Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Stop Building Ford Class Aircraft Carriers

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2017-2021 2017-2026
Change in Planned Defense Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -1.8 -1.7 -1.8 -3.1 -3.0 -3.1 -2.2 -2.1 -2.2 -8.4 -21.0
  Outlays 0 -0.1 -0.6 -0.9 -1.3 -1.9 -2.3 -2.6 -2.5 -2.5 -2.9 -14.7

This option would take effect in October 2017.

Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the 2017 Future Years Defense Program and CBO’s extension of that plan.

The Administration’s 2017 budget calls for maintaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and 9 active-duty naval air wings. (The number of active air wings is two less than the number of carriers because normally two of the Navy’s carriers are having their nuclear reactors refueled or undergoing other major maintenance at any particular time.) Aircraft carriers are 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 second of its modern Ford class carriers, the John F. Kennedy, which lawmakers authorized in 2013 and which is expected to be completed in 2022. Thus, plans to start building the third Ford class carrier (the Enterprise) in 2018 would be canceled, as would the Navy’s plans to purchase additional carriers in subsequent years. (Under its current shipbuilding plan, the Navy would purchase a new carrier every five years. Because those ships are expensive and take a long time to build, the Congress allows the Navy to spread the costs out over six years. Funding for the Enterprise began 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 because the fixed overhead costs of the shipyard would be allocated to fewer programs. (The same commercial shipyard that builds and overhauls aircraft carriers also builds parts of submarines. Some of the overhead costs for that yard that are currently associated with building new carriers would instead be charged to submarine programs and to refueling carriers, increasing the total costs of those programs.) This option would reduce the need for discretionary budget authority by $21 billion from 2018 through 2026, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Outlays would decrease by $15 billion over that period. Additional savings would be realized after 2026 because the Navy would no longer be purchasing new aircraft carriers and because it would need to buy fewer aircraft to put on its carrier fleet, which would slowly shrink as old ships retired from the fleet. Those additional savings would, however, be substantially offset if the Navy decided that it had to buy other weapon systems to replace the capability and capacity that it lost by not purchasing additional 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. Two Ford class carriers, including the John F. Kennedy, are currently under construction and will replace the first two Nimitz class carriers when they are retired in the 2020s, so as late as 2030, the Navy would still field 10 carriers under this option. The size of the carrier force would decline thereafter, however, falling to 7 ships by 2040. If national security interests made additional carriers necessary in the future, the Navy could once again start building new carriers. But doing so would be more expensive and complex than building new carriers is today, and it takes years to construct such large ships. Building new designs of small warships is a challenge; relearning how to build the largest warship ever produced would pose much greater challenges for the shipyard tasked with the job.

Another argument in favor of this option is that, as new technologies designed to threaten and destroy surface ships are developed and are acquired by an increasing number of countries, the large aircraft carrier may cease to be an effective weapon system for defending the United States’ interests overseas. Among the technologies that might threaten the carrier in the future are long-range supersonic antiship cruise missiles, antiship ballistic missiles, very quiet submarines, and satellite and other tracking systems. The risk to the carrier force is not great today, but if the United States’ defensive capabilities fail to keep pace with advances in antiship technologies, the Navy’s large surface warships may face much greater risks in the future. If over the next 20 years the technologies to detect, track, and attack the Navy’s aircraft carriers advanced to such an extent that it could not effectively defend against those weapons, then any large investment in new carriers that the Navy made today would ultimately 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, each of its 10 older Nimitz class carriers 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. The new Ford class aircraft carriers will be able to generate an even larger number of sorties each day.

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 transported 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, stealthy munitions could perhaps 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 probably be far more cost-effective than today’s ship defenses, which rely primarily on missiles. 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.