As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review approaches its release date in early February, rumors have been flying about a possible cut in the number of aircraft carriers that the U.S. Navy operates. The Fleet currently contains eleven carriers, but according to the rumors that could be reduced by the QDR to ten vessels, or even nine. Apparently nobody has shared these rumors with the Navy, though, because the 2011 shipbuilding plan will commit the service to sustaining eleven flattops through 2040.
Like the Air Force’s long-range bombers and mobility assets, large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are one of the things that make America’s joint force different from the militaries of other nations. While few experts question the value of carriers, there has been persistent debate about how many are needed and what mix of aircraft each carrier should be able to host. Most studies indicate that a reduction below the present number of eleven would significantly diminish the Navy’s ability to conduct forward presence, sea control, and other vital missions around the globe.
The Navy is developing a next-generation carrier designated the Ford class that will substantially improve on the capabilities of the existing Nimitz class. That wouldn’t be hard, because the Nimitz was conceived in the late 1960s, and the entire information revolution has unfolded since the lead ship in the class went to sea. While the Navy improves on-board technology with each new ship, the Ford class is the first opportunity the service has had in four decades to design an entirely new carrier. Among other things, the Ford class will generate three times as much electricity, sustain 25% more aircraft sorties per day, and reduce crewing requirements by over 500 personnel (resulting in a very big cost savings over time).
There is no chance at all that the QDR will cancel the Ford class, but Secretary Gates has directed that only one new carrier be funded every five years. Assuming a typical service life of 50 years, that would imply that eventually the number of flattops in the Fleet would fall to ten. However, the long-term arithmetic isn’t why rumors of a force-structure cut are making the rounds today. The rumors may reflect the fact that the aging Enterprise will retire years before the first Ford class joins the Fleet — a necessary step given the huge cost of refueling Enterprise’s eight nuclear reactors. But the resulting decrease to a force of ten carriers is temporary, and the Fleet should return to eleven carriers within three years. If it doesn’t, expect Congress to weigh in forcefully in support of sustaining eleven carriers.
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