The United States Navy of the future will need 12 aircraft carriers to meet tomorrow’s threats.
Effectively, that means that the service will have to grow the carrier fleet by two vessels. There are currently 10 Nimitz-class carriers in service while the new Gerald R. Ford has yet to be commissioned. As such, the Navy will have to optimize the build rate for aircraft carriers at the Huntington Ingalls Newport News shipyards in Virginia, which have been operating below capacity due to budget cuts during the Obama Administration. The Navy is not ready to say exactly how long it will take to build the fleet back up to 12 carriers—there are many variables involved—but it can be done.
“If you build them at the optimum pace—ships per year—or years between ships in the case of an aircraft carrier, it allows Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding to make much better decisions about their workforce,” Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told reporters during a May 15 roundtable. “The learning curve becomes much more rational. You learn more from ship to ship because a lot of those workers are still around if you compress the build rate a little bit.”
Moreover, moving carrier construction back to a three-to-four years cycle instead of a five-year plus cycle also reduces the cost of the giant ships because the Navy can make material purchases in bulk. Cost reductions could be in the order of billions. “You can buy material are optimum prices and those sorts of things,” Richardson said. “There is just a lot of opportunity if you build these at the economically optimum rate.”
Indeed, the same logic can be applied to the entire shipbuilding industry—which would help to rebuild the Navy much more quickly. “Multiple shipbuilding and aircraft production lines are ‘hot’ - currently producing. They can do more, building additional ships of the types already under construction, more economically. Buying aircraft carriers at the economically-optimal rate - three or four years apart instead of the current five or more years - will not only get us a more powerful fleet faster, but also will save considerable money.” Richardson wrote in a white paper he formally issued on May 17. “The same is true of surface combatants; an analysis of the industrial base shows we could build up to seven additional destroyers in the near term, and up to 14 more small surface combatants. We know we will need the inherent flexibility of a larger amphibious fleet; the industrial base could build five more than we are currently planning over the next six years. Finally, we could also speed construction of up to 12 more combat logistics and command and support ships in the same time period.”
There is a pressing need for more ships—particularly aircraft carriers that are always in high demand. “Naval aviation will continue to observe, orient, decide, and act against enemy forces, leveraging the maneuverability and proximity that can only come from being aboard a carrier. As technologies continue to advance, the future air wing must continue to adapt as it always has, particularly to increase its capacity to contribute to the sea control mission, conducting both kinetic and non-kinetic operations,” Richardson wrote. “To support this capability evolution and deploy the air wing to relevant places in the world with sufficient capacity, the Navy will need 12 aircraft carriers to enable deployment of 5-6 carrier strike groups within relatively short time frames. In the short- and mid-terms, these will include a mix of 4th and 5th generation strike fighters, increasing numbers of unmanned air vehicles, and maritime patrol and electronic attack aircraft.”
The need is there. It’s just a question now of exactly how the Navy will pay for the increased ship construction. Historically, military build-ups have rarely lasted long and are seldom sustain. Only time will tell if Richardson’s vision comes to fruition.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.