The United States maintains the largest fleet of aircraft carriers on the planet by a wide margin, with 11 nuclear powered behemoths currently sailing the high seas. Now, as America’s longstanding Nimitz-class carriers steam closer to their twilight and the U.S. Navy continues to build new Ford-class replacements, the Acting Secretary of the Navy has suggested that the U.S. may be looking to downsize its carrier fleet.
U.S. law currently mandates that the U.S. maintain 11 active carriers, and further, it’s awfully specific about what qualifies as a carrier. That specificity was entirely intentional. The U.S. also possesses a large fleet of amphibious assault ships, which are smaller flat tops capable of carrying helicopters and the short-take-off variant of the F-35 employed by the U.S. Marines. If the law wasn’t particular about what qualified as a carrier, the Navy could feasibly do away with all Nimitz and Ford-class flat tops in favor of these smaller vessels when budgets got tight.
The Marine Corps has been testing out the concept of using these amphibious assault ships as “Lightning Carriers,” dramatically increasing the Marine Corps’ force projection capabilities without the need for a massive $13 billion investment in another Ford-class carrier.
“I think that number is going to be less [than 12 carriers],” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Wednesday. “The big question, I think at the top of the list, is the carrier. What’s the future carrier going to look like and what’s the future carrier mix going to look like? These are really, really expensive assets.”
The USS Gerald R. Ford, the class namesake, has infamously rolled past its projected budget and timelines, and has faced ongoing issues with its new weapon elevators, props, and electromagnetic catapult system meant to replace the steam powered system currently utilized on Nimitz-class carriers. Despite these and other issues, however, the Ford still represents the future of the carrier fleet, and the Navy is confident that follow-on Ford class carriers won’t cost as much or take as long to build. Nonetheless, the Navy has already expressed an interest in diverting funding away from its carrier fleet in favor of emerging technologies and a more diverse fleet.
One of the most pressing threats faced by America’s massive carriers comes in the form of hypersonic anti-ship missiles, currently under development in both Russia and China. China’s DF-ZF missile is the primary concern at this point, given it’s nearly 1,000 miles range and velocity that no existing missile defense system can keep up with. America’s F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters have a combat radius of only around 500 miles, meaning the Navy can’t bring its carriers close enough to Chinese shores to launch sorties against Chinese military assets.
The Navy and Marine Corps have been working tirelessly to find ways to compensate for this strategic shortcoming, adding conformal fuel tanks to the forthcoming F/A-18 upgrade roster and investing the the MQ-25 Stingray, a carrier-based refueling drone. Marines have even experimented with resupplying F-35B sorties on austere runways inside China’s anti-ship “bubble”, so as to protect carriers from potential attack.
“Of course, we’re developing all kinds of things to make it less vulnerable, but it’s still a big target,” he said. “And it doesn’t give you that distribution that I think we want.”
The idea of shrinking America’s carrier fleet, long seen as the nation’s most potent form of force projection, will certainly cause debate among lawmakers. Last year, the Navy proposed retiring the USS Harry S. Truman a quarter-century early, so they could reinvest the roughly $4 billion nuclear refueling cost in other vessels, like they’re new unmanned Sea Hunter. Lawmakers disagreed, opting to keep the Truman in service.
With the 2021 military budget still yet to be finalized, chances are good we’ll see this debate crop up in the near future.
“This is a national discussion,” Modly said. “I think as many people that get involved in this, the better. Congress obviously has interests; our shipbuilding industry does as well. We all do. We want to have a strong shipbuilding industry; we want to be able to continue to produce those carriers — they’re important.
“But we have to think about what the future is,” he added.
Feature image courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor, U.S. Navy