For seventy years, battleships were the unchallenged masters of the oceans, until technology swept them aside. Now the aircraft carrier reigns supreme. The US currently has five times more aircraft carrier capacity based on flight deck acreage than the the rest of the world combined.
A recent article in the US Naval Institute magazine Proceedings, “Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carriers” by Captain Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy, and Lieutenant Colonel J. Noel Williams, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), suggests that the latest “super carriers” are becoming superfluous in addition to being unsupportably expensive. “In short, the march of technology is bringing the supercarrier era to an end, just as the new long-range strike capabilities of carrier aviation brought on the demise of the battleship era in the 1940s.”
Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier
Factors both internal and external are hastening the carrier’s curtain call. Competitors abroad have focused their attention on the United States’ ability to go anywhere on the global maritime commons and strike targets ashore with pinpoint accuracy. That focus has resulted in the development of a series of sensors and weapons that combine range and strike profiles to deny carrier strike groups the access necessary to launch squadrons of aircraft against shore installations.
One issue of concern is the highly experimental and expensive move toward high-sortie-generation technology like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which flies in the face of transition to precision-strike systems that promise one-target:one-weapon ratios. In addition, a series of poor acquisition decisions, beginning with the mismanagement and ultimate cancellation of the A-12 Avenger as the replacement aircraft for the A-6 Intruder deep-strike aircraft, have exacerbated the challenge to carrier efficacy. The resulting reduction in the combat-effective range of the carrier air wing from 1,050 to 500 nautical miles forces the carrier to operate closer to enemy shores even as anti-access systems would logically force the carrier farther seaward.
Accompanying this range deficiency has been the dramatic increase in the cost of the carrier and her air wing. The price tag for the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was $950 million, or 4.5 percent of the Navy’s $21 billion budget in 1976. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), lead ship of a new class of supercarriers, is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $12.5 billion. Add to that the Navy’s own estimate of a 60 percent chance the ship will exceed the original cost projection and the number of technologies still under development. This brings the estimate to around $13.5 billion, or 8.7 percent of a $156 billion budget—all this while the ship is still plagued with technical risk factors like EMALS and the multi-function radar. The U.S. National Command Authority would need to be facing a gravely extreme scenario to commit this sort of strategic asset, with a crew of 5,000 men and women. The Gerald R. Ford is just the first of her class. She should also be the last.
Thanks to Alaric Bond for passing the article along.