The latest CRS report on the Ford class carriers (1) reveals that the construction schedule for new carriers, historically one every five years, is being stretched. In the data below, the first date listed for each carrier is the procurement date, the second is the actual or projected delivery date, the years from procurement to construction is shown, and, as an interesting sidelight, the final number is the construction cost. CVN-78 is, of course, the USS Ford, the first of the new Ford class. CVN-77, the last of the Nimitz class is listed for comparison.
CVN-77 2001 2006 5 yrs
CVN-78 2008 2015 7 yrs $12.8B+
CVN-79 2013 2022 9 yrs $11.4
CVN-80 2018 2027 9 yrs $13.9
Costs are in FY13 dollars
We see that while the procurement frequency is still scheduled for every five years, the delivery dates are going to be stretched out to nine years. With that in mind, there is almost no chance that the procurement frequency will remain at five years. It’s just a matter of time, and soon, before the procurement dates are stretched out, as well.
We’ve discussed before that, for a 50 year lifespan, we need to build a new carrier every 4.5 years to maintain the Congressionally mandated level of 11 carriers. Even the 5 year procurement frequency only gives a force level of 10 carriers. If the procurement frequency gets stretched out to more closely match the announced delivery frequency, the carrier level will shrink to only 6 (for a nine year frequency). How this would be reconciled with the Congressionally mandated force level remains to be seen.
|Rough Seas Ahead for Carriers?|
As a reminder, the current carrier force level is 10, one less than the mandated level, due to the retirement of
What is the rationale for stretching out the delivery times, you ask? Well, as anyone who has ever financed a home or automobile knows, the longer you stretch out the payment time, the lower the payments. Of course, the longer the payment period, the greater the total payment, in the end. As best I can tell, the Navy's accounting structure doesn't care about total costs, only yearly budgeted costs. Hence, the push to stretch out the delivery time.
Now, on to the cost figures. We see that there is no economy of scale for carrier construction. Taking into account the first of class one-off expenditures, it’s clear that each succeeding Ford class carrier will increase in cost (dollars are constant FY13 so inflation is accounted for). Compare the magnitude of the construction cost, around $12B, to the Navy’s entire annual shipbuilding budget of $15B. When a carrier is built, almost an entire year’s shipbuilding budget is consumed by one ship. No wonder the fleet size is shrinking! Regardless of the value of the carrier, they are simply becoming unaffordable and that’s reflected in the stretching out of the delivery dates and why the procurement dates are sure to be stretched out, as well.
Proponents and detractors of carriers can argue all they want but the simple fact is that the carrier is pricing itself out of existence.
Despite this, the Navy is embarked on a logically inconsistent path. Air wings are approaching half the size they were when we started building supercarriers which would seem to suggest that somewhat smaller carriers would suffice and, yet, the Navy is building the Ford class which is even bigger than the Nimitz class. Huh?? How does that make sense? Logically, the Ford class should have been closer to the modernized Midway in size. This is just like the new SSBN which, despite carrying several fewer missile tubes, will be bigger than the
The Navy is embarked on an unsustainable carrier construction path. Something is going to have to change and soon. I think we’re going to see the carrier force level drop to around 8 in the fairly near future. I predict that one of the next couple of upcoming carrier mid-life nuclear refuelings is going to be cancelled and the ship is going to be pre-maturely retired. Time will tell.
(1) Congressional Research Service, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier
Program: Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O'Rourke,
March 13, 2013