How Congress and the Pentagon Joined Forces to Worsen the Navy’s Carrier Gap

August 4, 2016

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Earlier this month, the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (CSG) returned to Norfolk from an eight-month deployment, a cruise extended a month to meet strike requirements in Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As “extended” tours become the norm across the fleet, it is yet another reminder that aircraft carrier demand continues to outmatch supply. The question is whether this latest warning will be enough to change plans and redirect investments.

Washington is rightfully worried about carrier coverage around the globe as hot spots grow hotter. Yet politicians are not working creatively enough to get additional aircraft carriers into the fleet faster, even though it would help alleviate these “presence gaps” and influence events more favorably for the United States. Case in point: As we explain in detail below, Congress and Pentagon civilian leadership joined forces to change the way the Navy tests and fields its carriers in a manner deleterious to the Navy and America’s presence in key hot spots.

There is a reasonable debate to be had here, and it all hinges on risk: How much risk should policymakers accept, and when? While the impulse to do as much testing as possible on a new class of ships is noble, it is impractical and not the standard applied to other types of vessels. The question at hand is not a dismissal of testing, merely a deferral.

Congress and Pentagon leaders should agree with the Navy and get CVN-78 Ford into the fleet in 2019. While this solution carries some risk in pushing back full-ship shock trials to a later date, it also solves an immediate and growing problem of too few carriers for too many missions.

For Want of Carriers

Three years ago, in response to the budgetary meat-axe of sequestration, Rear Admiral Thomas Moore, then running the Navy’s carrier acquisition program, aptly said that the United States is an “11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world.”

If only.

America has been a single-digit carrier nation for years now ever since Congress again waived the legal requirements for a minimum fleet size back in fiscal year 2007 with the decommissioning of the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). Back then, it was a waiver to drop from 12 to 11 carriers. Congress let the Navy fall further yet again from 11 to 10 in fiscal year 2010 in anticipation of the decommissioning of USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 2012.

Today, America’s carrier fleet technically totals 10, but there is always one tied up in refueling or complex overhaul so as to effectively eliminate it from service and realistic ship counting. Plus, the “minimum” of 10 aircraft carriers is only the latest requirement written to match a falling budget target after it was clear the money was not available to meet the floor. Worse yet, the forthcoming Navy Force Structure Assessment — the first conducted after the recent deterioration in the threat environment — will likely increase the required carrier fleet size.

The Logical End of “Doing More With Less”

When Congress waived the legal requirement for U.S. Navy to operate 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, it did not anticipate that a decade would pass before the Navy would again be able to meet that target.

In the interim, the Navy scrambled to cobble together a strategy to maximize carrier presence by pushing ships and sailors to the breaking point. As a result of these oft-intended one-time measures, the absence of American aircraft carriers in key geopolitical hotspots has been kept to a minimum. However, gaps do exist, such as the late 2015 carrier gap in the Persian Gulf that left no naval airpower to strike Islamic State targets. The potential 2016 carrier gap in the Middle East was avoided only by extending the Truman strike group deployment and disrupting thousands of sailors, marines, and their families. Additionally, there have been more frequent gaps in the Western Pacific.

To avoid breaking its sailors and ships with constant deployments of eight to ten months, Navy leaders in 2014 promulgated the new Optimized-Fleet Response Plan (O-FRP) to keep all carrier deployments at seven months, accepting the risk inherent in carrier presence gaps until another ship comes online. Ostensibly, the Truman’s sailors should be the last victims of a tour length over seven months — if the Navy adheres to its plan over the next three to four years — since the newest carrier, the Ford, is supposedly set to deploy in 2019.

But there are two reasons to doubt the Truman is the last to see deployments elongated. First, though the Ford’s construction schedule remains roughly unchanged, several component tests remain to be finished. While Ford will likely be commissioned late this year or early in 2017, it will not be ready for fleet operations until 2019 at the earliest. Second, the choice to conduct shock trials on Ford, detailed below, could push back its first deployment to 2021, thereby extending the duration of the carrier gap and associated presence deficit. Additionally, a delay in Ford’s first deployment means it will take the Navy longer to meet its combatant commander requirement of fielding three Carrier Strike Groups ready to surge within one month, leaving conventional deterrence weaker during a period of relatively global instability.

The continuation of constrained defense funding leaves the Navy with worse-than-expected maintenance problems, as well. Yet the external threat environment shows no signs of improving in the near term, meaning that carrier presence demands will only remain constant at best or, more likely, continue to grow. And CVN-79 Kennedy will not deploy until 2027.

Put another way, the next president may contend with the current carrier shortage throughout the entirety of his or her first term absent a change of heart and plans by policymakers.

Mandating Shock Trials on First-of-Class Ships Breaks with Precedence

Last year, Navy leaders quietly relented to pressure from Congress and the Pentagon bureaucracy over whether to conduct full-ship shock trials on CVN-78 Ford. Shock testing is a rigorous endeavor in which ships are subjected to nearby live explosions to test the structural integrity of the ship’s hull and the resiliency of critical systems.

The Navy argued proven precedence to get the carrier to sea quickly and modify it as needed after shock trials on CVN-79 in the early 2020s. A public debate over America’s premier power projection platform never really occurred, and opponents of the Navy dominated what little debate did occur by caricaturing the Navy’s position as: “It’s a $12.8 billion ship. Why wouldn’t we conduct shock trials on it?! You’re putting sailors at risk!”

Late last year, Congress ordered the Navy to conduct shock trials on Ford in its 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and appropriators followed suit with adequate funding to carry out the tests. The 2016 defense bill also provided the secretary of defense with the authority to waive this requirement in the interest of national security, but Secretary Carter has chosen not to do so.

What happened to prompt Congress to take this step? In August 2015, Pentagon Director for Operational Testing and Evaluation Michael Gilmore won a quiet bureaucratic victory inside the Pentagon to force the Navy to conduct shock trials on the Ford. Gilmore convinced Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work to support his decision against the Navy’s wishes by arguing that the shock trials would help to understand the ship’s survivability and would only delay the ship’s deployment by three months — if all went perfectly.

In a perfect world, conducting shock trials on the new carrier class as soon as possible would be preferable — but the U.S. military has never had the luxury of living in a utopia. Partly as a result of this reality, as Craig Hooper writes, first-of-class shock trials are the exception rather than the rule in modern shipbuilding. For instance, full-ship shock testing was not completed until 1987 on the fourth Nimitz-class carrier (CVN-71), despite the fact that the first-of-class carrier had commissioned in 1975. Plus, CVNs 68, 69, and 70 were operating in a uniquely high-threat environment — this was the era of Red Storm Rising, with its frenzied U.S.-Soviet competition around carrier battle groups.

For Burke-class destroyers and San Antonio-class amphibs, the third ship of each class conducted shock trials. Ditto for the Littoral Combat Ship program, which just conducted shock trials on its sixth hull. Further, Ford’s hull will be quite similar to that of her well-tested predecessors, and her internal systems will have been independently shock-tested already — making this a lower-risk choice should policymakers proceed with fleet introduction first and shock trials second.

The Navy’s Least Worst Choice — It’s About Risk

Despite the silence from Navy headquarters following the decision to force earlier-than-expected shock trials on the Ford-class, this setback is significant. In everyday terms, it is the equivalent of giving additional weekend shifts to a single mother with two jobs and three children. True, the Navy has not recently asked for more carriers in its budget requests. Despite the Navy’s sway in Congress, a consensus to pursue investment in more carriers has not existed ever since the Navy’s carriers were offered up on the chopping block in 1991, when the fleet shrunk from 14 carriers to 12. Yet Rear Admiral Moore’s 15-carrier requirement was recently confirmed in a Hudson Institute study by Bryan McGrath, Seth Cropsey, and Tim Walton that called for 16 carriers. This different type of Moore’s Law regarding carrier capacity derives from enduring American interests.

True enough, schedule slips on certain components of the Ford have occurred as a result of poor Navy acquisition management. Yet the carrier fleet as whole has been led remarkably well. There have been no major maintenance accidents, no nuclear reactor problems, and no derelict captains running ships aground. If the carrier shortage is not a problem entirely of the Navy’s creation, then the blame largely rests with Congress and successive administrations. And instead of relief or even a basic understanding and sympathy, the Navy is instead penalized by early-to-need shock trials not performed on other first-of-class ships.

The desire to delay shock testing should telegraph just how worried the Navy is about continuously trying to meet current demands with only 10 (okay, 9) carriers. While the perception in the press and politicians’ minds is that the Navy is acting like a small child who wants his toy now, the simplistic characterization is unfair. Less commented upon is the very real balancing of risk that the Navy had to conduct. The service decided it would rather accept the risk of operating a carrier that hasn’t been through shock trials rather than continue to operate under a carrier shortage for up to two more years.

Navy leaders asked and answered an explicit risk calculation. Now, Congress must answer whether or not nine aircraft carriers spread thin between the global areas of responsibility of five different regional combatant commanders is truly an acceptable level of risk.

To weigh the inherent risks, it is useful to consider the likelihood of events in each case.

Scenario One: Suppose the Navy prevails. CVN-78 enters the fleet in 2019 conducting normal operations and alleviates pressure on the current carrier fleet. Or, CVN-78 enters the fleet in 2019 without shock testing and ends up in a combat situation in which it is attacked; the lack of shock trials leaves the ship’s crew unprepared for damage control.

Scenario Two: Now suppose Congress wins and the Navy conducts shock trials on CVN-78, potentially causing it to join the fleet in 2021. On one hand, the Navy will know a great deal more about the vulnerabilities of the ship and how it holds up to direct missile or mine detonations. On the other, the delay could cause problems. Two more years of a nine-carrier Navy could force the current carrier fleet beyond its limits. Components might break or reactors might act up. Strike groups could be forced to return home early, and carrier gaps would become common and long-lasting from 2018 to 2021. Sailors could quit, unconvinced that their political leadership takes their service seriously.

The risk inherent in increasingly frequent carrier presence gaps is difficult to measure but quite real. The utility of the Carrier Strike Group to American presidents is well-documented, from conducting deterrent patrols in the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis to immediately available combat power against the Islamic State and signaling missions in the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea. Continued investment by partners (France, Britain, India) and adversaries (China, Russia) also speaks to the carrier’s value in signaling, reassurance, deterrence, and warfighting.

Many members of Congress and Pentagon bureaucrats will be out of office by the time the possible consequences of their decision to delay Ford’s fleet entry, but key Navy admirals will be left to answer for problems previous Navy leaders fought hard to avoid.

Moving Forward

The question for policymakers remains whether they want to accept risk in exacerbating carrier presence gaps around a planet in turmoil to 2021, or accept (arguably less) risk in getting the Ford into the fleet in 2019 and allowing shock trials and modifications later?

While a larger carrier fleet is the right answer to address near and long-term problems of risk and demand, it would be exceedingly difficult to expand carrier presence by 2021 or even 2030 absent strong presidential and congressional leadership. To do so would require an investment not only in the carrier fleet (~$12 billion per ship), but also in expanding the current U.S. shipbuilding industrial base.

Until that opportunity arises of robust political leadership and greater resources, policymakers need alternative solutions to address the yawning carrier gap, worsening readiness problems, declining morale, and growing maintenance backlogs. While the Navy’s new O-FRP deployment plan exemplifies the ingenuity of military leadership, it too is fragile. If conflict breaks out elsewhere, if an accident occurs, or if Congress “accidentally” delays CVN-78 further over its myriad concerns about the ship, O-FRP will simply not be enough to compensate.

Maintaining an adequate number of aircraft carriers now requires foresight and tolerance of risk built upon congressional courage and presidential leadership. There is a workable solution at hand to put Ford into the fleet in 2019 and shift shock trials to the second ship in class. To avoid saddling the next administration with an inadequate number of available carriers, the secretary of the Navy and secretary of defense should request waiver authority to skip shock trials on the Ford and put the ball back in Congress’ court. This model of deferred shock trials has worked in the past, and the risks of overusing an undersized carrier fleet loom large over the next five years.


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. Rick Berger is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: U.S. Navy

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22 thoughts on “How Congress and the Pentagon Joined Forces to Worsen the Navy’s Carrier Gap

  1. If there is a real “carrier gap”, there are multiple ways to deal with it besides deferring shock testing. I understand and accept the utility of aircraft carriers, but the presumption in this piece is that the way the US has structured its carrier force is the only way to do it, and also that carriers are the only way to provide forward presence in hot spots around the world.

    For one thing, we don’t have to build such huge, complex new-tech-laden carriers as the Ford class with a cost approaching $13B and many years to deliver. Why not build more, smaller, simpler, and cheaper carriers instead? With the F-35B and its VTOL capability, smaller carriers make a lot of sense. As nice as it is to have all the bells and whistles of the Ford class, it’s certainly not necessary to have all those bells and whistles. We could very quickly close the carrier gap by building two or three small carriers for every Ford class carrier. Not saying terminate the Ford class, but in an era of limited funding and expanding challenges, we cannot simply rely on the taxpayer to forever open our wallets with no limit.

    Second, why do we need carriers in dangerous, cramped seas like the eastern Med and the Gulf area? Especially when we have long time allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.) located right there in relatively stable areas of the Middle East where we can forward deploy the same aviation assets that a Ford class carrier brings to the fight? Of course, deploying land based aircraft take some of the steam out of the Navy’s boilers, right? So is the Navy more concerned about building its fleet infrastructure than in satisfying the global mission requirements of the US military?

    To say that we live in a 15-carrier world is extremely narrow-minded. It’s not the carriers that protect us – its the aviation assets that do the protecting, and they don’t care much if they take off and land on a carrier or an air base. Carriers serve an important role, obviously, and can do things that land air bases can’t do, such as relocate themselves to the current hot spots. But we need to think strategically with a broader view of how and where we place our aviation assets, not just on maximizing the number of carriers at any one time.

    It seems to me that

    1. Oops, hit the enter key a little early and cut off my last thought.

      It seems to me that it is long past due that we strategically rethink how we base our aviation assets, and stop thinking in terms of Air Force vs. Navy (including Marines) and start thinking in terms of total aviation assets. Therefore it’s time start thinking about building small carriers again … not just because the smaller decks can carry the Marines’ F-35B, but also the drones which can be tailored relatively inexpensively to fly off of a wide variety of seagoing platforms.

      Carriers aren’t obsolete by a long shot – but the continuing focus by the senior Naval leadership, going back centuries, on “bigger is better” is simply not helpful. It wasn’t true in the days of wooden sailing ships, where fast Frigates proved to be much more useful that the big two and three-decker ships of the line, to the era of the dreadnaughts ending in World War Two … when the battleships were quickly proven obsolete with the arrival of hordes of bombers and submarines that could relatively easily and cheaply defeat the big expensive hunks of iron. Yet senior naval officers (abetted by their shipbuilders) never seem to lose that gleam in their eye as they dream of commanding ever bigger (yet more vulnerable) ships on the sea.

      1. Suggesting an analogy to Cavalry officers pre WWI resisting the consequences of barbed wire, machine guns, and tanks. More tonnage was devoted to shipping hay for horses to Europe than any other single item. Drones and many VTOL capable smaller ‘carriers’ (the term suggest what they transport–aircraft–is their main purpose not big guns) may be the wave of the future. Still, the big carriers do look good. I hope the politicos don’t undermine our defenses for the wrong reasons.

        1. It takes a Carrier group to keep the Straits of Hormuz open. It takes a destroyer to close them. And, we no longer need Middle Eastern Oil.

          Not our monkey. Not our circus.

          1. Actually, though, it shouldn’t. Confined and congested waters like the Persian Gulf are an awful place to put a carrier group. The only reason we’ve gotten into the habit is that until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, we didn’t have much in the way of (land)basing rights or airspace access north of Oman, and that was limited. Stuffing a carrier into the breach was a poor substitute for land-based air, but it was all we had at the time. Not so, anymore.

      2. When I was involved with advanced V/STOL fighter development in the ’80s, I read a lot on small carriers or “distributed carriers”, and came to the conclusion that they’re not really cheap, and they’re not necessarily as useful as they look.

        It’s argued that a V/STOL carrier doesn’t need the catapults, and the arresting gear of a conventional CVN. Outside of airshows, though, V/STOL jets usually fly a short-takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) profile, in order to get off the ground with a useful payload. That means you can eliminate the arresting gear, but some sort of launch assist, such as a catapult or a ski-jump, is still needed. Ski-jumps, of course, are mechanically simpler, but impose some limitations. A good 25% of the deck becomes unavailable for other uses, and I’m told there are some issues with shiphandling. STOVL operations are possible off small flat-deck ships, like assault ships, but at a penalty in fuel or weapons.

        The other big cost-driver for conventional carriers is the nuclear power system. One could certainly power a smaller carrier with fuel oil, but that imposes additional logistical requirements, so it’s another trade-off.

        All that would be fine if the operational utility was worth it. Unfortunately, most of the studies I’ve seen point out some other severe limitations. Smaller ships mean less space for jet fuel, munitions, and airplane parts — while carrying fewer aircraft, those spaces still take up proportionally more room than on larger ships. Conventional carriers already have issues with sustaining high-tempo air operations for more than 2-3 weeks; pocket carriers might not even be able to sustain a week, requiring more frequent resupply. Last, smaller carriers would still be high-prolife targets, and at the same time be less able to sustain battle damage.

        A pocket carrier thus becomes a rather expensive way to show the flag, while not providing much in the way of actual punch. We’d be better off developing a cruiser with a decent anti-surface/anti-air capability for missions that require the Navy to show its face, but don’t really need airplanes. And yes, stop squandering carriers on missions that land-based air can pick up.

        1. Warlock,

          There are certainly trade-offs involved with going with a larger number of smaller aircraft carriers as part of the fleet mix. It’s the never-ending argument between presence and capability that is raging with other naval ship types, such as the LCS vs. frigate argument. I believe the best answer is not all one vs. all the other, but rather it needs to be a sensible, calibrated mix.

          If we truly need 15 or 16 aircraft carriers and their supporting task groups to satisfy the mission requirements around the world, fine … finish the Ford, and build another one to come on line in the next 10 years .. and also build two or three smaller carriers instead of a third Ford class.

          With ships as well as with boats or aircraft of any kind, all other things being equal (including technology), you pay by the pound. And the pounds tend to go up as the cube of ship length. Even a modest reduction in length, to say 900 feet vs. the 1,106 ft length of the Ford, suggests a tonnage reduction on the order of 60-70%. For instance, the USS Oriskany, built in 1950 and served until 1976, with a length of 888 feet, displaced only 31,000 tons, as compared to the 100,000+ tons of the USS Ford.

          There is a great deal of complexity in the Ford that is not working well yet, though perhaps eventually it may. The catapults are not steam powered but electrostatic. The old steam powered catapults worked very well for many decades. Keep it simple on a smaller platform and the costs can be cut by a very large multiple. No R&D needed.

          Also, a smaller carrier, being cheaper and whose loss is much less significant in both dollars and lives in the event of battle destruction, will not merit the same size and capability of carrier task force escorts as does a Ford or Nimitz class carrier. With the increasing lethality of long range anti-ship missiles, ASW helicopters, and drone submarines (launched either from the choppers or an attack submarine as part of the task force escort), the number of ships needed to form a carrier task force will also be proportionally smaller and cheaper to buy and maintain.

          Finally, again, with drones and stand-off missile technology being what it is, we don’t necessarily need an air wing of 45-50 F/A-18s or F-35Cs plus other auxiliary aircraft to project power in every single battle scenario. Perhaps a single squadron of F-35 Bs and Cs plus drones is enough for a smaller hot-spot.

          Maybe not, but where is the research and analysis to say one way or the other? Not all risks are equal and therefore do not require equal responses … but today, the US naval air wing seems to use a “one (Super) size fits all” model.

          It just seems to some of us outside observers that the senior naval leadership seems intent on maximizing the number of large carriers without really considering the numerous options that modern technology can deliver, with still-considerable if not overwhelming capability, in order to provide a balanced mix of presence vs. capability.

          1. “Smaller” LHA “carriers are significantly smaller (and slower, and less robust) in capability vs. CVN. Study after study has evaluated the utility of both ships, and the larger CVN wins. Every time. People are fascinated by V/STOVL jets, but those jets are severely limited in range and payload compared to their CATOBAR brothers. And we actually need the CVW to have greater range than current aircraft can provide. Smaller “carriers” reduce striking range, and cannot embark the auxiliary aircraft (AEW, K-, and future UASs) that are necessary for the CSG to defend itself and project power. There really is no substitute for a CVN if US policy is to intervene at will.

          2. Chad – I’m not arguing that LHA = CVN. I am arguing that not every warfighting situation requires a CVN. And indeed, they don’t.

            If we only project power and ignore presence – which is the situation we most assuredly are in given then so-called “carrier gap” then we are doomed to permanent carrier gaps. We simply cannot afford to have 16 CVN task forces, period. The taxpayer and Congress isn’t going to support that. It isn’t supporting that now, and has not supported that ever in the past either. And the Ford class CVNs are greatly exacerbating the issue with their out of control and spiraling costs, now $13B and with many of the key systems still not working to requirements.

            We definitely need more LHAs to plug the gap to provide sufficient presence. The Navy leaders will then have to determine which scenarios require a CVN task force and which do not. I would submit it is a crazy waste of resources to place CVN task forces in the eastern Med or the Gulf, where they are incredibly vulnerable in enclosed spaces surrounded by bad guys in Iran, Syria, and possibly elsewhere if the Middle East continues to be restructured.

      3. there are 2 issues:

        In terms of the article, he is thinking of the position of 2019-2022, any strategic decision that says we will have more smaller CV / LHA and less CVN will not impact in that timescale. In that timescale what you have is what you have.

        However in that timescale we are building the America Class LHA which at 45,000 tons is bigger than any of the Aircraft Carriers of almost any other nation and will carry 20-25 F-35. The navy are paranoid about admitting they are in effect Marine Corp Aircraft Carriers, but they are. In the context of strikes into Libya from the Med that is what is being used now, and is bigger but similar to what would be provided by the Allied Italian or Spanish navy. If you want to protect special Forces or even a medium sized ashore intervention think Grenada or Somalia (Black Hawk Down) or striking into pretty much anywhere in Africa it is all that is required.

        In terms of the Gulf and ISIS, the big CVN provides independence from a logistic tail dependant on Suadi, today that is less of an issue because Saudi at least in theory is supportive of the strikes on ISIS. It was important in 2003-4 in terms of invasion of Iraq when Saudi was less supportive. However maybe that is an important lesson, you may want the ability to do things even if your allies in the region are opposed but maybe you should think twice before you do.

        In Western Pacific having a CVN parked off N Korea might give some flexibility and its and easy way for the Navy to justify its existence but with no shortage of air bases in Japan and S Korea there are other ways to provide air power.

        1. Dan,

          It’s interesting, and hasn’t been much discussed amidst all the other arguing over the airframe, but the Navy is ordering far fewer (about half as many) F-35s than the Marines. The USMC is going all in on the F-35 – mostly B models, but also 67 C models . The Navy seems more intent on buying more new models of the old 4th gen F/A 18 Super Hornets rather than the far more capable F-35C (not only is it a vastly superior multi-purpose fighter, it has about double the range of the Super Hornet, which is a really big deal when the enemy is practicing A2AD), which when one thinks on it, is rather strange. I think that is probably more readily explained by the old Naval maxim that the admirals are always well prepared for fighting the last war, rather than the next war.

          Historically the Navy has always resisted change … the Navy thought little of aviation and carriers in the 20s and 30s, preferring instead to waste vast sums of money on the Iowa class BBs which turned out to be nothing but bomb targets for the Japanese. The Navy also resisted submarines too, typically assigning them non- aggressor roles in the early days of WW Two, rather than unleashing them for aggressive actions against Japanese forces. Many were the Gato-class submarine captain and crew frustrated with assigned repeated missions to perform picket duty, weather watching, rescuing downed aviators, and landing frogmen on occupied islands rather than sinking Japanese capital ships including carriers. The brass back then thought that the “real navy” was made up of BBs. But it turned out that the carriers and subs did most of the heavy lifting throughout World War Two, even with the restrictions they often operated under.

          Today, it’s the big CVN skippers who seem to control the Navy, and they’re making the same mistakes vis a vis CVNs that their predecessors made vis a vis BBs.

          Something about having many tens of thousands of tons of steel under their feet seems to send naval commanders into flights of ecstasy, and seems to continue to define the egotistic hierarchy of naval bureaucracy. Warfighting capability, and proven performance in war, seems to always take a back seat to “mine’s bigger’n yours”.

          1. There were no organic aviation admirals until the late 1930’s; The Bureau of Aeronautics was led by ADM Moffett, a battleship captain, and later ADM King, a surface and submarine officer, and later CNO.

            In 1935, then CAPT William Halsey enrolled in flight school at age 52, so he could have the opportunity to command an aircraft carrier.

            Vice Admiral A.W. Johnson, a battleship captain and commander of the 1921 Naval Bombing Experiments (the event that Billy Mitchell used as a publicity stunt) recalled “It was Admiral Sir Percy Scott, the great gunnery expert of the Royal Navy who asserted that the new weapons [aircraft] made battleships obsolete. It was Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Fisher, First Lord of the Admiralty, father of the Dreadnought type of Battleship, who said that the surface battleship would be superseded by a submersible battleship. It was Admiral Scheer, Commander of the German High Seas Fleet in the Battle of Jutland, who asserted that battleships were obsolete. Like General Mitchell, they were more or less right, but when did battleships really become obsolete?” Carriers were vulnerable to night surface attack until night air wing operations became a regular occurrence later in the war; the last US battleship was retired 70 years, five wars, and numerous named operations, after GEN Mitchell declared it obsolete.

            328 aircraft were damaged or destroyed by the Japanese on December 7th. That doesn’t mean aircraft were obsolete, it means that fixed targets that are undefended are far easier to kill than mobile defended targets. Had the carriers been in port at the time, they too would have been easy targets.

            Williamson Murray devotes an entire chapter to carrier innovation and integration in Military Innovation in the Interwar Years. Aviation, surface, and subsurface were integrated into a combined arms formation. Why would the Navy Department fight so hard to resist GEN Mitchell’s single air service proposal if they feared or ridiculed such new technology?

            As for always preparing for the last war, while speaking at the Naval War College ADM Nimitz said “During the war, the war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise—absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war; we had not visualized those.” Kamikazes and that the final major naval engagement would happen off the Philippines, not Formosa. The Wargaming Department at Newport is still a thing.

            Naval Aviation leadership is intimately familiar with the strengths and limitations of both F-35C and FA-18EF. Neither aircraft is hamstrung by the STOVL requirement to operate from a big deck amphib. SCB-125 demonstrated that we can launch 70,000 pound jets off 40,000 ton ships. If you want small carriers, build proper small carriers with catapults and wires.

            As an aside, of the 504 aircrew rescued by US submarines, one went on to be both president and the father of a president.

    2. I tend to agree with what dtr says.
      there are other ways than to bemoan this situation. do we really need carriers for the daesh/Isis fight anyways? But assuming there is a legitimate need for carrier air due to the lack of landbased air alternatives and or flexibility, the issue of stretching things to a breaking point IS on the Navy. It needs to be honest with DOD about what all this means with respect to readiness. But the Navy has made robbing peter to pay paul a way of life. No one wants to say “no.”

      Personally, I argue that most of these “urgent” requirements for what nuclear powered airfields bring to the fight are the opposite of that. They are choices made by lazy combatant commanders and their masters in Washington. Forward presence does not mean permanent presence, it is meant for crises, not steady state. Steady state is why we have armies and air forces, unless the fight is in blue water in defense of VITAL national interests. I say we go on a carrier diet, cause behavior modification for the Cocoms and their operational laziness–use a reduced carrier force not only to save money but as a forcing function to cause some creative operational and even strategic thinking.
      Go to seven active carriers–plus one in a reserve status to train new aviators or drone operations. Use the savings to recapitalize our nuclear ballistic missile submarines and their weapons.
      John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
      CDR USN (retired)
      Author of _Agents of Innovation_

      1. That makes perfect sense but the people arguing that 9 or 10 is never enough and we really want 15, do not want 15 to give a certain amount of USA air power in a region they want a certain amount of US NAVY air power in the region. Admitting that if it is a long term need it can be provided from land bases would be seen as a failure. If the land bases are not there because the allies in the region are opposed to the operation, is that a signal to think through does it really need to be done.

  2. As a ship designer/builder/repairer/sailor, I cannot let this absurd argument pass without comment. The true break in tradition would be to FAIL to shock test a new class of ship. Designers of combatant ships do their level best to create a ship that can survive damage, within the obvious limitations that the ship must float and float upright. But every engineering calculation is only an estimate, based on known material properties and theoretical damage as experienced in past wars. The only way to truly know if the design is competent to withstand battle damage is to test it; I would argue that this especially true for a ship that, like the Ford, is designed with a completely new main armament system – in this case, the EMALS electromagnetic aircraft launching system.
    The U.S. Navy has not lost an aircraft carrier since WWII, when it last faced a peer power. I’m sure that the author would prefer to test ships in peacetime rather than personally write letters of condolence to the sailors’ next of kin. Skipping a shock test in order to maintain a given number of CVNs as a substitute for an adequate shipbuilding budget and force architecture structure is poor management indeed. Skipping this test on the first ship and finding failure points on the second ship of the class means you would now have two ships to retrofit, a bulge in the SCN budget no one has planned for.

  3. For the first time since the 60’s, North America is functionally energy independent. We no longer need to keep the peace in the Gulf.

    For the 1st time in 70 years there is not a Carrier Group constantly stationed in the Gulf. The new normal should be that we stay out of the Middle Eastern knife fight.

  4. Wow zero mention of forward basing and how reversing the all CONUS basing of our carriers is another solution to presense. This has been the approach taken in Asia and we should look toward Europe for additional forward basing.

    Beyond that if testing goes fine and given our naval leadership has said things are on track and its the best built first in class ship they have ever built there should be a low likelyhood of major set backs due to testing that would require a two year delay in deployment.

    More importantly shock testing has provide great cover to the issues with the new high tech launch and recovery systems that needless to say have done more to impact and put the country at risk than shock testing. The shock trials give the engineers more time to continue to try and fix and get the reliably system working so the ship can be accepted.

    Given the gap how the navy would pursue concurrence in what is aurguably the most important system on the ship warrants hearings and demotions for those responsible.

    Yet great job if failing to look at the whole picture and history of the development of the Ford. I would be curious who’s water you are carriing with this article. Is it the program manager or the systems managers or industry. Put up smoke to blame what has been a long delayed delivery on the need to actual complete EO&T.

    The last decade plus of procurement messes and many still haven’t learned. For once I am glad to see we are sticking to EO&T. Finally, we can find out the issues and force the builder to correct the problems instead of pay more latter to retrofit and repair.

    But I guess the writter likes the all the additional cost we have to modify and upgrade systems like the 177 F35 we have received to get them operational.

  5. Enjoyed the article. Glad this is staying in the discussion.

    A few notes on shock trials. First, the trials in question are Full Ship Shock Trials (FSST). That’s when the explosives are detonated in proximity to the ship. This tests the ship only, not the crew. This is only a small portion of preparing and testing a ship for shock. As noted in the article, individual components are tested rigorously with their own explosions prior to being incorporated into the ship. The foundations for that equipment are also tested, simulating a fully installed piece of equipment. The scale of the testing is dependent on the criticality of the system and how it is expected top function after a shock event (if it is expected to function, some things aren’t.) Second, there is an immense amount of modelling and analysis performed on all aspects of the ship. These simulations model forces in excess of anything FSST can subject the ship to, velocities and accelerations that would stand to cause real damage. FSST does not simulate the full shock load the Navy requires the ship to be designed to. If you want to know more about that, there’s actually a surprising amount of info out there in the public domain on how FSST, component shock testing, and the ‘real thing’ relate. Third and finally, I take issue with the statement in Scenario One of “the lack of shock trials leaves the ship’s crew unprepared for damage control.” While I will grant you that the potential failure modes of equipment could assist in damage control, the lion’s share of the crew’s training for damage control activities is embodied in seperate training. There is a large body of ship specific training, including a trial that includes testing the crew’s ability to enact damage control practices. It’s called Total Ship Survivability Trials (TSST.) USS Coronado completed her own TSST not too long ago, so some may have seen something on it. This trial includes the simulation of damage and assesses the crew’s ability to respond to the scenario and save their ship. It’s important to remember there are three legs to the ability of any ship to operate in a contested environment; susceptibility, survivability, and recoverability. FSST focuses primarily on survivability, damage control efforts focus on recoverability. This doesn’t mean to the exclusion of all else, but there are differences. (With susceptibility being more related to how ‘easily’ the ship can be detected and enagaged, where things like stealth, ECM, and such come into play.)

  6. For less 1/5th of the 2008-09 stimulus package we could have rebuilt our entire carrier fleet complete with airwings. Good paying American manufacturing jobs.

  7. It is not the carrier gap that worries me as much as the lack of capacity to close it even should the money be appropriated. America won its wars because it could produce weapons on a commodity basis and provide them to people who wanted to keep their nations free. Unfortunately, we got our political thinking muddled and started getting our people killed for lesser issues, and when this spawned a backlash the answer was not to straighten out our thinking, but rather to engineer ways to get fewer people killed pursuing these peripheral goals. When the next war with real national security, rather than a kinder world, implications arises we will find it difficult to field a force to fight the “away game”.