The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with plans for its much-debated, next-generation
aircraft carrier, now called CVN 21. The service has requested $1.5 billion
in its fiscal year 2004 budget for research, development and engineering and
advanced procurement for the ship.
CVN 21 is scheduled to begin construction in 2007 and to be delivered in 2014,
according to Rear Adm. Dennis M. Dwyer, the Navy’s program executive officer
for aircraft carriers.
The budget for the entire project “now stands at $11.7 billion,”
Dwyer told a press briefing in Washington, D.C.
Of that amount, he said, $5 billion is “a one-time, non-recurring cost”
of the design for the entire class of ships. “The actual construction
cost of the first ship of the class is $6.7 billion in fiscal ‘07 dollars,”
he said. Some estimates had put the cost as high as $10 billion, which Dwyer
dismissed as “a good myth we’d like to debunk.”
CVN 21 will reflect the first major changes in carrier design since work began
on the USS Nimitz, almost half a century ago, Dwyer told reporters. The Nimitz,
CVN 68, was deployed in 1975, but work on her began much earlier, he said.
“Actually, the early design for the Nimitz was done in the late 1950s,”
Dwyer said. “If you take the time period between Nimitiz and CVN-21, it’s
the same time period between [the USS] Langley—the first carrier—and
Nimitz.” The Langley, CV 1, was commissioned in 1922.
“You can see the challenge,” Dwyer said. “If anybody’s
got to go design a new carrier, I’m glad I’m the one.”
The redesign is necessary, the admiral explained, for two major reasons. “One
of them is sheer weight,” he said. “We need to get newer, lighter
systems that reduce the weight that’s on the ships.” The other factor
is the need for increased electrical power, he said.
A lighter, more powerful ship will save “a tremendous amount of money
in total ownership costs over the life of the ship,” Dwyer said. “You
can make up that R&D expense pretty quickly.”
The Navy originally had planned to introduce design enhancements gradually
to its class of carriers, building first a CVNX 1 and later an improved CVNX
But Defense Department officials decided that planned improvements for CVNX
1 were not dramatic enough to justify the expense. Instead, they chose to meet
the president’s stated goal to “skip a generation” of technology.
They combined the CVNX 1 and 2 steps “into a single, transformational
ship design that accommodates continuous evolution through the life of the class,”
Hansford T. Johnson, acting Navy secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The result, CVN 21, is providing an opportunity to reexamine “the way
that we build and design ships and to set the baseline for the rest of the family
of ships” that are in the works, including the littoral combat ship, DD(X)
destroyer and Virginia-class submarine, Dwyer said. Plans for CVN 21 include
dozens of new technologies.
A redesigned nuclear reactor, for example, supplies 25 percent more power for
propulsion, with half the maintenance costs and half of the sailors to operate
More Electrical Power
“You can use the steam from the nuclear reactor to do other things,”
Dwyer said. “One of the other things is to make electricity. This will
provide CVN 21 with three times the electrical power that’s currently
on the Nimitz.”
An electromagnetic aircraft launching system will replace the steam-powered
system used on current ships. Steam requires a lot of maintenance, especially
in a corrosive, maritime environment, Dwyer said. “If we made everything
electric, we could save a lot of ownership costs and take the workload off the
Two contractors, Northrop Grumman Corporation, of Los Angeles, and General
Atomics, of San Diego, are building full-scale models of the system, called
EMALS, and “sometime in the summer, we’re going to have a shoot-off—or
a fly-off”—Dwyer said.
The Naval Air Systems Command, headquartered at Patuxent River Naval Air Station,
is working on an advanced arresting gear, using an improved system of trapping
aircraft as they land, Dwyer said. The new system “is an electrical, hydraulic
combination,” he explained. It is designed to handle emerging platforms,
such as the F/A-18E/F and the Joint Strike Fighter, which are heavier and able
to return to the ship with more unexpended munitions than their predecessors.
CVN 21 will employ an integrated warfare system, Dwyer explained. Diverse electronic
systems, such as sensors, command and control, and self defense, will be combined
into a single, open-architecture, scalable weapons system, based on commercial,
“We’d like everything to plug and play,” said Dwyer. “Right
now, the way we build aircraft carriers is to buy all the electronic equipment
up front, then take seven years to build a ship and deliver it with obsolete
electronics. It’s kind of crazy now that you think about it.
“We don’t want to do that any more,” he said. “What
we’d like to do is put the electronic equipment in separately from the
actual shipbuilding process.”
Navy officials originally had planned to install the integrated warfare system
in CVN 77, but it was cut for budgetary reasons. They still intend to add it
to the ship during the post-construction phase, Dwyer said.
The Navy is working with the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman’s Newport
News subsidary, in Newport News, Va., to design and install a so-called smart
deck, equipped with flexible fiber-optic cable, which is easier to move and
repair than hard copper wiring.
The island—the tower on the flight deck, where ship operations are controlled—is
being redesigned. Command and decision centers are being moved from the island,
to the smart deck, down lower in the ship. The ship’s bridge and the flight-operations
center will remain in the island.
The island also is being moved to make better use of the flight deck, Dwyer
said. “The people who actually handle aircraft said, ‘The island’s
in the wrong place. It makes the aircraft all jam up. Why don’t you move
As a result, he explained, the island is being shifted 80 to 100 feet aft.
Elevators, avionics and electronic support systems also are being moved. The
whole idea, he said, is to create a racetrack-like pattern on the flight deck,
with “pit stop” parking, so that aircraft could move more efficiently.
These changes will enable CVN 21 to raise its number of sorties—operational
flights by individual aircraft—from about 140 to 160 a day, with the ability
to sure up to 220 a day, if necessary.
To enhance survivability, the fuel tanks and magazines, where the bombs, missiles
and other munitions are stored, are getting more armor, and the hull is being
reinforced for greater protection against mines and torpedoes.
“The carrier is the most survivable ship the Navy has right now,”
Dwyer said. “CVN 21 will be the most survivable carrier.”
These changes will enable the size of the ship’s crew—which does
not include some 2,500 personnel in the air wing—to be reduced from about
3,000 to 2,500 and possibly as low as 2,100, Dwyer said.
“That comes from two principal areas,” Dwyer explained. In the
reactor department, simplifications are being made, he said, and in the air
department, “where we have all those sailors lugging bombs around. They
won’t be needed any more.”
CVN 21 will have to accommodate unmanned combat air vehicles, Dwyer said. “We’ve
got to step up to UCAVs. Not an unmanned airborne vehicle, but an unmanned combat
vehicle, which looks like a jet plane, a little shorter, with bombs on it. How
are we going to do this? Take off and land an unmanned jet fighter? That’s
a big step.”
The decision to go ahead with CVN 21 was well received among the 18,000 workers
employed at Newport News’ 550-acre shipyard on the James River. “It’s
critically important to us,” said Matt Mulherin, vice president for Newport
News’ CVN 21 program. “Half of our business is carrier construction.”
Combining CVN 1 and 2, however, “certainly accelerated our timeline,”
Mulherin told National Defense. “I have a lot more gray hairs than I did
Newport News is the nation’s only designer, builder and refueler of nuclear-powered
aircraft carriers. Currently, it is building the last two of the Nimitz-class
The USS Ronald Reagan, CVN 76, is nearly complete. It was scheduled to be commissioned
in May, but that event has been postponed until mid-summer, according to Newport
News spokesperson Jerri Dicksecki.
Reasons cited for the slippage: Ship-construction delays slowed equipment installation,
hundreds of circuit breakers had quality-control problems, and unusually wet
winter weather hampered the ability to do major jobs, such as applying non-skid
paint to the flight deck.
Despite this delay, plans still call for the ship to be deployed in 2005, Dicksecki
The Reagan incorporates dozens of new technologies into its design, Dicksecki
noted. These include a bulbous bow, which provides more buoyancy to the forward
end of the ship and additional lift to the flight deck. An integrated control
and advanced network, or ICAN, will link controls for machinery, navigation,
voice communications and other systems. Air conditioning, medical facilities
and quarters for female crew members will be upgraded.
The next carrier, CVN 77, is about 23 percent finished, Dwyer said. In December,
CVN 77 was named for former President George H.W. Bush, who won the Distinguished
Flying Cross as a naval aviator during World War II.
The USS George H.W. Bush is scheduled to join the fleet in 2008, replacing
the 42-year-old, non-nuclear-powered USS Kitty hawk, CV 63. The Bush is viewed
as a transition carrier, serving as a bridge between the Nimitz class and CVN
21. She will feature:
- Major changes in aircraft fuel storage and distribution systems.
- A “flexible island” design that will accommodate phased array
radars, when they are ready for installation.
- A commercial, off-the-shelf oxygen and nitrogen generation system.
- A new, COTS-based flight-deck crane.
- A vacuum collection, holding and transfer system for shipboard sewage and
Currently, the Navy has 12 aircraft carriers in service. They are the largest
warships in the world. The Nimitz is 1,092 feet long—almost as long as
the Empire State Building is tall—and it soars 20 stories above the waterline.
Carriers, home to almost 6,000 men and women, are like small cities. They offer
such urban amenities as daily newspapers, radio and television stations, libraries,
convenience markets, barber shops, beauty parlors, laundries and even post offices
with their own zip codes.
The firepower of just one carrier is equal to that of an entire air force of
some countries. The Nimitz, for example, hosts 85 combat aircraft. Its armament
also includes Sea Sparrow missiles and the 20 mm Phalanx close-in weapons system.
Also, carriers rarely travel alone. Each is usually accompanied by a heavily
armed battle group of two cruisers, four destroyers, two attack submarines,
eight helicopters and a fast combat support ship, assigned in large part to
protect the flattop.
In recent years, some officials—such as retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski,
now director of the Defense Department’s office of force transformation—have
argued that the Navy should shift its emphasis away from carriers and other
large ships toward smaller vessels designed to operate close to shore.
Carrier advocates responded that the flattops have proven their ability several
times recently to move quickly across oceans, at speeds in excess of 30 knots,
to assert U.S. military power into conflicts such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan
and now Iraq. Five carriers and their battle groups participating in the war
Unlike Air Force aircraft and Army ground forces, carriers and their air wings
need no land bases in places such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Dwyer said. In
fact, he noted, a carrier can substitute for an Army installation. In the early
days of the Afghanistan campaign, the navy stripped the Kitty Hawk of its air
wing and made it a base for special operations troops.