Friday, October 30, 2015

Recent Carrier Costs

Occasionally it’s useful and fun to review some relatively recent history.  Let’s look at carrier construction costs as we’ve transitioned from the last of the Nimitz class to the first of the Ford class.  The primary reference for this trip down memory lane is the CRS report of 2007 (1).

Let’s set the stage by briefly reflecting on the improvements offered by the Ford over the Nimitz.  Claimed improvements include,

  • Increased sortie rate – This claim has been debunked and is not true.
  • Improved EMALS catapult – This may offer a maintenance improvement or ease of use but claims of reduced wear and tear on aircraft are not backed up by any data and logic indicates that the claim is quite likely false.
  • Improved arresting gear – This claim is also not backed by any data.
  • Decreased manning – It remains to be seen whether this reduction is actually workable;  the LCS reduced manning proved false.
  • Dual band radar – While potentially a better radar than what the Nimitz class had, the tactical utility of such an advanced radar for a ship that has only short range, self-defense weapons is lacking and subsequent Fords reportedly will have a greatly reduced capability radar.

We see, then, that claims of improvements over the Nimitz class are marginal, at best.  The question then becomes what price are we willing to pay for marginal improvements?  Well, let’s look at the costs.

The Ford is going to wind up costing around $13B.

According to the CRS report, the last Nimitz cost $6.05B (2006) which translates to $7.14B (2015) when adjusted for inflation.

When we compare the Ford at $13B to the Nimitz at $7.14B, we see an 82% increase (nearly double!) in cost even after adjusting for inflation.  Yikes!  That’s probably worth another – Yikes!

Now for the amusing part.  We’ve seen that the Navy’s acquisition cost estimates are consistently, absurdly low.  Do you remember what the Navy estimated the Ford would cost?  From the CRS report,

“The Navy estimates CVN-78’s [Ford] total acquisition (i.e., research and development plus procurement) cost at about $13.7 billion. This figure includes about $3.2 billion in research and development costs and about $10.5 billion in procurement costs.”

There you have it.  The Navy’s estimate was $10.5B for procurement.  Instead, procurement has ballooned to $13B.  That’s a $2.5 billion dollar overrun.  Bear in mind that Ford is nowhere near done, yet.  The final overrun will be $3B plus.  In fact, the Navy is now engaged in deferring work until after delivery in order to meet the Congressional cost cap.

Oh, for the days when we thought we could build a carrier for only $10.5B …

(1)Congressional Research Service, “Navy CVN-21 Aircraft Carrier Program:

Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O’Rourke, Jan 2007


  1. Fire someone in charge and then you will get a different result. Otherwise you are doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. A pretty smart man called that the definition of insanity.

  2. Getting rid of the steam auxiliaries should be beneficial in the long run.

    I still have hope that EMALS/AAG prove themselves worthy. EMALS still has potential to reduce wear and tear on aircraft by allowing for a smoother launch profile that can be more readily tailored to the aircraft being launched. YMMV on how much it ultimately helps.

    IIRC, the plan is for Kennedy and later Ford-class CVNs to get a lower cost radar suite. Unfortunately, as expensive as these ships are, the radar suite cost is almost noise.

    1. I keep hearing that EMALS will provide less wear and tear but it is backed up by absolutely no data. Further, the aircraft are built to withstand the steam cats and last their entire lives. So, if the aircraft already last their entire lives, how much longer do we think they'll last from a little less stress? What limits aircraft lives is g-force stress on the airframe, as I understand it. This is one of those justifications that sounds good and may be theoretically true but probably has no practical effect.

      Regarding the radar, the Navy has stated that the dual band radar cost was $500M and that switching to the lesser radar would save $180M. So, not exactly noise but not the major cost driver, either.

    2. Yes, EMALS is more promise than proven at this point.

    3. CNO Greenert has also acknowledged that EMALS is a giant electromagnetic beacon that can't be shielded (or, at least, wasn't designed to be shielded). Thus, the carrier's location is revealed with every launch. I'm not sure the Navy carefully thought through the entire EMALS cost/benefit thing.

    4. Well.. How far away can it be detected and from what aspects? That's the key.

    5. Greenert's comments suggested many hundreds to thousands of miles but he offered no exact figures. It's just an omni-directional broadcast. His comments were part of several related to being forced to reestablish EMCON discipline after years of neglect.

    6. I didn't think of that, could be a rather big problem, I doubt there are many commercial vessels that put of that sort of emission, so you have a pretty strong and unique emission which signals you out.

      You could probably make some relatively cheap low-tech cube sats, that would do a good job picking up such signals... I am not sure how detectable or locateable it is, it may be that it can be detected but not used to give an accurate location, but that is probably just as bad...

      I mean think about, even if you can't use it to locate the exact location, imagine being able to tell each time an aircraft is launched.... That is not good.... Such information could provide a crucial advantage to the opfor, like in the battle of britian.

      Knowing when, where and how many german planes there were in a raid, it had a massive impact on britisch combat efficency and allowed them to prevail with a smaller number of in some cases inferrior planes...

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  4. I guess I just don't see the vast improvements. The Ford's will generate more power... but is that really beyond the ability of the Nimitz? And does it matter? We don't have laser weapons or rail guns and wouldn't put them on a CVN anyway. Its job is to launch aircraft; not do native anti-air or anti surface work.

    With the reduced airwing, and no tankers, how much does an improvement in sortie rate matter? You only have so many aircraft to work with. I hardly think the catapults are the logjam here. And did sortie rate have to be improved that much? Are we facing a dire threat because its not high enough?

    It just seems like we doubled, or more than doubled the price of the carrier without even a 1/4 increase in combat power.

    The opportunity cost is brutal. I think we would we have been better served buying just a regular old improved Nimitz like the Bush and spending the rest of the money resurrecting S3's as tankers and new build Superhornets.

    1. The biggest (unproven) improvement is the reduced manpower and life cycle costs.

    2. As we've seen, the LCS manpower "savings" are anything but. As I've noted several times, the total manpower of the LCS at least rivals that of the Perrys and probably more.

      I've also noted that the Zumwalt is even less manned than the LCS on a per ton basis (admittedly, an imperfect means of calculating manpower requirements!). I fully expect the Navy will find that the Zumwalt's manning has to be significantly increased.

      Likewise, I suspect the Ford's manning will need to be increased although if the air wings continue to shrink that could change!

    3. It only drops from 5,000+ on Nimitz to ~4,300 on Ford. So it's not nearly as dramatic as Perry to LCS or DDG-51 to DDG-1000. Hopefully this means it's more doable.

  5. A great summary article, CNO. Really cut through the rosy PR-department talking points.

    The part I can't get past for the Ford class - other than everything listed here - is the use of concurrency in the development of the EMALS and AAG. We've taken the stupidity of the JSF development concept and supersized it, literally.

    Previously, a Navy would use a testbed platform before committing to the irreversible replacement of a given critical system (because plumbing for steam cats, later, may not even be possible/practical in the Ford - it certainly wasn't in the QE Class CVH). Certainly for the center-piece of your fleet.

    We could have taken any large-fast cargo ship, added some extra generators, removed the superstructure, laid down the new launch/recovery tech - and then trialled EMALS/AAG in an open-architecture testbed, until it worked. Or didn't.

    And it would have probably cost less than a Billion, and would not have caused delays to carrier construction, or critical shortages in the carrier force structure due to those delays and the spiraling costs.

    As for sortie rates? A joke. A CVW is half the size it used to be, and while maintenance requirements improved with the F/A-18 airframe, the fielding of the F-35C will reverse the trend. There won't be enough airframes in the CVW, serviceable, to increase sortie rates as advertised - no matter what anyone does to the carrier systems and tech.

    It all rings of 'technology for the sake of technology'.

    In the same way that we have an obscene number of Super Hornets pulling whale duties and wearing down the airframes - rather than simply allocating a small number of dedicated airframes for the role. From their stats, the KA-6D was a hell of a lot better tanker than the Super Hornet with buddy pods. It's not like the bird farm is packed to the gills anymore, or that a recovery tanker needs an AESA radar and Mach 1.X capability.

    Buy a cheap and effective tanker, and thereby get better value and effectiveness from the strike-fighters on deck - and extend their life, too. That will help with the JSF-induced strike-fighter shortage, too. Seems obvious. But that's 'old technology' and 'old think'. I'm not a pilot, and maybe there was a reason that the performance envelopes of the KA-6D and a fast jet couldn't overlap. From memory though, the Intruder was tanking Tomcats and Phantoms way back, so it should have been possible.

    It seems that by every metric, the USN has lost its way.

    And that is a damn shame.

    [Note: A lot of other western navies seem to be in the same position - buying equipment in token numbers that is too expensive to risk, or even to train properly with. IMHO, we've passed the tipping point where we can afford to do things in the same old way - for example F/A-XX, which will only ever be bought in platinum-bullet numbers.]

    1. Your point about the KA-6 tankers is one of those ideas that seems so obvious that it's unbelievable that we aren't doing it. We're burning through F-18 flight hours boring holes in the sky dispensing gas - not what we should be spending our front line combat aircraft on.

      The A-6's and S-3's exist so we could bring them back for tanker duty at little cost and little effort.

      Truly baffling.

    2. The Super Hornet can carry as much fuel than the KA-6D and far more than the S-3. I think it makes more sense to add 8 to 10 Super Hornets to each CVW as dedicated tankers than bringing back legacy aircraft. With enough tankers, they don't have to take off fully loaded reducing wear and tear.

      Another idea is turning the P-8's into a buddy tanker. Their max fuel load is about 75,000 pounds. If you can fit a buddy tanker pod to the wing and run fuel to it, you're in business. The British did something similar with their Vickers bombers.

    3. If someone can provide the budget for 60+ new SuperHornets to use as tankers, then I'm all for it. That's not gonna happen, though. The appeal of the KA-6D/S-3 is that they already exist and wouldn't take away from our front line aircraft.

      As far as a P-8 acting as a tanker, that would tie multiple P-8s to the carrier. There are always tankers aloft when aircraft are flying and additional tankers over the carrier for returning aircraft that might run short of fuel. Being tied to a carrier takes the P-8s away from their primary mission of wide area searches. Again, if we have extra P-8s sitting around with nothing to do (we don't!) then, sure, turn them into tankers. Otherwise, it makes more sense to have them stick to their primary mission.

    4. I'm not looking to pick a fight, but those KA-6's and S-3's will need to be refurbished and after that, how long with they last? Eight, maybe 10 years, depending on usage, of course. And, then it's back to the same problem we have today.

      At least the Super Hornets are available and in production. Where you get the money from is another question.

    5. Absolutely, KA-6/S-3 is a stopgap measure. If we did that and the Navy did nothing to address long term tanking then we'd be right back where we are now.

      I know, though, that if Congress offered me the funding for 60 new Super Hornets, I wouldn't use them as tankers. Now, maybe rotating some old model F-18A/Bs as tankers and putting new Super Hornets to work doing what they do best might be a workable alternative.

    6. The old hornet idea is interesting. Would its compromised fuel fraction make it a bad tanker though?

      I'm going to ask a question that will make me shudder... but if we've made Hornets, Tomcats, A6's, and S3's tankers... why not see if we can gin up a plane that can do the job, take alot of fuel, and really help?

      I know Boeing is having major issues with its tanker program, but does it really have to be that hard?

      And if the Pacific with its vast ranges is our major area, and we have aircraft that have 'meh' range, aren't tankers even more important?

      The more I think about it, the more I'd like whatever they think up for the F/A-XX to have one hell of a fuel fraction.

    7. The old hornet idea is interesting. Would its compromised fuel fraction make it a bad tanker though?

      I'm going to ask a question that will make me shudder... but if we've made Hornets, Tomcats, A6's, and S3's tankers... why not see if we can gin up a plane that can do the job, take alot of fuel, and really help?

      I know Boeing is having major issues with its tanker program, but does it really have to be that hard?

      And if the Pacific with its vast ranges is our major area, and we have aircraft that have 'meh' range, aren't tankers even more important?

      The more I think about it, the more I'd like whatever they think up for the F/A-XX to have one hell of a fuel fraction.

  6. Couple of things:
    The long radar is needed , not because it has only short range defence missiles but because the planes are its long range defences. To manage air defence assets you need to have the long range radar , along with input from the likes of E-3 to create overall picture.
    Secondly the carrier acts as the hub of the air defences for the carrier group, as the comand and control. The idea it only needs a LCS type radar system is quite erroneous.

    I think there is a misunderstanding of the overall costs. The first of class effectively carries all the design and development ( there is no prototype and the first built has a lot of one off costs)
    The original estimate was $3.2 bill development and $10.5 bill procurement as you say.
    I thinks its incorrect that now procurement is $13 bill- in reality this includes a lot of design changes that wont be needed for follow on.
    For the Emals catapult, the idea that you will still be doing steam for the next 50 years is very shortsighted.

    Another item you havent listed is the development of a new reactor design. Where th
    e navy to make do with the old design for the next 50 years as as well ?

    This report from Congress budget office dated last month should provide more clarity than the half guesses shown above.

    Some things are 'worse' than you could imagine, ie the thinner plating and scantlings for some structures required extra bracing during construction, and takes longer to install those modules.

    1. The carrier is not the hub of the group's air defense - a Tico is. Tico's are specifically designed to accommodate the air warfare commander. Aside from being standard Navy doctrine, this is also evident by considering the radars that are on all the Nimitz class. They have only the SPS-48/49 versus the Tico's Aegis SPY systems. Ford will have the dual band radar but the follow on Fords will not. You might want to read up on how the Navy conducts air defense for its carrier groups.

      I include references in my posts so that you can read and refer to them as you craft comments. As stated in the reference, the $10.5B procurement cost included an estimate of $2.4B for non-recurring, first time costs, leaving an actual construction cost estimate of $8.1B. Thus, the current $13B which includes non-recurring, first time costs, as you point out, is a direct apples-to-apples comparison and demonstrates that the Navy underestimated the cost by $2.5B ... so far.

      Regarding EMALS, what is it you think I said? I didn't say we shouldn't do EMALS (I also didn't say we should!). I said that the performance claims for it were suspect. I further suggested that the entire Ford concept might not be sufficient value for the cost.

      What half-guesses do you think the CRS report you reference makes clear?

  7. ARe you referring to the CWC Composite Warfare Commander, he or she is located on the carrier, because :
    The battlegroup commander requires a clean tactical picture to control his forces effectively. To maintain such a picture the CWC must be located where he (a) has ready access to his principal assets; (b) is minimally handicapped by any emission controls (EMCON) or communications limitations; and (c) has optimum facilities for receipt, processing, and display of information concerning unit readiness and the tactical situation.

    Within the battlegroup, the CWC can best control combat operations from the carrier. Tightly structured rules of engagement (ROE) may require the CWC to maintain more direct control of assets.

    Yes you are correct, the Tico is 'usually' assigned as the subordinate AW commander.

    Overall , while your concerns about new warship designs are correct, the idea that these things arrive gift wrapped in box ready for use is erroneous.
    The expensive design of advanced new features cost money to fully develop
    , which is not improved by using advanced CAD/CAM design tools which cant be used beyond the operators/designers understanding. ie no use designing all pipes and electrical fittings on a computer, when the operator has no idea how a carrier is built. The saving of weight by using lighter plating etc , which then cant be made as light without significant bracing, which is then removed at more cost.
    You would think Newport News had never built a carrier before!

    1. "... the idea that these things arrive gift wrapped in box ready for use is erroneous."

      I invite you to peruse the archives. One of the common themes is that new technology is good and should be pursued but NOT DURING PRODUCTION. Technology should be developed in prototypes and labs and test beds. When, and only when, mature, the technology can be integrated into production.

  8. We don't even have a final cost yet if you think about it. The $13B might not cover everything. In that case, we could be looking at $15B+.

    I don't think we are seeing a carrier 2x as good as the Nimitz here. Plus there appear to be problems within the carrier that if discovered could prove pretty costly to fix.

    Another question is, if these are so costly, how many can be bought? What about keeping the crew and air wings fully trained all the time? That will require costs too.

    What about the ability to replace combat losses? A nation state war inevitably means losses. We can sit here discussing building a better carrier but at the end of the day there will be losses from battle.

    This could end up being the American equal of the Japanese battleship Yamato and its sister ship.

    1. "This could end up being the American equal of the Japanese battleship Yamato and its sister ship. "

      I don't know, Alt.
      The Yamato would have at least been 'okay' at doing what it was actually designed to do (fight Battleships - not Carriers).
      So far, the Ford-class seems to be belly-flopping at just launching planes...

      - Ray D.

    2. With such trophy ships, the nation that builds them is terrified of losing them and only commits them to the end as Japan did for the Yamato on a suicide mission.

      I suppose you have a point. The Yamato would have done "okay" at what it was intended to do (fight the Iowa class and perhaps if battleships were still top dog, the Montana).

      So far the Ford can only be described as a white elephant.

      The one saving grace is that no other power has carriers at this point capable of long-range operations. The Russian carriers are problem plagued and China will have a huge learning curve.

      That won't be much of an advantage though. Not if China keeps the progress as they do on other areas.

      I'd be even more worried about progress on attack submarines.

    3. I'm very concerned about their attack subs. I don't think the Navy is as concerned as I am. I'm not sure why. Their boats and technology keep getting better. Sure, they may not have some tech now; but the way to bet isn't 'It won't happen' or even 'It won't happen relatively soon'.

      When it does, our diminishing SSN force and our lack of focus on ASW could really bite us and expose a gap. Its one of my biggest concerns with the LCS. We have a range challenged ship not optimized for ASW as a key part of our ASW forces.

  9. Ask yourself, was the Nimitz in 2006 a good price at 7bn in $$2015, the first nimitz built in 1975 was $4bn in $$2015. Actually building ships is not that expensive, it is all the 'military-grade' and 'technology' which they use to push the price up.

    Problem is everything is going up faster than inflation, that is the problem with the fighter jets, its predicted that by 2100 or something the USAF will only be able to afford 1 airplane, its pretty silly, but you see this actually happening with the US Strategic bomber fleet. And the JSF is going to have massive cutbacks in orders.

    Because it is way more than originally planned, that funding has to come from somewhere, the funding to pay more than planned is going to come from buying less.

    1. You indirectly raise a good and puzzling point. Some ship class procurement costs seem to have remained constant when adjusted for inflation. The Burkes are an example of this although it is difficult to get comparative data given the Navy's somewhat recent accounting gimmicks.

      On the other hand, the carriers have increased in price well beyond simple inflation. Each new carriers actually costs more than its predecessor. Why this is, I have no idea.

    2. Personally I suspect corruption, an interesting question is 'what should these systems actually cost', I mean in principal, a conventionally powered, medium-sized 60,000 tonne aircraft carrier without the military equipment shouldn't cost too much..

      Just look at costs for comparable tonnage civilian vessals, look at what some cruise ships cost that have a lot of cabins and living facilities built into them, a carrier is sort of a combination of a freight vessaln (the large hanger and elevators), with some of the living capabilities of a cruise ship. It has a few extras on it, but still...

    3. I'd be inclined to agree, although even conventional aircraft carriers seem to be skyrocketing in price right now.

      The UK Queen Elizabeth Class was quite costly as well.

    4. Adding computers/electronics/interconnectivity to everything is expensive, thats what the 5th gen thing is all about.

      I believe eventually UAV's like the UCLASS will handle the aerial refueling role.
      Hell, they should aim for VTOL/CATOVL UAV's operating off a seperate platform to perform the aerial refueling mission.


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