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 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2019-
Change in Planned Defense Spending  
  Budget authority 0 0 -1.0 -1.6 -2.0 -1.9 -1.9 -2.7 -3.5 -3.7 -4.5 -18.2
  Outlays 0 0 -0.1 -0.3 -0.7 -1.1 -1.4 -1.7 -2.1 -2.5 -1.1 -9.9

This option would take effect in October 2019.
Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the 2019 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office's extension of that plan.


The Administration's 2019 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) 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 third of its modern Ford class carriers, the Enterprise, which lawmakers authorized in 2018 and which is expected to be completed in 2027. Thus, plans to start building the fourth Ford class carrier in 2023 would be canceled, as would the Navy's plans to purchase additional carriers in subsequent years. (Under its current 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy would purchase a new carrier every four or five years. Because those ships are expensive and take a long time to build, the Congress appropriates funds for construction over eight years, beginning two years before a ship is authorized for purchase by the Congress. Funding for the Enterprise began in 2016.)

Effects on the Budget

Savings under this option would result exclusively from not buying new carriers; those savings would be offset partially by higher costs for building nuclear-powered submarines and for refueling the Navy's existing carriers, because the fixed overhead costs of the commercial shipyard performing that work would be allocated to fewer programs. (The same shipyard that builds and overhauls aircraft carriers also builds parts of submarines. Some of that shipyard's overhead costs 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 discretionary budget authority by about $18 billion from 2021 through 2028 compared with costs under the Department of Defense's plans, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Outlays would decrease by nearly $10 billion over that period. (For carrier construction, outlay savings are substantially less than budget authority savings; because carriers are built over nine-year periods, the outlay savings are not fully captured within the 10-year period of this option.) The savings were determined by eliminating the Administration's funding request from 2021 through 2023 for the fourth carrier and by estimating (using CBO's figures) the costs of construction for that ship as well as the fifth ship from 2024 through 2028.

The estimate of savings is reasonably certain under this option because the cost of the fourth and fifth carriers will be very similar, after adjusting for inflation, to the cost of the third carrier. Some uncertainty remains (about inflation in the costs of material and labor, for example), but it is small—implying a change in costs that is within a few percentage points of the total cost of an aircraft carrier.

Additional savings would be realized after 2028 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 were retired from the fleet. The savings under this option would accrue only if the Navy did not buy other weapon systems to replace the capability and capacity that it lost by not purchasing additional carriers.

Other Effects

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. Three Ford class carriers, including the Enterprise, have been delivered or are under construction. They will replace the first three Nimitz class carriers when they are retired in the 2020s and early 2030s; so as late as 2036, the Navy would still field 11 carriers under this option. The size of the carrier force would decline thereafter, however, falling to 6 ships by 2048. If national security interests made additional carriers necessary in the future, the Navy could restart production. 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 more 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. If the United States' defensive capabilities failed 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 new 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 ceasing production of aircraft carriers 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 sustain even more 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 most air and missile threats. Equipping long-range unmanned aircraft with long-range, precision, 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 could be more cost-effective than today's ship defenses, which rely primarily on missiles. In short, if either of those technological developments occurred, then the large aircraft carrier could remain a potent weapon system into the distant future.