A new RAND Corporation study has concluded that bigger aircraft carriers such as the Gerald R. Ford-class are more effective and more survivable than smaller carriers.
While a slightly smaller 70,000-ton design would be cheaper to operate, such a vessel would be less effective and less survivable. It would also extra cost money to develop and build such a carrier. Even smaller light carriers would be much cheaper, but also much less effective and much less survivable. Thus, those vessels are not worth it.
Among the four options the RAND study looked at was a “CVN 8X, the descoped Ford-class carrier,” a 70,000-ton CVN LX, a short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) 40,000-ton conventionally powered CV LX and a 20,000-ton CV EX escort carrier. Out of the designs studied, the CVN-8X was the most effective, with performance comparable to the current Gerald R. Ford-class. However, the Ford is a still a better, more capable ship for a price that is not much greater.
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“The CVN 8X, the descoped Ford-class carrier, offers similar warfighting capability to that of the Ford-class carrier today,” the report states.
“There might be opportunities to reduce costs by eliminating costly features that only marginally improve capability, but similar trade-offs are likely to be made in the current program as well.”
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The CVN LX was also comparable in capability to the Ford-class, but made tradeoffs in terms of survivability.
“The CVN LX concept variant offers an integrated, current air wing with capabilities near current levels but with less organic mission endurance for weapons and aviation fuel,” the report states.
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“It will not generate the same SGR as the Ford-class carrier, but this is not a significant limitation for stressing warfighting scenarios. It will be less survivable in some environments and have less redundancy than the Ford program-of-record ship, and these factors might drive different operation concepts. Although we do not characterize the impact of decreased survivability, this is an important limitation that will have to be weighed against the potential cost savings. The major means of reducing cost is through engineering redundancy, speed, and air wing fuel capacity, and these could affect mobility and theater closure.”
The CV LV and the CV EX were judged not to be effective or survivable.
“Over the long term, however, as the current carrier force is retired, the CV LX would not be a viable option for the eventual carrier force unless displaced capabilities were reassigned to new aircraft or platforms in the joint force, which would be costly,” the report reads.
“This platform would be feasible for a subset of carrier missions but, even for those missions, could require an increase in the number of platforms. This concept variant might, if procured in sufficient numbers, eventually enable the Navy to reduce the number of Ford-class carriers in the overall force structure, but more extensive analysis of missions, operations, and basing of such a variant and the supported air combat element is required.”
On the cost side of the equation, the CVN 8X would only offer minimal cost savings—thus it might be better just to continue building Ford-class carriers as planned.
“The descoped Ford-class carrier, the CVN 8X, might generate fewer sorties than the current key performance parameter values for the Ford class and might have only incremental reduction in overall platform cost,” the report states.
“The analysis examining cost reduction with transition to a life-of-the-ship reactor, such that being done on submarine programs, does not appear to be cost effective. Between the developmental costs and a reduced service life, there is little cost advantage in this variant.”
The CVN LX is cheaper to build and operate, but it would require the Navy to design an entirely new carrier—which is expensive.
“The CVN LX concept would allow considerable savings across the ship’s service life and appears to be a viable alternative to con- sider for further concept exploration,” the report states. “Construction costs would be lower; design changes and life-cycle costs would reflect the lessons already applied in the Ford class. The reliance on hybrid drive with fewer mechanical parts than legacy platforms is likely to further reduce maintenance cost. However, CVN LX would be a new design that would require a significant investment in non-recurring engineering in the near term to allow timely delivery in the 2030s.”
Thus, it might be worth it to study a new lighter nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, but the cost-savings over the Ford might not be there. Chances are that the Navy will continue to build the Ford-class since, in the end, it is probably the easiest and best thing to do.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.