Congress' demands for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are sinking the Navy

A law mandating 12 "supercarriers" is too big a cost burden, while strategists worry that they are increasingly vulnerable to Russia and China.
Image: The USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier conducts a high-speed turn in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
The USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier conducts a high-speed turn in the Atlantic Ocean.Seaman Daron Street / U.S. Navy file
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By Sébastien Roblin

If there’s one thing that brings American politicians together in a time of stark political divisions, it’s love for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

When the Navy revealed plans in February to retire the “supercarrier” USS Harry S. Truman early instead of paying for a $4 billion mid-life overhaul and nuclear refueling, bipartisan howls of outrage echoed across Capitol Hill, particularly from politicians in Virginia, where the carriers’ sole manufacturer resides. Two months later the proposed plan — rather than the carrier — was scrapped by an ostensible presidential fiat.

Naval strategists worry that even as the cost of building and operating supercarriers continues to rise, they are growing increasingly vulnerable to advanced weapons.

That decision allowed the Truman to sail another day. But it leaves in place the bigger issue that a 2006 law mandating 12 operational supercarriers is too big a burden for the Navy, and arguably no longer makes sense. Indeed, a growing number of naval strategists worry that even as the cost of building and operating supercarriers continues to rise, they are growing increasingly vulnerable to advanced weapons proliferating across the globe, including Russian and Chinese systems specifically designed to target these huge vessels from hundreds of miles away.

Since World War II, aircraft carriers have been used to bombard countries like Vietnam and Iraq that lacked the reach to seriously threaten them. But today, sea-skimming cruise missiles developed by China and Russia and launched by trucks, warships and aircraft can threaten carriers today from hundreds of miles away. And even inexpensive, short-range submarines have repeatedly sunk carriers in multinational exercises.

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Worse, the major adversary these ships are intended to confront — China — has even more sophisticated attack options. In the last decade, China has deployed at least two types of ballistic missiles theoretically capable of attacking a carrier up to 2,000 miles away from its coastline, while the jets on the carrier can only hold enough internal fuel to strike targets 570 to 700 miles away. Because supercarriers are so expensive and require thousands of personnel, losing even one would be a major disaster. Which means Navy planners might be reluctant to dispatch these vessels within range of China in the South China Sea.

There’s no doubt that supercarriers are unique icons of American military power and project U.S. dominance of the international seas. Large aircraft carriers emerged as the paramount naval warfare system during World War II, their warplanes proving more flexible and far-reaching than the big guns on battleships. During the Cold War, American carriers gradually tripled in tonnage as they incorporated nuclear reactors and carried heavier and more powerful jets, becoming the supercarriers of today.

The two classes of supercarriers that now exist — the Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford class carriers — measure longer than three football fields and contain 4,500 to 6,000 personnel. Their air wings will eventually comprise around 60 combat aircraft, including F-35C Lightning stealth jets, older twin-engine Super Hornet fighters and Growler jets designed to jam enemy radars. That’s nearly as many fighters as are in Canada’s entire air force — on one ship.

Each carrier is also escorted by around a half-dozen warships whose primary mission is to shield it from marauding aircraft, missiles and submarines. As a result, one study found that 46 percent of Navy personnel are dedicated to supporting aircraft carrier operations in one form or another.

Because each carrier takes four to five years to build, there’s a nonstop treadmill of new hulls being laid down as old ones are retired. However, a congressional study reported that even if the Navy spends additional billions to build a new carrier every four years, the goal of a stable 12-carrier fleet as mandated by a 2006 law wouldn’t be met until 2063.

The Ford class carriers are designed to launch and recover aircraft 25 percent more quickly with fewer personnel than the Nimitz-class carrier it’s set to replace. However, Ford overshot its budget to $13 billion — twice as expensive as the last Nimitz and equivalent to Iran’s reported 2018 defense budget. And nearly all of its brand-new systems are beset with issues.

A government report notes the Ford’s $500 million dual-band radar system is “plagued” by false or duplicated radar tracks. New gear designed to snag aircraft coming in for landings has experienced “operational failures” over 200 times more frequently than the targeted reliability rate. Only two of its 11 magnet-powered weapons elevators are currently functional, while the ship incredibly lacks facilities to support the Navy’s new F-35C stealth fighters. And the Ford had to return to port early during a dress rehearsal cruise due to nuclear-powered turbines requiring “unanticipated and extensive overhauls.”

President Donald Trump ranted in 2017 and 2019 about the vessel’s newfangled electromagnetic catapults that help jets take off, claiming they were inferior to “goddamned steam” catapults. He may have heard that the potentially more cost-efficient technology has experienced “critical failures” 55 times more frequently than the target goal. However, the new catapults are too fundamental to the Ford to be replaced.

The Navy and Congress should look at ways to evolve supercarriers to the challenges of the 21st century rather than cling to a 12-carrier force structure adopted in the 1990s.

This isn’t to say that supercarriers are obsolete and that sinking one wouldn’t pose formidable challenges, or that they have no utility for U.S. military interests. But it’s time to forsake the requirement for 12 of them and begin experimenting with a new mix of ships and aircraft.

One idea is to deploy unmanned drones on the carriers that could attack targets over 1,000 miles away without exposing the carrier or combat pilots to enemy fire. Another concept gaining steam is to return to building smaller, cheaper, non-nuclear-powered “light” carriers instead of supercarriers. These could handle routine missions, freeing the supercarriers to deploy where their immense firepower is needed most.

That’s why leaders in the Navy and Congress should look at ways to evolve supercarriers to the challenges of the 21st century rather than cling to a 12-carrier force structure adopted in the 1990s when costs were lower and potential adversaries far less formidable.