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Benefits from Halving the Carrier Fleet

August 27, 2009

We mentioned before of a proposal to  reduce the number of large deck aircraft carriers in commission to ease the increasingly unbearable costs of such giant ships on our stretched-thin and shrinking Navy. With next year’s QDR it looks like we may end up with a 9 carrier fleet. For perspective, Lee Wahler sends this from Tim Colton on the mind-numbing price of keeping a single vessel in service:

The Navy has awarded a contract to NGSB Newport News for the Refueling Complex Overhaul, (RCOH), of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, (CVN 71).  The contract is Cost Plus Incentive Fee, with a value of $2,429,828,879 and completion scheduled for February 2013.  Read the DefenseLink announcement here.  If you’re thinking “Is that all?”, remember that this project has already been funded by $65,292,403 on 16-Nov-06, $190,704,758 on 24-Oct-07 and $300,705,466 on 27-Oct-08, for a grand total of about $2,986 million.  And in case you were wondering, the comparable number for the last RCOH of a CVN was $2,437 million, so the new project is only costing 22% more than the last time.  That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?  No?  Oh and, by the way, the Theodore Roosevelt, which was delivered in 1986, only cost $1.2 billion in the first place: in today’s money, that’s just over $3 billion.

So every 20 years or so you pay for a second ship without getting one. At the cost of a 20-22 carrier Navy you only get 10-11 vessels, and a third of these are in drydock or overhaul most of the time. Nice. And lets not forget annual operating costs of $400 million, which means in the 40 year lifespan of a single carrier you could have purchased 50-60 new corvettes. So, with the immediate decommissioning of 5 supercarriers, recall this still leaves us with at least 5-6, the Navy saves $2 billion annually, enough for a Burke destroyer or Virginia class sub alone (though we could think of better uses). There is also much more gained such as:

  • At least 25 warships released from escort duties, greatly easing our Navy’s “presence deficit“.
  • Up to 300 warplanes which could be divided among the remaining carriers, ending any worry over a “fighter gap“.
  • 25,000 crewmen and women would be available for duties elsewhere.

So with a single bold decision to reduce the number of budget draining, escort dependent flattops, you gain much more than you lose, especially considering the power of modern weapons from cruise missiles, Harrier jump jets, and UAVs, potentially every warship can become an aircraft carrier.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    August 30, 2009 12:06 pm

    Scott B,

    Thanks for the pricing info.

    An interesting/capable little boat but by no means cheap for its size.

  2. Scott B. permalink
    August 30, 2009 3:26 am

    One thing that I fail to make clear re: costs of the the Skjold-class :

    The cost of building KNM Skjold, first of class, is included in the NOK 4.675 billion figure, and is excluded from the NOK 3.6 billion figure.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 29, 2009 8:45 pm

    Joe said-“I don’t think your examples about the suicide bomber or terrorist are fair examples of “enemy stealth”. ”

    Just an example of stealth as “something you do”.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    August 29, 2009 6:00 pm

    Scott B. said : “This first article from the Norwegian MoD website, dated 10/23/2003, gives a total program cost of NOK 4.675 billions for the Skjold (including one-time costs like R&D, program management).”

    Link below (failed to appear in the original post, for some reason) :

  5. Scott B. permalink
    August 29, 2009 5:57 pm

    Joe said : “If the digits I saw are even close (anyone feel free to correct them if I’m wrong)

    This first article from the Norwegian MoD website, dated 10/23/2003, gives a total program cost of NOK 4.675 billions for the Skjold (including one-time costs like R&D, program management).

    This second article from the Norwegian MoD website, dated 11/28/2003, states that contracts signed for the Skjolds amount to a total value of NOK 3.6 billions (recurring costs only AIUI).

  6. Joe permalink
    August 29, 2009 2:03 pm

    Looking around a bit last night, I found on that thread I quoted in my other post data that said the inaugural cost of the planned 6 ships was to be 2.0 B NOK. I then found another from late 2007 where it was said that the program was headed for & past the 5.0 B NOK mark.

    If the digits I saw are even close (anyone feel free to correct them if I’m wrong) it sounds like the Norwegians are in the same “boat” we are when it comes to the co$t of their programs.

    I don’t think your examples about the suicide bomber or terrorist are fair examples of “enemy stealth”. Any one person dedicated enough to wreck havoc on their fellow man & talented enough to plan how to do it is likely going to have some degree of success. The only defense against this kind of “stealth” would be to hire some “precogs”, ala Minority Report, and apprehend people before they had the chance to plan this sort of crime against humanity. Get Miss Cleo on the line…

    I agree w/you about the F-22 & DDG-1000. There is a time and a place for those weapons, but it might be in a world where at least one other nation meets or otherwise exceeds our capacity to rain down destruction on their forces. We are far from that threshhold so why do it?

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 29, 2009 7:00 am

    “Your comments on stealth seem contradictory.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not against low-observable materials. I simply think that our enemies do stealth very well without our advanced technologies and industry. For instance, you have an suicide bomber who looks like an everyday tourist, blending into the crowd until he is ready to strike. Or terrorist who uses one of our own airliners against us in broad daylight.

    One thing I like about the Skjold and other Scandinavian craft, is because they were geared as small craft, the stealth was more affordable and in service before America was launching its own stealth craft (not counting test vehicles like Sea Shadow. A lot of test vehicles out there which the Navy ignores). And weren’t submarines being stealthy simply by diving for over 100 years? And the torpedo and now missile boats also use stealth. Though they have very high speeds, the small boats normally close in on their adversaries very quietly, before they “shoot and scoot”.

    Somehow America has taken a very natural and historical way of war and priced it beyond even our abilities to make it work (thinking here of the F-22, B-2, and DDG-1000 with only a handful being built). I believe they did this just to make their giant platforms and hot fighters still viable in the Missile Age, but not affordable or practical, which is why we rail against out-dated tactics plus unreasonably priced and unnecessary weapons.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    August 29, 2009 5:17 am

    Joe said : “So, like many Hollywood starlets, it’s not all-natural.

    Like Joe said, the Skjold’s stealth is not exactly *natural*.

    At ~$125 million a copy, the Skjolds are not particularly cheap either.

  9. Joe permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:35 am


    Your comments on stealth seem contradictory.

    You said earlier Spread your fleet out with smaller and naturally stealthy corvettes…We also think that stealth is something you do, not just something you make in a factory. and offered up the Skjold as an example when Scott-B asked for one.

    Well, the Skjold is comparatively small & smaller is, ceterius paribus, more ‘naturally stealthy’ than large, but man-made stealth is ‘baked into’ the Skjold:

    The Skjold class vessel has been provided with stealthy hull design, special doors and hatches, hull-integrated missile launchers at the aft deck, and Radar Absorbing Materials (RAM) resulting in a low radar signature ship. The ship’s infrared, magnetic and underwater acoustic signatures have been reduced as well.

    So, like many Hollywood starlets, it’s not all-natural.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 28, 2009 8:58 pm

    Scott B-How about this:

  11. Scott B. permalink
    August 28, 2009 6:53 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Naturally stealthy would be a submarine, or a small hard to see surface craft, as opposed to a giant vessels standing out like a sore thumb.”

    At the risk of repeating the question I asked earlier : can you give one real-life example of your *naturally stealthy* corvette ?

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 28, 2009 6:25 am

    Egaltoso-the arsenal ship was intended as a force multiplier, really a “missile barge” with only limited electronics and radars, but a heavy weapons load. It was intended as a replacement for the Iowa class battleships deemed too expensive to keep in service (not because they were considered obsolete which is interesting). It was considered that the unique vessel could replace the aircraft carrier in some functions, where they were no significant aerial threats prevalent. This was probably its downfall as the Navy leadership are threatened by any type of aircraft carrier, naval air alternative.

    Thankfully the old battleship admiral weren’t so reluctant to allow the aircraft carrier in service in the 20s and 30s, even though most doubted its abilities or survivability against them modern threats. They felt such poorly armed and unarmored craft would be easy prey to old type vessels. Why does that sound so familiar??

    Concerning a carrier’s crew complement, the Europeans use a lot of automation to reduce numbers. As with the new QE class carriers, it is 1500 crew including the air group.

    Distiller, thats my point about the big decks, it is so hard to build them and they need much expensive TLC to keep them going, to and to protect them. In the World War we built light carriers to back up the big ships when we couldn’t build them fast enough. Why is this template out of bounds today? Because they fear they are losing the argument for such exquisite ships in an age where cheap technology is replacing the need for mass fighter wings.

  13. elgatoso permalink
    August 28, 2009 3:24 am

    and what happens with the arsenal ship?

  14. elgatoso permalink
    August 28, 2009 3:17 am

    Some thoughts and questions.The Nimitz class have a crew of 5680 divided in air wing :2480 and 3200 ship’s company.CAN you cut the crew ?and how?and, can you cut the escorts? and how?

  15. Distiller permalink
    August 27, 2009 11:46 pm

    Yip! Supporting two 4-carrier fleets, one for each coast plus a training/reserve unit. That’s the base number as soon as the Fords are the majority of CVN, as they won’t need RCOH. As long as Nimitz class carriers are in the fleet the number is 10, to account for RCOH leaves. That won’t happen until the early/mid 2030’s.

    And though a medium (multirole) carrier as standard model would make sense from a number of standpoints (fleet survivability, flexibility, scalability, &c), the number would have to be 2 to 1 (maybe even 3 to 1) vs the current CVNs, and though smaller escorts (single-ended, single-task units) would also make sense, their numbers would also have to go up (though fleet displacement would remain about level). So no cost savings here, as the current fleet is exactly that: It’s peace-time cost optimised.

    The basic problem is that no real structural changes are possible within a 30 years timeframe. Even if they’d start implementing changes next year already, it would take till the 2030’s to really see a difference.

  16. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 27, 2009 9:33 pm

    The naval establishment certainly wouldn’t go for it – I think you’ve mentioned this before, Mike – the aspirations of the SWOs is typically to command as large a vessel as possible, no?

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 27, 2009 6:37 pm

    Naturally stealthy would be a submarine, or a small hard to see surface craft, as opposed to a giant vessels standing out like a sore thumb. We also think that stealth is something you do, not just something you make in a factory.

  18. Scott B. permalink
    August 27, 2009 5:22 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Spread your fleet out with smaller and naturally stealthy corvettes”

    Can you give one example of such a *naturally stealthy* corvette ?

    Just curious to find out what *naturally stealthy* means…

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 27, 2009 5:03 pm

    Actually Solomon, I am speaking of deploying high end corvettes armed with some advanced weapons, like the Sea Wolf which has been battle tested. Still such a vessel would be 1/4 or even less the cost of a DDG-51. As we needed many small ships to fight submarines and defend carrier and amphibious groups in the World Wars, I think you will need a like number of vessels to contend with the new missile war at sea. Large ships are OK to “scare” Third World dictators, but the regional powers like China with arsenals of the weapons you mentioned, might not be easily intimidated. You need more ships for more threats and there are no unsinkable warships, no matter how well armed or armored. Did we learn nothing from Pearl Harbor? Spread your fleet out with smaller and naturally stealthy corvettes and light aviation ships, which are individual more powerful thanks to precision weapons, with some standing a better chance of survival than our rapidly shrinking numbers of last century type assets.

  20. solomon permalink
    August 27, 2009 2:30 pm

    wow Mike…i wonder if you’ve ever heard of an all quadrant attack by fast movers? where they popup over the horizon at differing bearings launching anti ship missiles (multiple missiles per airplane) giving a ship say 8 different threats from 4 different direction to deal with? one of your individual -sea presence giving- lightly armed ship would be toast. copy that same attack profile against a couple of targets and your fleet is suddenly sunk, another sea power theory destroyed but more importantly the fleet has been allowed to be destroyed in piecemeal fashion. high speed anti ship missiles require a more vigorous defense than can be supplied by a “cheap” platform. oh and those extra Sailors would be assigned either to shore duty (a waste for an ocean going Navy) or they get separated from the service (another waste of experienced Sailors)….not exactly a win win.

  21. Anonymous permalink
    August 27, 2009 12:23 pm

    Build some small CHEAP escort carriers and operate F35B of them when they become available.

    I’m told an austere 27,000t Juan Carlos LHD costs 300 million euro and when operating in carrier mode carries about 25 aircraft.


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