Build Your Own Navy-Flattop Edition
The Navy and yours truly part company in terms of fleet composition. They continue to build ships that are individually capable, which they see as reducing overall operating costs for the entire fleet without reduction effectiveness. Yet they get less effective each year, with ships and crews overworked and the fleet stretched thin, consumed with increased Post Cold War missions with fewer, harder to build, more expensive platforms. Meanwhile, as the Navy looks long-term concerning operating costs over a vessel’s lifetime, the civilian buyers see the initial purchase price and are getting constant sticker shock from what the Admirals consider a “bargain”.
Higher construction costs are driving down ship numbers, not annual operating budgets. Rationally, if the price of individual ships were reduced, you could have real savings, though first you must get over the fear that economical ships are less capable, an assumption the Navy uses which we think is bogus. Add to the fact that simple and smaller ships coupled with new weapons and sensors developed in the late Cold War like advanced SAMs, cruise missiles, unmanned vehicles, have made warships individually more powerful than ever, raising our submarines and non-aviation ships to capital ship status. High tech platforms like the Fords, Burkes and Virginia ships are very capable, but we also should spread such capability throughout the fleet rather than concentrate it where it is less effective.
The Cost Effective versus an Effective Navy
The Navy then might say they can operate a single, large $6 billion supercarrier with 70 warplanes over its lifetime far cheaper than a $3 billion light carrier like the future America class with say, 30 F-35 JSF. This is probably a true statement from an economic standpoint, especially with the price of fuel, the two smaller ships would be more costly over time, comparing the two types individually.
However if you factor in the effect of 10 light carriers, all fitted with precision bombers might have beside 10 supercarriers with the same weapons, the savings of the latter disappears. In other words, if a single light carrier can perform the standard presence mission done by the $6 billion ship, also in wartime the same attack mission (recalling that precision weapons now assure us “one bomb, one hit”), here you would see enormous savings. Specifically, small carriers take best advantage of the advances in precision bombing aircraft, manned or unmanned, since smart weapons do not require smart platforms.
- 10 x Nimitz class carriers-$60 billion
- 10 x America class light carriers-$30 billion
So we find that building the same number of light carriers which ship-for-ship is as effective as large deck vessels, we have savings of $30 billion with which to do other things with. For example, if you are still worried about any loss of capability in small carriers, you could at least build 15 extra $2 billion each Burke destroyers to provide enhanced protection, and these multi-purpose ships can also perform presence themselves, as we often see with their anti-ballistic missile capability. Also more Virgina class subs, or you could pay for the entire LCS program. Better still would be the construction of new fleets of light corvettes, a hundred or so to fight pirates, rebuilding the long-neglected and under-appreciated flotilla in the US Navy.
You could be bolder still, by constructing ships similar to the European/Asian aircraft carriers that average 20,000 tons at $1.5 billion each. Using V/STOL planes, like the F-35B or the Harrier, and hopefully new UCAVs as they are available, you could only deploy 10 planes each, at most on your 10 carriers. This would not be an insignificant capability since you would still possess more V/STOL ships than all the world’s navies combined at present. Wait, there’s more! With leftover funds at a tremendous $45 billion would give you 22 new Aegis ships for defense and to join in the offense with cruise missiles. 80 LCS could be purchased or enough smaller corvettes to overwhelm the pirates and rogue states with numbers, something foreign to the US Navy since the 1960s.
- 10 x Nimitz class carriers-$60 billion
- 10 x Mistral (upgraded*) light carriers-$15 billion
So with smaller, reasonably priced warships, coupled with the new technology developed late in the Cold War, you would create a larger, more effective Navy. Instead of much power concentrated in a few increasingly vulnerable and worn-out Big Decks, you would have a larger fleet where power is dispersed among individually capable warships, supported, rather than dominated by naval airpower.
Note*-Mistral is about the size I had in mind but there are numerous alternatives such as the British HMS Ocean, the Japanese Hyuga, the S Korean Dokdo, the Italian Cavour. Only the last is V/STOL ready which is why the jump in price for Mistral from $800 million to $1.5 billion.
2nd Note-You might also recognize the price for the Nimitz class, which I low-balled just to be able to write this article with pertinent figures. The latest version of the class USS George HW Bush prices at $6.2 billion. The next version, the USS Gerald Ford class is an estimated $14 billion for the first ship, $8 billion each thereafter. Total program cost for ten Fords is $86 billion. Like much of the American economy, the Navy is mortgaging away its future.