Note: This option would take effect in October 2015. Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the fiscal year 2014 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office’s extension of that program.
The Administration’s 2014 budget calls for maintaining a fleet of 10 aircraft carriers and 10 active-duty naval air wings. The number of carriers is temporarily below the Navy’s stated goal of 11 as a result of a three-year gap between the decommissioning of the U.S.S. Enterprise in early 2013 and the scheduled commissioning of its replacement, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, in early 2016. (The number of active air wings is one less than the number of carriers because, at any particular time, one of the Navy’s carriers is usually undergoing a major overhaul.) Aircraft carriers are also accompanied by a mix of surface combatants (typically cruisers and destroyers) and submarines to defend against enemy aircraft, ships, and submarines. The Navy calls such a force a carrier strike group.
Under this option, the Navy would stop building new aircraft carriers after completion of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, which lawmakers authorized in 2013. Thus, the next aircraft carrier the Navy intends to purchase under its shipbuilding plan, the U.S.S. Enterprise in 2018, would be canceled, as would future carriers, which the Navy plans to buy at the pace of one every five years. (Because those ships take a long time to build and are so expensive, the Congress allows the Navy to purchase them over six years. Funding for the Enterprise would have begun in 2016.)
Savings under this option would result exclusively from not buying new carriers; those savings would be offset somewhat by higher costs for nuclear-powered submarines and for refueling the Navy’s existing carriers. (The same commercial shipyard that builds and overhauls aircraft carriers also builds parts of submarines; some overhead costs for that yard would now be charged instead to submarine programs.) Overall, this option would save $10 billion in outlays from 2016 through 2023, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Additional savings would be realized beyond 2023, because of reduced costs to construct aircraft carriers and because the Navy would need to buy fewer aircraft to put on its slowly shrinking carrier fleet. Those additional savings would be offset, however, if the Navy decided that it had to buy other weapon systems to replace the lost capability and capacity of the canceled carriers.
One argument in favor of this option is that the existing fleet and the carriers under construction would maintain the current size of the carrier force for a long time because the ships are designed to operate for 50 years. Replacements for two carriers in the current fleet are already under construction, and by 2030, the Navy would still field 10 carriers under this option. The size of the carrier force would decline thereafter, however, and by 2040, the force would fall to 7 ships. If stopping production did not accord with perceived national security interests in the future, the Navy could start building new carriers again. But doing so would be a more expensive and complex process than building new carriers is today, and those large ships take years to construct. Building new designs of small warships is a challenge; relearning how to build the largest warship ever built would pose much greater challenges for the shipyard tasked with the job.
Another argument in favor of this option is that, at some point in the future, the large aircraft carrier may no longer be an effective weapon system for defending U.S. interests overseas as new technologies designed to threaten and destroy surface ships are developed and spread to many countries. Among the technologies that might threaten the future survivability of the carrier are long-range supersonic antiship cruise missiles, antiship ballistic missiles, very quiet submarines, and satellite tracking systems and other sensors. The risk to the carrier force is not great today, but the future is much more uncertain. As those technologies are developed and improved in the decades to come and as more countries acquire them, the Navy’s large surface warships may be at greater risk if U.S. defensive capabilities do not keep pace. If in 20 years the technologies to detect, track, and attack the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers advanced such that the Navy could not effectively defend against them, then the Navy’s large investments in new carriers today would not be cost-effective.
An argument against this option is that it could hamper the Navy’s fighting ability. Since World War II, the aircraft carrier has been the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy. According to the Navy, today’s Nimitz class ships can sustain 95 strike sorties per day and, with each aircraft carrying four 2,000-pound bombs, deliver three-quarters of a million pounds of bombs each day. That firepower far exceeds what any other surface ship can deliver.
Another argument against this option is that carriers may prove adaptable to a future environment that includes more sophisticated threats to surface ships—perhaps through the development of new weapon systems on the carriers. Since World War II, carriers have taken on board many different types and generations of aircraft. The Navy is now developing long-range unmanned aircraft that would be capable of striking an enemy’s shores while allowing the carrier to operate outside the range of air and missile threats. Equipping long-range unmanned aircraft with long-range precision, perhaps stealthy munitions could extend the life of the aircraft carrier as an effective weapon system for decades to come. Furthermore, the Navy is developing new technologies that may make the defense of large surface ships economically and tactically effective. Energy-based weapons designed to shoot down incoming missiles would be far more cost-effective than today’s ship defenses in which the missiles used to defend a ship cost more than the missiles that prospective opponents would use to attack the ship. In short, if either of those technological developments bears fruit, then the large aircraft carrier could remain a potent weapon system into the distant future.