Why the Navy’s Aircraft-Carrier Plans Don't Add Up

Lawmakers denounce the Pentagon’s proposal to retire the USS Truman decades early.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, in 2009
AP Photo/Steve Helber
March 20, 2019, 8 p.m.

Pentagon officials touched a nerve on Capitol Hill last week by proposing to retire an aircraft carrier decades ahead of schedule. While they defended the idea as a cost-saving measure, experts say it's a misguided gesture in a much larger debate over the future of the carrier fleet.

Like all Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the USS Truman was scheduled to undergo nuclear-refueling work at its midlife point, in tandem with maintenance and modernization to its decades-old combat systems and internals. The entire procedure typically takes four years to complete and costs several billion dollars.

Publicly, defense officials have pledged to sink the savings harvested from canceling Truman’s refueling into new technologies like unmanned vehicles, hypersonic weapons, and directed-energy weapons. They also say a recent two-carrier contract with Virginia-based shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls would keep the carrier fleet at the congressionally mandated 11-ship level.

For defense experts and former Navy officials, neither argument carries water.

“It makes very little sense to me,” said former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. “To [retire] a ship that is halfway through its planned life cycle … those two new carriers won’t come into the fleet until the mid-2030s.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe expressed similar frustration at a hearing last week.

“I still am not happy with the results of that, and my mental numbers don’t agree with that,” said Inhofe, when told by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that the retirement would save the Navy $3.4 billion.

If prior modernization and refueling work is any guide, savings from the retirement would not actually manifest in the Navy budget until the mid-2020s, when the largest refueling and complex overhaul contracts would be awarded.

During the Navy’s overhaul of the USS George Washington, for example, preparatory contracts were dwarfed by the $2.8 billion contract Huntington Ingalls scored in September 2017, when the actual overhaul began. Contracts for work on other Nimitz-class carriers follow a similar pattern.

Additional savings from the Truman retirement would also accrue over several years, rendering promises to direct money toward new technologies in the immediate future misleading, experts said. Truman’s crew could move to the Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, cutting manpower costs when the ship is launched. Similarly, her air wing could shift to another carrier, reducing procurement costs on new F-18 or F-35 fighters.

“The savings aren’t significant, at least in the near future,” said Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute.

Cropsey, like several other defense experts, said the proposal may in fact be a shot across the bow of Navy leaders from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which wants the Navy to modernize the carrier air wing, or invest in smaller and more agile ships.

In recent years, China has begun developing long-range anti-ship missiles, like the DF-21 and DF-26, that can fly further than the carrier-launched F-18 or F-35 fighters, thereby insulating its coastlines against attack from carrier-launched sorties. To have the ability to get aircraft within striking range of the Chinese defenses—a priority for Shanahan, and Secretary James Mattis before him—the carriers would have to enter into a “high-threat environment,” said Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The problem is that to defend itself, the carrier is going to have to maneuver and reduce its radio emissions … and hide,” Clark said. “But if it does all of that, then it can’t go and do flight operations. … If it moves to a place where it can do its main job, which is maybe 1,000 miles away, its airplanes can’t reach the areas closer to the Chinese coast.”

The Navy has begun investing in equipment to extend the range of its fighters. In August, the Navy inked an $805 million deal for Boeing’s MQ-25 tanker drone, designed to provide midair refueling for F-18s and F-35s. Mabus said the F-35 “is the last manned aircraft [the Navy] should ever buy.”

The Navy also plans to spend $2.4 billion through 2023 on Raytheon’s new SM-6, an all-purpose missile capable of targeting the DF-21 and DF-26. The defense contractor scored a $395 million contract last August for production in 2018 and 2019.

The desire to counter anti-ship missiles appears to be coloring the Navy’s entire procurement strategy, including for other ships. “There’s pressure to build a fleet to be better able to face Chinese and Russian precision missiles,” Sen. Roger Wicker said at the SASC hearing. “The Navy therefore appears to be reducing its investment in warships like [transport docks], big deck [amphibious ships], and aircraft carriers to free up money for more offensive weaponry on smaller surface ships, submarines, and aircraft.”

Yet the Navy’s recent two-carrier buy appears to confound this strategy, leaving defense experts scratching their heads.

“If that’s where they want to go—and there’s a strong argument for doing that—then buying two carriers doesn’t make any sense,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program.

“I think it is the power of the industrial base,” said Cancian, in reference to the near monopoly that Huntington Ingalls holds over the production of Navy ships. “[Huntington Ingalls] is very clever. They came in with this two-carrier notion and were able to push that through, even though that doesn’t fit the strategy that the Navy is trying to implement.”

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