Sunday, June 30, 2013

Small Carriers Or No Carriers?

The new Ford class carrier construction cost is up around $12B-$13B already and will probably finish at $14B or so and I believe that’s without including government supplied equipment as we’ve discussed in a previous post.  New carrier construction schedules have already been lengthened out to a seven year cycle.  The simple math of acquisition tells us that the carrier fleet will continue to decline to around 8-9 active carriers in the moderately near future.  The sad fact is that carriers are pricing themselves out of existence in the face of the new budget reality. 

In addition to the cost factor, there has been a vocal faction arguing for small carriers since the carrier was first introduced.  As a reminder, the USS Wasp, sunk early in WWII, was an attempt to develop a small carrier.  The Navy has done numerous studies on this issue and the conclusion has always been that larger carriers were the most efficient and cost effective form.  This conclusion has not, and will not change. 

So, why is ComNavOps looking at this issue?  Because, while the conclusion that larger  carriers are more effective has not changed, the affordability has.  As I stated, carriers are pricing themselves out of existence.  It doesn’t matter how powerful, flexible, and effective the large carrier is, if you can’t afford it, you can’t build it.  What do we do then – continue to build supercarriers at a slower and slower rate until we eventually only have a single superhugemassivecarrier?  It may be time to re-examine the small carrier question just because of cost.  The small carrier may not be the best way to conduct carrier operations but it may be the only way we can afford to build and operate carriers, period.  The cost efficiency of the small carrier may be poorer than a supercarrier but the total cost is less.  We’re fast approaching the point at which total cost is the driving factor rather than cost efficiency.

The Navy may already be recognizing this problem.  The new America class LHA-6 appears to be an attempt to produce a small carrier having the ability to operate an air wing of around 20 F-35B’s though such operation would invalidate the use of the ship for amphibious operations which is it’s stated purpose.  The other obvious disadvantage of this concept is that it’s limited to operating F-35B’s which are far from being an ideal naval air superiority and strike platform.  Still, the Navy may be anticipating further reductions in supercarriers and planning for at least a partial compensation via the LHA-6.  The advantage to such an approach is that the construction cost is only around $4B versus the Ford’s probable $14B.  To be fair, this is speculation on my part.  The Navy has not explicitly stated this, as far as I know.

Midway - Small Carrier Option?

 
So, the LHA-6 class could provide a small carrier with some very limited capability.  Is there any other option?  Yes, the old Midway class in its modernized form offers a possible alternative.

The Midway was around 900 ft long versus the 1050 ft of a Nimitz and around 67,000 tons loaded versus the 95,000 tons of a Nimitz.  We see, then, that the Midway is around two thirds the displacement of a Nimitz.

What about the air wings?  Weren’t the Midways limited compared to the Nimitz?  No, not compared to today’s Nimitz.  The Midway operated an air wing of around 65 aircraft consisting of three squadrons of Hornets and two squadrons of Intruders along with Hawkeyes, Prowlers, and helos.  Today’s Nimitz air wings consist of around 65 aircraft consisting of four squadrons of Hornets plus Hawkeyes, Prowlers/Growlers, and helos.  Virtually identical except that the Midway air wing actually had more combat aircraft!

So, a smaller carrier of 2/3 the displacement of a Nimitz (even less compared to a Ford) has been proven to be able to operate the same air wing as current carriers. 

Any light bulbs going off yet?

What would a Midway size carrier cost today?  Who knows, but we know the Fords will cost around $12B each.  The America class LHA is around 850 ft long and 45,000 tons displacement and costs around $4B.  A reasonable extrapolation, then, would be for a cost of $6B for a Midway size carrier.  In other words, we could build two Midways for each Ford and still operate the same size air wings.  In this time of constrained budgets, that’s got to at least be worth some serious consideration. 

Now, before some of you start pounding out your replies and telling me about sortie rates and whatever else, note that I’m not claiming that a Midway size carrier would be better than (or even equal to) a Ford.  I’m saying that we’re fast approaching the point where our choice is not going to be between big carriers and smaller carriers but between smaller carriers and no carriers.  I guess I’d rather have smaller carriers than no carriers.  Sadly, the Navy is riding the big carrier option right down to zero carriers.

26 comments:

  1. Great post. Question: Would these new-build Midways be nuclear powered?

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    1. If they are still intended to have a 40-50 year operational life, then highly likely. 1 A1B reactor from the Ford class should be able to power the whole ship, you would likely have 2 for redundancy, but with at most 50% of the load required, the A1B should be able to be self contained for a 45+ year lifetime. The 2 A1B reactors on the ford are designed for a 35+ year lifetime. As an alternative 2-3 S1B reactors could also suffice and would provide a 45+ year lifetime as well.

      The only other option is either 5-6 LM2500+G4s or 3-4 LM6000 gas turbines will should both cost significantly more over the 40-50 year service life.

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    2. USSHelm, good question. I don't know the answer. There are so many factors that enter into a nuc/non-nuc decision that go beyond simple cost or even operating cost: strategic impact, tactical impact, anticipated future oil prices, manning, shore support, fleet oiler capacity, training requirements, ultimate disposal, etc. ats' comments are valid, also.

      I guess I would have to leave this question to the experts in the Navy who can evaluate the overall impact. I'm being non-committal but I just don't have enough detailed knowledge to say. Sorry!

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    3. Even with fractional tanker costs, conventional carriers would afford significant cost savings.

      So yes, build a somewhat smaller, Midway- to Kitty Hawk-sized, CONVENTIONAL carrier at higher rates. I would go as far as eliminating the LHA/Ds too and settling on one large flattop design for the entire Navy.

      Midways carried as many as 66 aircraft before they retired. Even carrying a smaller number, they can still provide the same degree of deterrence as their larger counterparts. They can fly the needed number of sorties to play ISIS whack-a-mole.

      We need more carriers, not less. We see the strains of having too few carriers in extended deployments, and maintenance cycle hiccups. Any disruptions cause major ripples downstream.

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  2. The problem with this suggestion is that every time it has been studied, it proven to be the least cost effective.

    The biggest reason the cost of carriers keep growing is that we keep slowing down the rate of production. The infrastructure require to build carriers is very expensive to build an maintain. Such cost is paid for on a yearly bases. Therefore, when to slow production, that infrastructure payment increases as you go from paying from 3.5 years for each carrier to5 years to each carrier.

    If you really want to save money on carrier construction start order them two at a time, every seven years. That will cut both the infrastructure cost, engineering cost, and tooling costs by billions of dollars each unit.

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    1. GLof, you did see that I stipulated in the post that smaller carriers were less cost effective? So, we're not in disagreement on that. The premise of the post is that we've reached the point (or very soon will) where cost effectiveness is no longer the primary factor - it's purchase price. It doesn't matter how cost effective something is if you can't afford to purchase it.

      Your view of carrier costs is correct but simplistic. Carriers aren't expensive because we're slowing the rate of production. It's the reverse - we're slowing the rate of production because they're so expensive. We have to stretch out the procurement period in order to have sufficient budget to pay for the construction. Of course, that leads to a nasty Catch-22 which you've identified. The more we stretch out the construction, the more expensive the total cost which then leads to further stretching which leads to still greater costs which ...

      You're correct that ordering two carriers at a time would be cheaper, however, the total cost is beyond the Navy's budget. Each carrier now equals a complete year's shipbuilding budget all by itself.

      You see this, right?

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    2. The question is technology over personnel. The Navy is betting tech and its showing.

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  3. Whilst not a shining example of good government handling of procuremen, would the UK CVF model be an interesting option to explore? It would probably have to be CATOBAR, but could have twice the aircraft complement of the LHA at approx the same price. This is the likely model to be followed for the new carrier for Brazil.

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    1. Anon, I'm not an expert on British naval matters but a quick check of Wiki shows the new QE class carrier at 920 ft long and 65000 tons which is just about the same as the Midway so, in that respect, the ship would be suitable. However, the QE is only listed as having an air wing of up to 40 aircraft so that's a severe limitation if that's a physical limit rather than a budgetary one.

      The price is given as around $7.5B USD for two carriers so $3.7B each. However, to make it CATOBAR, which would be mandatory, would drive the cost up $4B-$5B, probably. I suspect that once modified for US needs, the cost would be right around the $6B I guesstimated for a Midway size carrier.

      So, to answer your question, yes, the QE carrier might well be a suitable smaller carrier with appropriate modifications.

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    2. Morning ComNavOps (probably about 10am on the East coast for you lads I think?),

      The total sum for the two CVF is closer to £7billion, so a little over $10bn if you wanted two. There's a number of factors that sway the cost different ways though.

      For a start, that sum above includes the development cost etc, which would be spread over a larger number of units for you fellas. That's also for a STOVL carrier with ramp, whereas you'd be going for catapults I imagine? There was much hoo hah over here when the coalition said it was going for cats and traps instead, then had to U-turn when they found out that would cost an extra $3bn, although again some of that would be one off, up front costs.

      Our build strategy has also been very different from what I think you guys do. Our CVF were built in blocks at various places around the country, then brought together for final assembly. So you'd have to investigate the costs of doing it differently etc, if indeed you chose to.

      There was also the small matter of an estimated £1bn ($1.5bn) cost increase that was injected into the project purely by political decisions and interference.

      As for hangar space, if you were doing your own scratch build you could always work a larger hangar area, with more lifts into it (don't forget ours has two islands and the air planning centre appears to be on the same deck as the hangar). I wouldn't get too caught up on the specifics of the design, but the overall size is about right.

      So if you peg your costs at $6-8bn each (non-nuclear) just to be on the safe side, then you should be in and around the right ball park, for a carrier that will probably hold 60 aircraft with a bit of planning.

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    3. Chris, thanks for the clarification about costs. Unfortunately, I'm not a UK expert! Suitably modified, the QE does appear to be a viable alternative small carrier for the US. Whether the Navy will explore such alternatives or choose to ride the supercarrier right down to nothing remains to be seen.

      Our politicians manage to inject their own costs, too! Can't seem to get away from that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Or you could operate the F35B only and keep the costs right down

    Plus, look at the comparative crew sizes, running costs for a US QE would be tiny

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    1. think defence, the -B model is not suited for USN needs. Navy carrier aircraft are intended for air superiority and deep strike over ranges of several hundred miles. The -B, due to its nature, is a close air support, ground attack aircraft with limited range and payload when operating in the vertical mode. Carrier aircraft are geared towards the Chinese A2/AD scenario, though, admittedly, the F-35C is not ideal for that either but that's another topic.

      I don't know the basis of the QE crewing but my vague understanding is that the USN puts many more functions on a carrier and, hence, many more crew. The Ford is supposed to have a greatly reduced crew relative to previous carriers due to automation. Maybe automation is where the QE crewing comes from? Also, a US version of QE would, presumably, operate a much larger air wing which necessitates a larger crew. Doctrinally, the US "parks" much of the air wing on deck which the UK does not like to do, as I vaguely understand it (might be wrong on this?).

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  5. So Charles the Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth are the way to go?
    There's no symmetric blue water competition for the US aircraft carriers. The LHA is about enough for sea lines of communication control. The problem boils down to green water operations with high sortie rates. The current super carriers are the ideal cost effective tool for that. A work around with a cheaper Midway class needs a solution for equal high sortie rates and a resupply structure of gigantic floating stores.
    One benefit in cost reduction would be a merger between carriers and amphibious warfare ships like the Juan Carlos (L61) or the LHA/LHD mix (some without a well deck). I like to call that a "salt water crocodile" (instead of alligators and sharks). Seeing the carrier as a node in a network enabling airstrikes made me wonder, why the US has all eggs in one basket with these giant floating stores and airfields combined. You could also run a supply chain with civilian construction militarized transports to a floating military construction airbase of your suggested size.

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  6. I was impressed a few months ago when you expressed the opinion that the Navy needed to get better with what they had rather than always looking for the next shiny toy. I wonder if that should apply here. What is it that the design of the Ford brings to the table that isn't already adequately addressed by the Nimitz? I just can't imagine an Admiral standing on the flag bridge and thinking to himself "gee, this is ok but wouldn't it be better if we had electric catapults and a smaller crew. THEN I could get some operations done!"
    I understand the need to retire the Enterprise but is it really necessary to retire the Nimitz class? I wonder what 14b could bring to bear by upgrading these ships. Do we need to build a completely new design? What is the threat that the Nimitz class is inadequate to meet? Is the Navy procurement process that broken?
    It seems all of the latest Navy procurement decisions ( as you so rightly have pointed out ) leave us with more questions than answers.

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  7. The real issue here is one of priorities, recapitalization, and program management.

    There is a lot of blather about the funding of the Ford Class, most of it is wrong. The actual cost of a Ford class CVN is on the order of $8.5 Billion. In inflation adjusted dollars that is about what a midway cost. And $3.4B of RDT&E was included in the program as of 2007; see page 10 of: http://www.gao.gov/assets/270/265645.pdf

    And any discussion of costs must address life cycle costs: the massive reduction in crew, and expected decrease in wear and tear on tactical aircraft are not even discussed here, and are likely to significantly reduce costs.

    GAB

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    1. GAB, here are the latest cost figures from GAO-13-294SP, p. 69, as of Dec-11 and adjusted to FY13 dollars.

      R&D = $4.7B
      Procurement excluding R&D = $30.8B for 3 ships, $10.2B avg cost per ship

      From other sources, the cost has increased about $1B-$2B, depending on source, since Dec-11.

      Alternatively, the CRS Mar 13 report pegs the procurement (no R&D) cost at $12.3B for CVN-78, specifically.

      You are correct that life cycle costs enter into the equation. Presumably, the reduced manning costs would also apply to any new, smaller carrier as well. A new Midway sized carrier would also have enhanced automation that would reduce manning costs proportional to the Ford so the crew cost reductions would be a net wash - both would benefit approximately equally.

      Do you disagree with the basic premise that we're pricing ourselves out of the carrier business or that we're reducing the rest of the fleet in order to remain in the carrier business?

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    2. I do disagree with the premise that the fleet is "pricing itself out of the carrier business due to the cost of buying CVNs.

      I think that you are muddying the waters reference costs, but the larger issue is that ship building costs, while rising excessively, are not the real problem with carrier aviation. The real cost problem is the explosion in: price of aircraft, reduction in range of the aircraft, and worst of all: the costs of personnel.

      Page 4 of the CRS paper: ‘Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress’ 19 April 2013: “The Navy’s proposed FY2013 budget estimates the ship’s procurement cost at $12,829.3 million (i.e., about $12.8 billion) in then-year dollars. Of the ship’s total procurement cost, about $3.3 billion is for detailed design/non-recurring engineering (DD/NRE) costs for the class, and about $9.5 billion is for construction of the ship itself.” http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RS20643.pdf

      You will find roughly the same figure looking at the left hand side of the GAO document $17,378.6 million for two (2) units (CVN 78 and CVN 79). Remember that CVN-78 is the first new CVN design in decades.

      Comparing historical numbers the $9.5 Billion cost of CVN-78 is approximately twice the upfront cost of the CVN-65 Enterprise in adjusted dollars. Recall that the costs for R&D, design, etc. in CVN-65 were buried in a much larger USN establishment, and frankly were not captured. The Navy/DoD are actually doing a far better job accounting for costs now.

      While doubling the purchase price of a CVN from the 1960s is indeed appalling (hopefully, some of the actual life cycle costs are more in line due to manning, refueling, etc.), the fleet arguably should not have dropped below half carrier strength (12-13) today, from the 24-26 of the 1960s. In 1960s, most of the carriers where conventionally fueled, not nuclear.

      The unmentioned problem in Defense procurement is the cost of the all-volunteer force, which accounts for the majority of the defense budget. I am a retired officer, but the cost to put a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine in uniform, train, equip, provide medical care, etc. is unsustainable. And this does not address the legions of pentagon strap hangers, bloated unified command manning, division strength numbers of contractors, think tanks and the rest. There is where the $ problem is. Fix that and you can buy carriers, and actually put aircraft with trained crews on them.


      GAB

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    3. OK, GAB, you disagree with my premise that carriers are pricing themselves out of business. Fair enough. There's no disagreement that carrier numbers are dropping from 20's to 15 to 14 to 13 and so on to today's 10 which may or may not rise again to 11 in a few years. How do you account for the drop if not purchase price? Remember, the cost of a single carrier nearly equals an entire year's shipbuilding budget. Also, remember that the carrier build cycle has steadily increased from 3.5-5 years to 5 years to, now, 7+. If that's not a response to unaffordable costs, what is it due to? I look forward to your interpretation of the facts!

      By the way, your points about the air wing costs and capabilities are completely valid and I've done posts on those topics.

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    4. ComNavOps,

      My point is that if you have a budget problem, you look at where the money is going to make cuts. Weapons and weapon systems are way down the totem pole compared to manning. As a point in fact, in 2010 it cost on in excess of $120,000 a year to keep a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine in uniform. Care to guess what that cost was in 1960? I do not know the actual dollar figure, but it certainly was a very small fraction of $120,000 a year in today’s dollars.

      If the equivalent of a 1960s CVN now cost roughly twice the money to build in today’s dollars, then you should be able to buy half the number of ships you bought in 1960 today. It is a lot more complicated than that, but the point that we are now have a carrier inventory below half that we had in 1960s suggest other factors. I believe that the number one factor is manning, the other the explosion in the cost of aircraft.

      Recall that carrier aviation is in a state of flux as UAVs and other autonomous craft are being integrated into the fleet. Frankly folks really are not sure what changes will be needed to run these new airframes. The procurement cycle being extended is not the same as the build cycle. CVN-78 and CVN-79, and probably CVN-80, used Advanced Funding: which in and of itself is not a bad thing, particularly when you know that you need a carrier, but also know that you are likely to have significant changes down the road. Then there is the issue that the Navy has decided to revamp the CVN-78 class significantly with new operations, propulsion, weapons ect.. This is either smart, or really bad.

      My final concern is the idea that cost justify smaller CVNs - this is a herring as every cost study shows that bigger is better, particularly in an era where commercial hulls are many times larger than CVNs and show it is feasible to consider larger. It may be possible to build a truly massive carrier based on a super tanker, were aircraft can launch and recover aircraft without arresting gear and catapults!

      To me, the justification for reducing carrier size should be argued along tactical and strategic grounds. In that case, the question becomes whether it is better to have a task force with say 2x large CVNs or 3x smaller CVN(-)s. In this case the constraint on carrier size logically breaks at the point where you can no longer launch fixed-wing EW, MPA (oops we lost those!), and air search aircraft. Then you have to look at combat effectiveness, efficiency of air operations, how the force degrades in combat, tactical advantages/disadvantages, etc. Looking at it in these terms, you are guaranteed to find that more carriers is better because you spread the striking power across multiple ships, and thereby minimizing the loss of combat power to a lucky hit (the force degrades better in combat).

      The challenge of course is (1) to figure out what the minimum CV size should be, and 2) to deal with the economic reality that a carrier 2/3 the size of CVN-78 is going to cost more than 2/3rds the cost of CVN-78, and is likely to be less than 2/3rds as effective in combat.


      GAB

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    5. GAB, so it's your contention that the cost of manning and the cost of aircraft is what's causing the decrease in carrier numbers? If that's the case, shouldn't carrier numbers trend upward as automation decreases the manning? Shouldn't carrier numbers trend upward as we abandon 2-seat Hornets in favor of single seat F-35's?

      You're saying that the construction times of new carriers is being stretched out to 7 years due to increased manning costs?

      Manning costs are certainly a factor but not the driving force. The construction cost that equals an entire years budget is the driving force.

      Expensive aircraft will drive down the numbers of planes in an airwing but not the number of carriers unless we reach a point where we can't field an air wing.

      The Navy has to build 10 new ships per year to maintain a 300 ship fleet (30 yr avg lifespan). When a single carrier uses up the entire shipbuilding budget for one year either we have to build fewer ships (which is happening) or we have to build fewer carriers (which is also happening). None of that has anything to do with manning costs or aircraft costs.

      You're missing my point about smaller carriers. The choice is becoming smaller vs none rather than smaller vs bigger. Of course bigger carriers are more effective and efficient! It's no longer about effectiveness or efficiency - we simply can't afford to build them anymore. The construction budget just isn't there.

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    6. CVN construction time is not being dragged out – the service has requested advance funding effectively stretching the procurement cycle of CVN-78 and CVN-79.

      Ship procurement which is a valid concern, but anyone who looks at MILPAY will see the real danger. So a CVN cost doubled (in current dollars) in the five plus decades from 1961 to today; military manpower costs in retirement and health care *quadrupled* just in the last 10-years.

      The single largest problem throughout the DOD budget is manning costs - military personnel budget is the largest line item in the defense budget, and it has taken more and more of the budget from 1973 when the All-Volunteer Force was created. Secretary Gate's number one complaint about the budget was about manning costs. Weapons, ships, aircraft and vehicles are all being squeezed by skyrocketing costs in the MILPAY account (health care, retirement and so forth).

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    7. Anon, CVN construction is absolutely being dragged out as documented in Congressional Research Services report 7-5700, Mar 2013, "Navy Ford Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress". The construction time is being lengthened by two years from 5 to 7. Read the report and then comment again.

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    8. Anon, if manning were suddenly, magically free would we have any more carriers? I don't mean magically transferring the money to new construction but if manning simply cost nothing. Would we build more carriers? No. We'd still continue to build less. Manning is an important overall budget issue, no question, but it's not the driving force in new ship construction. If manning were the driving force, we'd be building more ships as automation drives manning levels down but we're not. We're building fewer ships as manning levels are decreasing. Construction cost is what's driving ship numbers.

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    9. It is pretty clear where the money is going in the DoN and it is not shipbuilding.

      If you want more ships, you need to control personnel cost (most of the growth), O&M, and aircraft procurement! Personnel costs are more than three times the ship building budget. O&M is two and a half times the money spent on ship building. Aircraft construction exceeds ship building cost (again, note that this includes USMC aviation procurement).

      From the U.S. House of Representatives FY2014 National Defense Bill, HAC Full committee (subcommittee Mark) bill*:

      Military Personnel, Navy $27,671,555,000 [total Personnel costs: $47.6 Billion+] **

      Operation and Maintenance, Navy $40,127,402,000

      Aircraft Procurement, Navy $17,092,784,000 [includes USMC aquisition]

      Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy $15,000,704,000
      RDT&E, Navy $15,368,352,000

      *This is not the final FY14 National Defense Bill, however it is the full committee markup, meaning it is likely to be modified very little before it is reconciled with the Senate Bill.

      **Note: this does not include healthcare which was $31.6 Billion for DOD Navy Share ~$8 billion, nor does it include the Navy civilian workforce pay ~$10 billion, nor other programs like the GI bill…

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  8. It is pretty clear where the money is going in the DoN and it is not shipbuilding.

    If you want more ships, you need to control personnel cost (most of the growth), O&M, and aircraft procurement!

    Personnel costs are more than three times the ship building budget. O&M is two and a half times the money spent on ship building. Aircraft construction exceeds ship building cost (again, note that this includes USMC aviation procurement).

    From the U.S. House of Representatives FY2014 National Defense Bill, HAC Full committee (subcommittee Mark) bill*:

    Military Personnel, Navy $27,671,555,000 [total Personnel costs: $47.6 Billion+] **

    Operation and Maintenance, Navy $40,127,402,000

    Aircraft Procurement, Navy $17,092,784,000 [includes USMC aquisition]

    Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy $15,000,704,000

    RDT&E, Navy $15,368,352,000

    *This is not the final FY14 National Defense Bill, however it is the full committee markup, meaning it is likely to be modified very little before it is reconciled with the Senate Bill.

    **Note: this does not include healthcare which was $31.6 Billion for DOD Navy Share ~$8 billion, nor does it include the Navy civilian workforce pay ~$10 billion, nor other programs like the GI bill…

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