There is a future carrier shortage looming that has, thus far, escaped notice. Well, ComNavOps has noticed it and will now explain it. First, it’s necessary to absorb a little background. For starters, here are commissioning and decommissioning dates along with the number of service years for all the modern carriers that have served and been retired.
Comm. Decomm. Years
Forrestal 1955 1993 38
Ranger 1957 1993 36
Kitty Hawk 1961 2009 48
Constellation 1961 2003 42
Kennedy 1968 2007 39
Average = 40
So, we see that the average service life of a carrier is 40 years.
Next, we note that the Navy’s carrier force level goal is 11 carriers. We’ll ignore that the Navy has made an effort to early retire one of the current carriers. Thus, in order to sustain an 11 carrier force with an average service life of 40 years, we need to build a new carrier every 3.6 years. Are we doing that? Well, here’s the data for all the carriers from the Nimitz, on. We see the commissioning date, the service life thus far, and, the important piece of data, the build frequency in years since the previous carrier’s commissioning.
Comm. Years Frequency
Nimitz 1975 40 7
Eisenhower 1977 38 2
Vinson 1982 33 5
Stennis 1995 20 3
Truman 1998 17 3
Reagan 2003 12 5
Bush 2009 6 6
Ford 2016* 0 7
CVN-79 2023* 0 7
CVN-80 2027* 0 4
*anticipated delivery dates rather than commissioning dates – commissioning dates will be longer
What we see is that from the Nimitz through the Truman, the frequency was 3.75 years – just about the 3.6 years that is required. However, and this is the big however, from the Reagan on, the frequency is 5.8 years which translates to a carrier force of 6.9 – well, call it 7 carriers.
There it is. A build frequency of 5.8 years can only sustain a carrier force of 7 carriers.
You’ll also note that the Ford class dates were delivery dates and that the commissioning dates, to keep the data comparable, will be longer than that by a year or two each. Thus, the build frequency will be longer than calculated, here, and will probably produce a calculated carrier force level of 6. But hey, there’s no need to quibble. The point is valid regardless so we’ll use the higher number just to please the Navy. ComNavOps bends over backward to be fair!
We see, then, that we’re retiring carriers faster than we’re building them. There’s a carrier shortfall coming and a rather significant one. I’ve been saying for some time that the carrier force is going to decrease to 9 (8 active) in the relatively near future and this simply demonstrates why it’s inevitable.
I’ve also been saying that carriers are pricing themselves out of existence and this, again, is the proof. The Fords are being stretched out because of cost - no other reason. They’ve become so expensive that we’re attempting to deal with the yearly budget hit by stretching out the acquisition period. Yes, that does lessen the yearly hit but it increases the total cost and, eventually, impacts the total force level.
Of course, there are a couple of things we can do to mitigate this problem. One obvious solution is to take better care of our carriers and keep them around longer. If we increased the service life to 50 years, we’d only need a new carrier every 4.5 years.
Another fairly obvious solution is to stop making each carrier bigger – hence, more expensive - than the one before it. I’ve pointed this out before. The Ford is significantly larger than the Nimitz despite the fact that the air wing will be half the size of the Nimitz’s original wing. The air wings are getting smaller but the carriers are getting bigger. Anyone see a disconnect there? We’ve noted that a carrier the size of an old Midway could operate a modern air wing and yet we’re supersizing our carriers. Until the air wings show signs of growing, why not build smaller carriers, proportionally sized, and save some money so that we don’t have to stretch out the acquisition period? Pay attention – I’m not advocating “escort” or “light” carriers as replacements for full size ones. I’m advocating making the full size no bigger than what’s needed and that’s a Midway size. If the air wings ever grow (does anyone realistically believe that’s going to happen?) then we can grow the carriers, again.
Not only is the Navy trying to pass off the fantasy of a 300 ship fleet but they’re hiding the fact that there are shortfalls coming in submarines, destroyers, cruisers, and, now, carriers. On the plus side, we’re firmly committed to 52 LCS’s!