Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

By Jon Harper
USS Gerald R Ford Arriving Naval Station Norfolk.

Photo: Navy

The Pentagon could save money by jettisoning plans for future Ford-class aircraft carriers and pursuing alternatives. But doing so would require capability tradeoffs and a reconsideration of operating concepts, analysts said.

The Ford-class program is projected to cost approximately $140 billion, RAND Corp. analysts Bradley Martin and Michael McMahon said in a Navy-commissioned report, “Future Aircraft Carrier Options,” which was released in October.

The newest ship in the class, USS Enterprise, is estimated to cost $13 billion. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the current price tag for the vessels is “unacceptable.” He is pushing the Navy to procure smaller alternatives.

“In executing its long-range shipbuilding plan, the U.S. Navy is facing financial challenges that require it to evaluate potential lower-cost options for its most expensive platforms,” the RAND report said.

It examined four alternative carrier design concepts that the service could pursue.

One was a nuclear-powered vessel similar in size to the 100,000-ton Ford-class but with two life-of-the-ship reactors and other equipment and system changes intended to reduce costs. This variant was referred to as CVN 8X.

A second option, called CVN LX, was a 70,000-ton USS Forrestal-sized carrier with a hybrid propulsion plant and an updated flight deck that could host existing air wings.

A third option, named CV LX, was a 43,000-ton variant of the America–class amphibious ship that would be fossil fuel-powered. It would only support short take-off and vertical landing aircraft operations but at a higher tempo than the USS America.

A fourth option, referred to as CV EX, was a 20,000-ton vessel similar to escort carriers that some allied navies possess. It would be conventionally powered and would only be able to host vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

“Each of these brings different levels of capability,” the report said.

CVN 8X would have similar capabilities as the Ford-class but it would not be able to stay in the fleet as long, the report noted.

The ship “might generate fewer sorties than the current key performance parameter values for the Ford-class and might have only incremental reduction in overall platform cost,” it said. “Between the developmental costs and a reduced service life, there is little cost advantage in this variant.”

CVN LX would provide air wing capabilities near current levels but with less organic mission endurance for weapons and aviation fuel. The lifecycle cost would be 23 percent lower than the Ford-class due to lower construction and maintenance expenses, it said.

“The CVN LX concept would allow considerable savings across the ship’s service life and appears to be a viable alternative to consider,” the report said. However, those savings would need to be weighed against potential loss of speed and survivability, it added.

If procured in sufficient numbers, CV LX might eventually enable the Navy to reduce the number of Ford-class carriers in the overall force structure, the report said.

It would cost $10 billion less per hull, although the Navy would likely need at least two for every Ford-class vessel replaced, it said. The ship would not generate the same sortie rate and it would be less survivable in some environments, it said.

“Any cost savings would likely be offset to an unknown degree by requirements for additional systems to mitigate loss of capability associated with this variant,” it added.

The report largely dismissed CV EX as a viable option.

The 20,000-ton platform would “not provide either a significant capacity or an integrated air wing,” it said. “As a result, this concept variant is not really a replacement for current aircraft carrier capability and … is not a practical variant at all without considerable revision of the Navy warfighting concept of operations.”

Additionally, this option would require “a force structure so different that it makes [cost] comparison difficult, if not meaningless,” the report said.

The Navy isn’t going to stop building the Ford-class in the near future even if lower cost options are potentially viable, said Tom Callender, a naval warfare and advanced technologies expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“I don’t see that happening until we have a proven design,” he said. The service would also need to consider “what are the [concepts of operations] for employing that … and does that provide an advantage to us from a capabilities and capacity aspect, not just a cost aspect?”

Topics: Budget, Business Trends, Defense Department, Navy News

Comments (7)

Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

Surely the CV EX would become viable with the rise of long range VTOL/STOL air combat capable drones

Adam Baker at 8:42 PM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

Carriers have their roles.But with nations like China. Russia,and others eventually acquiring land to ship missiles that can travel more than a thousand miles,it is easy to see how the effectiveness of the carriers wanes.

carlos lizarraga at 11:50 PM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

The Navy should do what Boeing has successfully done with it's planes - outsource components, world-wide, and get off the idea their ships must be 100% made in the US. Asian, Polish and South American companies should be building components in the effort to reduce costs. Give the American yards a bidders preference, say 10%, but competition is the only way to reduce costs. DO you know there is only ONE company that builds aircraft carriers in the US? So what is their motivation to reduce costs and become more efficient? There is NONE.

jim Chevigny at 4:47 AM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

Can I suggest another possibility? The USS Kennedy CV 67, was designed to be nuc powered. By using that ship's design and adding 1 A1B reactor, which would produce 1.5 times the output of the 2 Nimitz reactors, and 2-3 LM2500 gas turbines to allow the ship to restart a scrammed reactor, it would take very little time and money to update the mechanical and electrical systems for an existing, tested design. Also, the bunker fuel tanks that were used in CV 67, can be used for avgas. I would suggest updating the Island to reduce RCS and adding an AEGIS 6 to the top. The Navy would then have sea-born AEGIS 6 on the platform that is capable of carrying and powering it. No other 25,000 ton Cruiser will have to be built. By pairing this ship with a Ford class, the surface fleet will be better protected. The estimated cost of a conventionally powered CV 67, in 2007 dollars, is 6 billion. Adding a a nuc reactor will bump that to ~8 bil. The ship should have an enhanced point defense system. Four to six RAM 21 cell launchers and 4 to 6 57mm guns with overlapping fields. Missiles can be placed 3 on the Island and 1 to 3 around the rest of the perimitter of the ship. Screening vessels would be free to move away from the ship, providing more warning of incoming sea skimming missiles and allowing the carrier to deal with "leakers." It might be possible to reduce the number of Destroyers on escort duty, freeing a few ships for other duties. By using F 35s only, as air wings, you will reduce the complexity of repairs and maintenance and need fewer spare parts. CODs and AWACS will easily be accommodated by the four steam powered cats. Final propulsion can be either steam turbines or electric motors, which-ever is most appropriate for this ship. I cannot stress enough how much money and time can be eliminated by using a proven design. There probably is no perfect answer, but this would probably fit the mission designs at a pretty reasonable cost.

Kevin Holland at 10:15 PM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

I think the US Navy should first focus on extending the range of its air wing to over 1,000 miles, if possible, by the use of UCAVs, F-18 Enhanced Super Hornet, UAV tankers, newer stealth CFTs and droptanks, etc. The threat of antiship cruise and ballistic missiles is just too great to be concerned about the cost of designing new carriers at the moment.

Once the USN extends the range of the current and future air wing, then consider spending money on new forms of carriers. In the future, it’s wise to keep the Ford and Nimitz class carriers as far away from potential threat nations’ shores.

I do think the USN should look into the alternative of newer and smaller carriers because like in WW2, I believe there has to be an air battle to get to the land objectives first and foremost. The concept of showing up at one’s doorstep is rapidly diminishing. For that, a navy would need more carriers and more air wings to fight to the objective, just like in WW2 with main, escort, and light carriers because if a carrier gets damaged or sunk, airborne planes need to land elsewhere and one can’t land in water. A navy would need more dispersal over a wider geographic area---more ship assets over more ocean means more strategy and forces coming from many different directions.

Right now the USN is cluttered into battle forces that are being challenged and harassed by smaller crafts, subs, and speedboats that make the headlines. Having smaller fleet forces centered on smaller carriers means different levels of power can be deployed and conveyed to suit the parameters of U.S. National Security interests instead of always sending the “Big Stick” carriers that are few. Build more arrows into the quiver of differing lengths and power. The LHAs are nice, but the flight deck isn’t suited and angled for carrier planes to land on in case of emergencies.

If the USN doesn’t adopt this escort and light carrier approach, at least NATO countries should look into the use of smaller carriers to at least deploy for regional patrol and their global colony and territory disaster relief.

Peter at 12:55 PM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

It would appear that the Navy is not considering the use of unmanned aircraft as an alternative in the hunt for a less expensive aircraft carrier. The combination of unmanned aircraft and the new generation of long range anti-ship missiles would allow impressive offensive projection with minimal loss of invaluable aircrews or exposing ships and their crews to enemy action. I do not suggest that the Navy should do away with the current aircraft carriers, but supplement them with smaller launch capable vessels equipped with unmanned aircraft and long range anti-ship and anti-coastal missiles. The idea of having unmanned systems escort aircraft and even tanks is being considered, why not extend the idea to include ships armed with unmanned weapon systems ?

RT Colorado at 11:27 AM
Re: Analysts Explore Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

"The Pentagon could save money by jettisoning plans for future Ford-class aircraft carriers and pursuing alternatives."

And I could save money by jettisoning my house and living in a dumpster, but it's probably not a good idea all things considered. Carriers exist because they're the best tool for the job. The End.

sferrin at 10:35 AM
Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.