” but what if he could temper his enthusiasm, and just ask for more carriers?
The governor, after all, also spoke of “ensuring the free flow of commerce,” and reminding China and Iran that “that the global commons are, in fact, just that: the world's shared real estate.” As Robert Rubel wrote in Naval War College Review in 2011, American aircraft carriers have had five doctrinal roles over time: as (1) scouts for the surface fleet, (2) hit-and-run raiders, (3) capital ships for the destruction of the enemy fleet, (4) nuclear strike platforms, and (5) mobile floating airfields for conventional strikes ashore. The Fords are optimized for this last role, but it’s not the wisest role on the first day of a war with China. Before fighting across the shore, enemy defenses must be rolled back, and that calls for roles (1), (2), and (3) as well. Other countries with smaller carriers also consider theirs mobile airfields for anti-submarine hunter-killer groups. This falls into category (3), and is pretty important for ensuring that free flow of commerce, particularly against that huge Chinese submarine fleet.
The US Navy also has nine helicopter carriers of the Wasp and America-classes, mostly for troop-ferrying helicopters, but also for jump jets. The first two ships of the class, the in-service America and the under-construction Tripoli, lack well decks and have smaller hospitals than other assault ships, and thus have more room for aircraft. After some uproar in the Marine Corps, all further ships of the class are now planned with well decks and full-sized hospitals. But a future administration could direct the Navy to build, in parallel with those future Americas, a whole further flotilla of aviation-only ships on the original pattern. America and Tripoli can each carry a large squadron of 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and a pair of search-and-rescue MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Alternatively, they could each carry a large group of submarine-hunting MH-60s. In either role, those ships would be very useful in a big war in the Western Pacific, either accompanying the super-carriers forward, or sweeping up submarines in the rear. The Japanese Navy, after all, is very enthused about its new Izumo-class submarine-hunting aircraft carriers, and thinks about that Chinese threat every day.
Fairly, none of the ships described are super-carriers. Those F-35Bs will have only 60 percent of the range and half the payload of the big carriers' F-35Cs. The America’s harrier-carrier air group would be only about one-third the size. But an America costs less than a third what a Ford does, and requires about a third the crew. For that investment, the Navy picks up an asset that can relieve the rest of the fleet on some of its “presence” missions around the world. When not on those sorts of missions, the ships would expand the Navy’s amphibious fleet, the size of which the Marines are always complaining about. Critically, smaller carriers would also be easier and quicker to build. If Huntington Ingalls could not handle all the work in Pascagoula, the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) would assuredly bid for it in San Diego. There’s no need to build and install atomic reactors—the ships are powered by more readily available gas turbines. In a long war, further ships faster would be useful for replacing what Commander Phillip Pournelle of the Office of Net Assessment has ominously called “the inevitable losses of combat”. One of the problems with the American super-carrier fleet is its enormous concentration of power on single decks. A single spread of torpedoes can ruin any ship and its air wing quite suddenly.
Of course, there’s yet another way to add some small carriers to the fleet, and fast. The French government has two Mistrals for sale, at the very good price of perhaps €650 million each. Those ships are yet smaller, but very efficiently designed—at 20,000 tons, they can still carry a large squadron of helicopters, and on a navigation crew of just 160. France already has a fleet of three in Toulon, so some of the fixed costs of maintenance could be shared if two American ships were based with the Atlantic Fleet. All that makes for a rather reasonable investment for carrying a flag through another expanse of water, anywhere around the world. For as the Pentagon wonders whether its recent doubling-down on bigger, more expensive super-carriers was wise, a more modest outlay for supplementing them may not be so crazy.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where this piece first appeared.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class M. Jeremie Yoder.