Former President Bill Clinton remarked in 1993 that, “when word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: ‘where's the nearest carrier?’” President Clinton’s sentiment still rings true today. Not only did the United States recently dispatch the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group near the Persian Gulf in an attempt to deter perceived Iranian aggression, but this spring President Donald Trump overruled the U.S. Department of Defense’s cost-saving proposal to forgo refueling the nuclear reactor of the USS Harry S. Truman. Washington has long viewed aircraft carriers are the crown jewel of American naval power and has shown little willingness to deviate from this position in recent years.
There are, however, some naval experts who would push back against the Washington establishment’s pro-carrier sentiments. One such expert is Dr. TX Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The Center for the National Interest hosted Hammes for a private breakfast event on Wednesday, June 5, during which he outlined his innovative, if not controversial, proposal to shift the focus of the U.S. Navy from its aircraft carriers to a large armada of missile-armed merchant ships which are better equipped to handle the challenges of modern naval warfare.
According to Hammes, the Navy must confront several major structural challenges in the coming years. In addition to a general shortage of ships, the current fleet also suffers from a dearth of the vessels needed to adapt to the rapidly changing character of naval combat. America’s ships increasingly suffer from the same range obsolescence that afflicted armored knights during the Middle Ages. While knights were well-equipped to dispatch any crossbowman they encountered on the field of battle, their limited range forced them to get close to their opponent before inflicting any damage. This gave less powerful, but longer-ranged combatants an eventually insurmountable advantage.
Just as the battleship became obsolete once it was outranged by the aircraft carrier, so to does the carrier face range obsolescence in the age of the missile. Ballistic missiles, particularly China’s DF-26, can easily outrange America’s carrier fleet. Previous reporting by The National Interest revealed that “the range of a typical carrier combat plane with a nine-ton payload had shrunk to just 1,300 miles” by 2018, and Hammes’ presentation indicated that the F-35 carrier variant’s range capabilities compared quite unfavorably to an array of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles (see below).
Not only are America’s aircraft carriers increasingly susceptible to long-range attacks, but the continued development of hypervelocity missile technology carries what Hammes called “one-shot, one-kill” implications for America’s ships. The U.S. Navy’s large, vulnerable, and extremely expensive supercarriers are likely to become immediate casualties should this technology be deployed against them in future conflicts.
Additionally, the U.S. Navy suffers from the necessity of preparing for battles in multiple domains. In addition to its conventional role and the growing threat of hypervelocity missiles, the Navy must increasingly prepare to participate in cyber, space, mine, and drone warfare, each of which requires its own distinct equipment and technology. The Navy must also make considerable investments into unpiloted vessels to match the considerable advancements made by the Russians and Chinese in this realm. Finally, the Navy faces huge costs to replace its Ohio-class nuclear submarines with the new Columbia-class models in the coming decades. These replacements are essential to maintaining America’s nuclear deterrent, but the Government Accountability Office estimates that development and construction costs will exceed the Navy’s $115 billion procurement projection.
According to Hammes, the Navy is unable to afford the maintenance on the ships it has now, to say nothing of the costs associated with constructing their replacements and preparing for every dimension of conflict. America’s aircraft carriers significantly exacerbate these costs; one nuclear supercarrier with its air wing costs a staggering $20 billion to purchase, in addition to its $1 billion annual operations and maintenance cost and the 4,000 crewmembers needed to operate the ship.
Hammes’ solution, therefore, is to phase out America’s carriers and replace them with a large fleet of small, inexpensive missile-armed merchant ships. Outfitting former merchant ships with missile launchers would be a substantial cost savings for the Navy: $5 billion would be enough to create forty missile merchant ships supplied with between 1600-2000 missiles, requiring only 1600 sailors to crew them. According to Hammes, these merchant vessels, whether they be tankers or container ships, are more expendable, tougher, and have a lower profile than aircraft carriers or other surface ships. Abandoning the carriers for a smaller, more mobile fleet would not only increase the Navy’s capacity to flexibly respond to myriad crises as sea, but would also free up significant capital that could be dedicated to the remainder of the Navy’s diverse needs, allowing the Navy to better prepare itself for all domains of modern warfare.
Hammes also argued that his proposal would increase the Navy’s capacity to rapidly mobilize in the event of a crisis. If container ships are used en masse, commercial sailors could be added as members of the Navy Reserve, while ships could be quickly outfitted with missile technology and deployed to the field when needed. Should the United States engage another great power in a full-on naval conflict, Hammes observed that the winning side would likely be the one that could replace its missiles and ships more quickly. A U.S. Navy increasingly structured around cheap, missile merchants that are supported by a robust naval reserve and armed with easily manufactured missiles would have a significant advantage should such a conflict come to pass.
Hammes’ proposal has its critics, however. They contend that aircraft carriers have many strengths that would be difficult for a merchant marine fleet to replace. Carriers provide repetitive strike capability against onshore targets, meaningfully support American airpower, are relatively easy to upgrade with new advanced weapons systems, and, despite some vulnerabilities, due to their mobility carriers are arguably more survivable than permanent land bases. Additionally, as noted during the discussion, aircraft carriers are culturally significant within the Navy and politically popular outside it. A proposal to ultimately abandon them would likely receive serious pushback.
Hammes, however, is not in favor of scrapping America’s carriers right away, and instead advocates continuing to use the current carriers until they are retired (the Navy will still have seven carriers in use until 2050 and four scheduled for retirement as late as 2070). Still, Hammes stands by his analysis of the carriers’ vulnerability, noting their inability to effectively counter swarm tactics, their diminishing value as a military deterrent, and the difficulty of safely repairing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier anywhere near major ports should one ever take any serious damage. Hammes acknowledged the cultural pushback this proposal would likely receive (particularly from naval aviators), but also characterized this transition as a natural response to the realities of America’s defense budget and the demands of modern naval warfare.
Hammes also answered questions about whether constructing what one participant labeled a “war navy” built around the concept of rapid mass-mobilization of merchant vessels might be viewed as a threat by geopolitical rivals such as China, forcing them to follow suit. To Hammes, however, China is already assembling a navy designed specifically for combat against the United States. If America is to successfully deter naval conflict with China, it must convince Beijing that military engagement will force the Chinese navy to take significant damage. While it is impossible to fully predict what form future naval conflicts may take, Hammes believes his vision of a remade U.S. Navy is far better equipped to deter China than the fleet as currently configured.
The U.S. Navy has not fought a major naval conflict in over seventy years yet must now grapple with difficult choices as it considers how to adapt to meet the growing budgetary constraints and the new challenges of modern naval warfare. While understandably controversial, Hammes’ proposal merits real consideration by the Navy’s uniformed and civilian leadership and is, if nothing else, representative of the type of innovative thinking necessary to help preserve American naval dominance in the decades to come.
Matt Reisener is the assistant to the president at the Center for the National Interest.