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?

  • http://twitter.com/clark_jimm 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.

  • 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.