U.S. Navy’s carriers costly relics of the past?


Budget pressures at the Pentagon have renewed a debate about the value of the U.S. Navy’s giant aircraft carriers, with critics arguing the warships are fast becoming costly relics in a new era of warfare.

With the Pentagon facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, a navy officer has dared to question the most treasured vessels in his service’s fleet, saying the supercarriers are increasingly vulnerable to new weapons and too expensive to operate.

“After 100 years, the carrier is rapidly approaching the end of its useful strategic life,” wrote Capt. Henry Hendrix in a report published in March by the Center for a New American Security.

Changes in naval warfare mean that carriers “may not be able to move close enough to targets to operate effectively or survive in an era of satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles,” Hendrix wrote.

Under U.S. law, the military is required to maintain 11 aircraft carriers. Ten are currently in service after the retirement of the USS Enterprise, which is due to be replaced in 2017 with the USS Gerald Ford, the first of a new class of “big decks.”

The new carrier carries a prohibitive price tag of $13.6 billion, double the cost of the last aircraft carrier. And that does not count the $4.7 billion spent on research and development for the new class of carriers.

It costs about $6.5 million a day to operate a single carrier strike group, which includes five other warships, an attack submarine, an air wing of 80 fighters and helicopters, and a crew of 6,700. But Hendrix maintains the return on the investment is paltry.

Each F/A-18 fighter in the carrier fleet has dropped roughly 16 bombs in 10 years of war, which works out to about $7.5 million for each bomb when all the costs of the aircraft are taken into account.

Apart from the mushrooming cost, carriers are facing mounting dangers from increasingly sophisticated ship-killing missiles, skeptics say. U.S. strategists are fixated on China’s DF-21D missile, which they fear could potentially knock out a carrier and deprive the American fleet of its dominance on the high seas.

Former Pentagon chief Robert Gates cited the antiship missiles and other high-tech weapons in a speech in 2010 in which he questioned whether it was worth spending billions on more carriers. “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates said.

Advanced missiles and stealthy submarines “could end the operational sanctuary our navy has enjoyed in the Western Pacific for the better part of six decades,” said Gates, who referred to carriers as potential “wasting assets.”

His remarks alarmed naval leaders, and the latest dissent has failed to dissuade most officers, who view the big decks as crucial and note that China is deploying its own carrier.

Pete Daly, a retired vice admiral who once commanded the USS Nimitz carrier strike group, defended the ships as a vital element of U.S. military might.

To hit deeply buried targets, fighter jets flying off a carrier were more effective than Tomahawk missiles, and knocking out a supercarrier is “very, very hard,” Daly said.

As for China’s missiles, “it was an additional threat to take into account,” Daly said. But, he added, “the U.S. Navy is very aware of this and has plans to deal with it.”

The cost of the carriers had to be compared with the huge funding required to protect and supply air bases and troops on land, as illustrated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

And the carriers could be ordered in without the political strain associated with a drawn-out ground war.

  • Morpheus

    If the U.S. and China ever go to war, Beijing’s primary goal will be to destroy an American aircraft carrier– or two. That alone will ignite a far greater war, possibly turning nuclear.
    By the way, why does the U.S. Navy need 11 of them?

    • Starviking

      The key to understanding why the USN needs a given number of carriers is the areas where the USN is required to provide air power. These currently are:

      The Mediterranean, The Pesian Gulf, South East Asia, and the Western Pacific.

      That might seem to require only four carriers, but you have to account for downtime as the carriers go in for overhaul and refuelling, and alos the need to be able to boost the number of carrier in an area due to crises. So during Operation Tomodachi, with the Japan-based USS George Washington being unable to participate due to it being in mantenance, the USS Ronald Reagan was able to step in an provide support in Tohoku.

  • J

    It’s not necessary to “sink” an aircraft carrier. All that needs to be done is to do enough damage to prevent launching and landing of aircraft.The DF-21D “aircraft carrier killer” is probably up to the job.

    • Starviking

      The DF-21D is unproven, will need up-to-date data on where the aircraft carrier is, will also need to get through the US Navy’s anti ballistic missile defenses, and will need to avoid getting pounded once the first few are used.
      We saw the same thing after anti-ship missles came into their own in the late 60s – the end of big warships was heralded, but Close In Weapons Systems checked the threat. The same will happen here.

      • hp

        Millennium Challenge 2002?
        All the paper supremacy is wonderful. The computer simulations sublime!
        Especially when they can raise the sunken fleet, pretend it never happened and carry on to victory!

        Yeah, I know. The whiz kids have taken all that into account and taken measures…
        Famous last words.

      • Starviking

        Interesting that you cover none of the technical challenges I mentioned. Not one.

      • hp

        Technical challenges?
        “but Close In Weapons Systems checked the threat.”

        On paper and computers only. As usual. There’s your technical.

        ‘We saw the same thing after anti-ship missles came into their own in the late 60s” but Close In Weapons Systems checked the threat.” “Checked the threat?!! By what? More computer simulations?

        Those were old 60’s Exocets, etc. are not 21st century Yakhonts and Brahmos.

        Ever heard of saturation attack overwhelming the radars?
        Ever been in the military? Or do you just breathlessly follow the bullshit artists and their rah rahing?

        Last I checked the Afghan hill people and farmers armed with AK’s, IED’s and RPG’s are yet to be defeated by all the whiz bang gizmos, aircraft, armor, choppers, etc, etc. etc. 11 + years now..

        Maybe they forgot to show them the computer simulations, eh?

      • Starviking

        Well Close-In Weapons Systems designed to counter 60s missiles countered 60s missiles, and the upgraded missiles were checked with upgraded CIWS. There’s no reason to suppose that CIWS and Naval SAMs cannot be produced to counter new missiles. The British Sea Ceptor, which is slated to replace Sea Wolf is designed to defend against saturation attacks from supersonic aircraft and missiles. Same goes for the RIM-162 ESSM.

        As for “saturation attacks overwhelming the radars” – isn’t that why AEGIS and SAMPSON was developed? And fast-firing Vertical Launch missiles which needed only seconds of radar illumination towards the end of the engagement like the SM-2 Standards, or no illumination at all, like the Aster family?

        Also, what has being in the military got to do with it? A more pertinent point might be “are you familiar with any weapons systems” or “do you have a suitable qualification”?

        As for your example of Afghans and their old and improvised weapons – what does that have to do with attacking and defending ships at sea? Are you suggesting that AEGIS vessels are at risk from old Soviet Komet ASMs? Maybe resurected Sverdlov Class Cruisers?

        Anyhow, the discussion was about DF-21s and Anti-Ship Missiles. There is not a lot of information on ship classes and weapons fits in Millenium Exercise 2002, but, as you said it it just a computer simulation. I’d think more could go wrong for the attacker rather than the defender, and the defender is not going to be turing off their weapons systems like the INS Hanit off Lebanon in 2006. I’d think Standard and ESSM, or even better Aster and Sea Ceptor would have a good chance against the cruise missile attacks in ME 2002, and the increased gun-fit on NATO ships would winnow out the small boatr attacks. Of course, with good intel the potential sources of these attacks would be under observation.

  • mpatrick

    two interesting trends are converging at the same time: american energy independence, and the relative decline of american economic primacy. so, as the US reliance on middle east oil declines in the face of rising domestic oil and gas output, the need for maintaining aircraft carrier groups to patrol the middle east / persian gulf and maintain safe passage of the sea lanes will diminish, at least from an american perspective. the US will not only be willing to cede control, they will start pushing for other countries to shoulder that burden. this trend coincides with another, which is that the US can no longer outspend all other countries for two reasons: limits at home, and a relative decline to other countries, whose wealth and income are rising faster than that of the US. simply, as the need to protect shipping lanes becomes less and less important to American strategic interests, the costs for maintaining such large power-projection assets will become harder to justify. the result will be a US navy less focussed on global power projection and more on defense and collective security with important allies.

  • spengler1

    Carriers are going the way of the battleship and maintaining 11 is sheer insanity. The government is $16 trillion in the red and not cutting the carrier force in half is a crime. But if the public is not going to do it don’t expect the President to take the first step.