Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Carrier Shortage

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
Saratoga                      1956               1994                38
Ranger                         1957               1993                36
Independence               1959               1998                39
Kitty Hawk                   1961               2009                48
Constellation                1961               2003                42
Enterprise                    1961               2012                51
America                       1965               1996                31
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
Roosevelt                      1986               29                      4
Lincoln                          1989               26                      3
Washington                   1992               23                      3
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!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. A single carrier class - interesting.

      Wouldn't the addition of Marines and their aviation dictate an even bigger carrier than the Ford?

      I assume a single carrier would not have a well deck? That would be left to a modern APA? Or are you limiting Marines to vertical assault only?

      See anon's comment about conventional versus nuc power and my reply. If his suggestion is correct, that's a strong argument for nuclear power.

    2. I think your describing the Queen Elizabeth class there.

      More power than a Nimitz, but through conventional power.

      70,000 tonnes. 10,000 mile unrefuled range.
      Crew 1000 + air group approx. 600.

      Built to operate as a 36 Fighter Strike Cruiser, or Helicopter Carrier serving up to about 1000 Marines, or anything inbetween.
      I.e both at once if you like.
      Can operate anything up to and including Chinook inc our Marine Apache WAH-64.

      Designed for EMALS integration. And a snip at about £3 billion per copy. Supposidly £70 million running cost per year.

      Oh and stealth.

      Let me know if you fancy some, cos France just stiffed us on a copy.


    3. 40 aircraft standard. 50 wartime surge (info is low as this is a new CONOPS )

      RN carriers have always stowed all aircraft below deck when not operating. This is a weird difference between USN and RN, how many QEC could carry if you pack them deck I have no idea.

      On the marine front, the berthing is designed for 30% surge with everybody getting a full berth. And Hotel services to match this. So it’s 1000 Marines in great comfort. I have no idea how many Marines you would get in if you just made them bunk wherever, but then like you say, they wouldn’t be too happy.

      It HAS been designed from the ground up to be able to do both modes at once. Proper LHA \ Proper carrier.

      I suspect in Helicopter assault mode Marines will be transferred to the ship via a rather nifty looking set of ramps set at the stern of the ship. Again though new CONOP and they won’t tell us what their thinking. Might be for Egress to Landing Craft ?

      It was designed for 2 EMALS (Bow) and Advanced arrestor gear. Although as you know we have chosen to take F35B with ski ramp right now, but we may refit in its 50 year life span.

      Designed for 280 days at sea per year, so with the two being constructed now we expect to have a continuous at sea carrier strike.

      TAG ( Tailored Air Group ) will be something like 24 F35 B, 4 Lynx Wildcat ( AsuW \ AH-1 \ Util ) , 8 Merlin ( ASW, Commando ), 8 Apache WAH-64 ( Helo-CAS ), 4 Merlin ( AEW ). So usually it will operate both modes at once. But it will shift as and when.

      Of course this does depend on us ever getting 24 F35B’s working in one space at one time !?

      Literally Britain and the Royal Navy recons your idea has some legs. So Lets See !


    4. I don't know that much about the QE so correct me if I'm wrong. The major drawback to such a dual use carrier is that it is limited to aviation assaults only. While that's fine for raids and small, light operations it isn't suited for major amphibious assauts as the Marines claim they want to be able to conduct.

      The QE sounds approximately like the America LHA (swing between helos and fixed wing, $4B or so cost, no well deck, aviation assault only). We stopped the America at two units with the follow on going back to a well deck.

      The RN has different roles and missions than the USN/Marines. While I don't know what the official roles/missions of the RN is, I don't think they're equipped for major assaults on their own whereas that's the defining capability of the Marines (whether they are actually capable of executing it is something we've been debating, of course). A purely aviation assault ship is a limited assault asset. This may work for the RN but is highly questionable for the USN/Marines.

    5. Yes Quite correct. QE Class in Helicopter Assault mode is equivalent to a large America type. ( lets call it a LPH or LHA )

      Although it does carry some large landing craft in the sponsons lowered via davits. It has no capability to seriously amphibiously assault via sea. By itself.

      We have other assets for more traditional LHD, LPD and LSD for that.

      It is likely we may stand down LHD at the end of hull life. Due to QE picking this roll up. It is more a cost saving excercise instead of a sencible one I feel. I think we are all at this difficult place now re: capital ships.

      Also yes Royal Marine and USMC are very very different animals. Royal Marines are literally part of the Navy and as such act as one unit.

      I suggest you sit back and see if we can make this work. Or if it falls right on its face. Then see if you want to try B.Smittys idea.


    6. Smitty, don't get me wrong. I've called for a smaller carrier, though possibly not quite this small. In the proper overall context, your idea may well have merit.

    7. Smitty, when I say "small", I'm referring to capability. From my limited understanding, the QE is small in terms of capability. An air group of 40-50 is small even by our shrinking air wing standards. Further, such a group is not fully functional by our standards as it lacks a Hawkeye AEW (has a helo AEW, I think?), aerial refueling (though we waste Hornets on that task), and Prowler/Growler electronic warfare. Further still, we consider our air wings to be long range strike capable (though that's a highly debatable point!) and the QE will be limited to F-35Bs which will decidedly not be long range in a short takeoff mode with any decent weapons loadout and no organic tanking (I guess they could dedicate F-35s to buddy refueling as we do with Hornets).

      Perhaps the QE is limited by an operational doctrine of not storing aircraft on the flight deck. If so, maybe the number of aircraft could be increased but then the number of air wing personnel would have to drastically increase as would the ship's support (hotel services) personnel, water and food storage, berthing, and so on. Could the ship absorb such an increase? I don't know.

      The QE seems a physically large ship for a relatively small capability.

    8. IIRC, we flew an all Hornet air wing on the Midways towards the end! I don't know enough about the QE. How could we operate 60+ aircraft on a 45000 ton ship (though by the end, I think the Midway was displacing quite a bit more with all the bulges and additions) when the QE is limited to 40-50 on a 70000 ton hull? As I said, I don't know enough about the QE.

    9. "If we can buy 2 CVs for the price of 1 CVN and 1 LHD/A, we will have a net increase in deployable airpower, both in surge and peacetime."

      There's the key. Can we build such a ship at the required price? Nothing in the Navy's recent acquisition history suggests that we can! Well worth a study, though.

    10. "If we make a significant portion of the airwing UCLASS, we may not have to add quite as many additional billets."

      How so? I assume that the UCLASS will require just as much maintenance as a manned aircraft. The number of deck handlers and ordnance personnel and fuelers and whatnot would be the same. The number of pilots would be about the same or possibly even more. Especially if we envision longer duration flights, we'll need multiple pilots per aircraft and, indeed, that's what is being done now. It sounds like we would need 2-4 pilots per UCLASS unless you want to believe the total automation claim. Regardless, pilots (or reduction in pilots) would be a relatively small factor on overall personnel numbers.

  2. The future average life span theoretically would be 50 years because the present force are all nuclear powered unlike the historical basis. Clear example is the Enterprise.

    1. You make an interesting point. Is nuclear power the only reason a ship would have a longer lifespan? If so, that's a strong argument for nuclear power - that it somehow grants an additional 10-15 years of life to a ship.

      I don't believe that's the case. Look at the conventional carriers - retired anywhere from 31-48 years. Quite a range!

      If nucs will serve longer it's presumably just due to a desire to get our money's worth out of them which begs the question why we aren't equally motivated to get our money's worth out of every ship, carrier or non-carrier?

      Even with a 50 year life, that still leaves us short, as pointed out in the post.

      Good comment!

    2. I believe the business case for the nuclear powered carriers was sold on the basis of a 50 year pay back. I think that was also the assumption when looking at replacement and build time needed for the carriers post Enterprise i.e. Nimitz. Beyond that I guess is really your point.

      I am not sure what the useful life assumption was previously on the conventionally powered vessels.

    3. I would have thought the life of a nuclear powered carrier would be based around their refueling cycles.

      The Enterprise was refueled three times.

      The nimitz class ships are supposed to be good for 18 years between refueling. Given the huge cost of retiring these ships i think we can expect them to be kept in service for longer periods not less. If you assume a carrier is refueled twice you start talking close to sixty year lives for a nimitz class assuming they are refueled twice.

      If the Ford class ships can match the Virginia class er may be looking a ships with a 90 year life.

      Not sure if the rest of the ship would be up to it however.

      One thing i think is certain, these ships will be around for a long time.


    4. Mark, that's a very well reasoned comment and may turn out to be true. However, I would observe that the Navy's history overwhelmingly points to early retirement of almost every ship type.

      While not directly comparable, the service lives of the first 10 Los Angeles class SSNs averaged 22.7 years. That doesn't suggest 50+ year service lives for carriers just because they're nuclear powered.

      We'll have to wait and see.

      Good comment!

  3. I think ComNavOps should run the HASC/SASC! That MIGHT get the Navy to produce a plan that can hold water (pun intended!)

  4. Given the difficulty in "defueling" a nuclear reactor, and the long times (10yrs?) between fueling operations, surprise, decommissions are unlikely.
    However ten carriers on ten year fuelling cycles gives a pretty solid guess as to whos up for the chop and when.

    A corollary to that is its simply not possible to stretch a nuclear carrier for another year, either you drop it, or you drag it out for another decade

    1. No you really can't
      Reactivating reserved ships is very rare, either you maintain them, and save nothing, or don't, and they rust away.

      A ship that's been in reserve for ten years is barely going to be sea worthy, never mind combat ready

  5. CNO, you done good work in explaining the carrier shortage, which is now on us, not just in the future. I believe that the minimum number of large deck carrier is twelve, unless we can figure a way of getting high performance aircraft to fly of a smaller deck, (and no STOVL can't get you there, yet.)

    Having studied the building frequency you should have notice the true solution to the problem, that is ordering carrier two at a time. There is a real cost saving available by doing so, estimated at around 25% for the second unit. This would allow us to build a twelve carrier force, for a cost of 10.5 force.

    Another way to save cost would be to order carriers at faster rate, some were around two very seven years. This reduce their require life to forty years, cutting the most expensive part of a carrier life from the bill. It also help reduce building cost for two reasons, First it maintains the skilled work force needed to build the carriers. And second we could use less expensive component with lower life expectations,

    1. GLof, you're right about building carriers two at a time. The drawback is that the work would be pulsed with high activity for five years and no activity for five unless you're simply talking about placing the orders two at a time but building them normally. If the latter, there would be some cost savings but not a huge amount since we'd still be paying for same drawn out construction schedule.

      Your idea of building intentionally shorter lived carriers is interesting but would require that we could build them significantly cheaper - a formidable challenge!

      Good thoughts!

  6. I think it's long past time to get away from the mindset (and I think that mindset is actually codified in law) that all carriers have to be nuke powered. I get it that all the studies done on this subject say that a large nuclear powered carrier is the most effective of all the options ever discussed. But as the man who owns this blog has said in other threads, and something I have been saying forever now, 'quantity is a quality all its own'. It's about adequate NUMBERS, and Ford class carriers in the numbers truly needed are just not an option. But why not return to building Ford SIZED carriers as conventionally powered? It's been done before. The original Kennedy was laid down as a nuclear powered ship, but because of COSTS and other considerations she was completed as conventionally powered. The Navy operated for a long time with both nuclear and conventionally powered carriers. I will also offer that building conventionally powered carriers would be quicker than building the nukes. Certainly they won't be cheap but they GOTTA be more economical to build and outfit than a Ford. This country should have something on the order of 9 to 10 deployable carriers within a few months of a situation arising. That means that there will be a number that are not available due to yard periods. So a force of at least 12 carriers would be nice to say the least. But that won't happen given the realities of how and what the Navy is spending OUR money on.

    OF course, with the shrinking air wings, and the shorter ranges of the planes that these ships carry, other fixes need to be implemented but soon. If we're not going to build the numbers of ships we need, the least we can do is revitalize the air wings for the ones we do have. I'd rather see 54 to 60 Hornets fleshing them out NOW than wait for the silver bullet the F-35 is being bandied as.

    Doug in VA

    1. Doug, welcome! You might look to history for some answers or, at least, data points. We did build several conventionally powered supercarriers, Kennedy being the most recent, and the costs were not all that much cheaper than the nuclear carriers.

      Construction time is also somewhat shorter, perhaps, but not much. For example, Enterprise was laid down in 1968 and launched in 1970 while Kennedy was laid down in 1964 and launched in 1967. The conventional Kennedy actually took slightly longer to build. Conversely, Kennedy was slightly faster to build than Nimitz.

      So, the construction cost savings and construction time savings, if there are any, do not appear to be enough to produce extra carriers (like a 2 conventional for one nuclear). We might get one extra carrier for every dozen or so built, at best.

      Check the data for yourself and see what you think.

      Your point about air wings is well taken!

    2. Hi CNO. Glad to be here. May I ask, what is the source of your info about the comparable costs of nuke vice conventional carriers? I only have access to Internet sources and the most comprehensive one I found is the 1998 (I realize that seems like a million years ago!) GAO report that made such a comparison. But back then, the data and analysis they provided shows the construction costs of a conventional supercarrier to be about 40% to 45% of that of a nuke (that was purely an initial acquisition cost). Now, the world has certainly changed since then, and with the almost constant tempo of operations our military has been committed to, perhaps the figures and methodology have changed as far as comparing the total costs and benefits of each type. Certainly even that GAO reports stresses that NOTHING compares to a nuclear powered supercarrier in performance and capabilities.

      Nukes are faster (they are not slowed down by requirements to refuel the ship itself, though both types escorts will have to be), and because of the space made available by the reactors, more aviation fuel and weapons for the planes can be carried. I saw an interesting observation in my research of this, where it is said that no commander in a theater, when asking 'where are the carriers', asks specifically for a nuclear or conventionally powered one, he just wants CARRIERS! I'm going to include the link for that GAO report here if I can. It's lengthy but it is interesting. I do not know if they overlooked any other key criteria that should been factored in, and as I said, it's a different world now.


      Doug in VA

    3. Doug, it's difficult to find comparable costs. The best set of numbers I've found is from the GAO report you reference. Look at Table 3.2. Here are the construction costs expressed as dollars per ton in constant 1997 dollars. These are the most comparable points. CVN-65 was the one of a kind Enterprise so those costs are not typical. CVN-68 was first in class Nimitz so those costs are not typical. CV-66/67 were tail end production runs so they were the bare minimum costs so I picked CV-63/64 as more mid production to try to compare with CVN-70 (could have included 71) as mid production. As I said, it's hard to find comparable points. Take it for what it's worth.

      CV-63 $43,000/ton
      CV-64 $42,000/ton
      CVN-70 $46,000/ton

      So, the cost differential is around 8% higher for the nuclear CVN-70.

      After CVN-70, costs for nuclear carriers begin to skyrocket well beyond the cost of inflation and there were no more conventional carriers to compare costs to.

    4. I saw that table based on 'cost per ton', but the very next one (Table 3.3 on page 80 of the PDF-based report)is quite explicit in pronouncing that the conventional carrier's acquisition costs are not quite half that of a nuclear powered one (because the conventional carrier's displacement is lower). Of course it's all presented in 1997 dollars. Where the costs fall more into line with each other (though the nuclear carriers still have the greater costs) is in that of what are labeled 'life cycle direct and indirect operating and support costs'. Even then those costs of a conventional carrier are about 70 to 75% of a nuclear one. But seeing how the Navy and the powers that be and everyone else took a platform (LCS) that was supposed to be cheap and plentiful and functional and gold plated it into semi-uselessness, Lord knows what they will do with something as large and vital as a carrier, no matter what powers it. All good stuff here..

      Doug in VA

    5. You've got to really study the basis of those kinds of numbers closely. Table 3.3 uses the cost of CV-67, the last conventional carrier without every production efficiency worked out and compares it to CVN-68, the first of class nuclear carrier Nimitz with no production efficiencies. You'll note that the next two CVN's dropped quite a bit in price.

      That's why I selected CV-63/64 and CVN-70 as more comparable. You can agree or disagree but put some thought into it so that you have a good basis for your assessment. I stand by mine while admitting that it's very difficult to get a good comparison number!

    6. My feeling is that if we alternated a conventional carrier build and a nuclear one, we'd see a price increase of 20% for the nuclear. Take that for what it's worth!


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