There has been discussion in recent years that the United States Navy could alter, adjust, or rethink its aircraft carrier production plans following the construction and arrival of the first three Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.
Instead of the large supercarriers, the current thinking is that the Navy could be better served with faster, smaller, more maneuverable, and more survivable alternatives.
But does that idea make sense?
Planning the Future Fleet
The service has conducted many future fleet studies and has taken a specific look at the Navy’s long-term aircraft carrier needs. Reports also included deep-dive studies and threat assessments related to the Chinese anti-ship-missile “carrier-killer” threat.
Exact plans may still be unclear and are subject to further analysis and evaluation as the threat calculus evolves. However, the Navy has been clear and steadfast that there is and will be a lasting strategic and operational need for carriers surging into the future given global demand and the threat landscape.
Much has been made of the Chinese Anti-Access/Area-Denial strategy, which using 2,000-mile ranged DF-26 anti-ship cruise missiles reportedly capable of tracking and destroying carriers seeking to project power offshore with a Carrier Air Wing in place to attack. The actual ability of these missiles to succeed in destroying carriers, however, remains a bit of an open question given that there may be much unknown about the DF-26’s ability to hit moving targets, achieve requisite guidance, and overcome the Navy’s growing suite of layered ship defenses.
Numerous innovations in recent years have massively improved the ability of aircraft carriers and Carrier Strike Groups to defend against incoming anti-ship missiles with advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); multi-domain networking; and electronic warfare (EW) technologies to “jam” anti-ship missile guidance technology. Navy carrier battle groups have also upgraded interceptor missiles and new weapons such as lasers able to incinerate, derail or destroy incoming anti-ship missiles as well.
Serious Chinese Missile Threat
The Chinese anti-ship missile threat is clearly taken seriously, for understandable reasons, and it likely explains the rapid arrival of the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-launched refueler, to extend the attack reach of carrier-launched fighters and the proliferation of surface, undersea, and air unmanned ISR and attack platforms.
Given these complexities and the number of unknown or more difficult-to-determine variables indicates that it would not be completely unrealistic for the Navy to contemplate adjusting aircraft carrier designs at some point in the future.
Warrior Maven Center for Military Modernization Senior Naval Analyst William Cummings, a former nuclear-trained U.S. Navy Submarine Machinist MM1(SS), says the Navy might be well served to consider reducing the number of its large deck aircraft carriers in favor of submarines, destroyers, and other future weapons. However, the carrier mission is not going anywhere, which is perhaps one reason why Cummings floated the idea of the Navy exploring smaller, lighter, faster carrier platforms.
“It would be useful for the Navy to reconsider a smaller carrier of 60,000 to 80,000 tons for the future, perhaps something like the Forestall class (I believe even the Midway class was large enough to carry F-18s). Nuclear power is fine, but the reactor compartments should each be removable in one piece to facilitate refueling, similar to the way the reactor compartment is cut out of a submarine for disposal. This should dramatically shorten the average four-year timeframe required for overhaul and refueling, although it might require going back to four reactors per ship to keep them small enough for easy removal,” Cummings told Warrior Maven.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.