Carrier Freeze is Viable and Vital
In order to bring great relief to the straining and shrinking shipbuilding budget, some major compromises may be called for by politicians and the Pentagon. As for the Navy, cuts usually fall on the most economical programs such as mineships, or most essential naval personnel, readiness, or vital training exercises, without which a navy is just shell and shadow. As an alternative which could induce savings in the scores of billion dollars over 2 decades, New Wars proposes a freeze on all carrier construction. Being a weapon’s platforms, the original motherships, rather than weapons themselves, I think this a safe answer as naval aircraft diminish increasingly in number and quality.
The Navy currently has 11 carriers, though with impending cuts may see these fall to as low as 8 within the next 10 years. Since the effectiveness of a flattop rests on the quality of aircraft and less on the ship itself, this seems a self-defeating trend for the ship to receive more attention than its planes. Obviously canceling procurement of Big Decks for a spell to buy fighters would seem contradictory, except the hulls themselves average 40-50 years while a plane may be obsolete in 5 to 10 years, or less during a major war.
An example of this can be taken from recent history. The original Essex design that fought the last World War underwent tremendous change during their 6 decades of service (the last, Lexington CV-16 decommissioned in 1991). With its open bow, single flush runway, and propeller driven aircraft, it was truly a product of the late 30s, early 1940s. Soon the advent of jets brought a major remake, with an additional angled flying-off deck added, plus a mirror landing system, and catapults for the heavier, faster planes.
So we see the war-era Essex’s continually modernized, operating in frontline service with the new weapons of war, from prop planes to supersonic fighters. While the smaller, cheaper aviation could adapt to the times, during the World War, to Korea, and Vietnam, a large deck would only be strengthened or lengthened as needed with upgrades. With our current 100,000 ton Nimitz and Ford ships pretty much the last word in traditional design, there is really not much more required to fly airplanes off a deck at sea, but longer range planes and variety is a constant need.
The fear is of losing vital shipbuilding expertise if even a minor break in building carriers is undertaken. What comes to mind continually are the two decades between the World Wars when the Navy enjoyed a “Battleship Holiday“. Though procurement was virtually nil, designs were refined and proposals were continuous, until by the the 1940s the USA had several excellent classes in service. The break in dreadnought construction allowed for some innovative solutions and finally gave us the superb and long-lived Iowa class.
Near to our own era, we see foreign navies which build only a few ships, procuring some modern and workable designs, going for decades between replacements. The Last British V/STOL carrier was built in the 1980s, while the Royal Navy has now undertaken the construction of its first large decks ships since World War 2. Likewise has France operated small fixed wing carriers, with Foch commissioned in 1963, followed by Charles De Gaulle an amazing 38 years later!
So the USN seems to be building such exquisite vessels not out of a dire need, but for reasons of sheer momentum. She thus expends many tens of billions every decade enduring a tremendous strain on sparse shipbuilding funds. Further expense comes from aircraft programs which are far from adequate, and many thousands of crew required to operate the world’s largest warships.
Ironically, in order to keep buying Big Decks, the Navy has been limited in the quality of its airpower. While the latest, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is adequate for its needs, it still lacks the range of older planes from the Vietnam Era, just as anti-access weapons are driving the Navy further away from the shore. The SP’s lone successor, the F-35C, the first all-new naval aircraft since the 1980s will be another short range plane, nearly 20 years in development. The Navy needs to rush its deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles at sea. Also, there was some talk of deploying new COIN aircraft for use in our land wars, but the funds just aren’t there. Some type of anti-submarine warfare plane is a glaring omission in the airwing, and the 50 year old E-2 Hawkeye aircraft probably needs replacing instead of just updating.
If you consider a supercarrier with a lifespan of 50 years, as with USS Enterprise, then by 2030 the USN will still have 8 ships in service. They will likely still be “one of a kinds” as far as quality, size, number of ships, and firepower, though other nations doubtless will have carriers. By then technology may have moved on, as missiles get smarter and UAVs more effective, so that our dependence on 100,000 ton, $15 billion warships may be at an end. The freeze on carrier construction is doable and overdue, and also necessary for the health and modernization of the fleet.