Navy Launches New Aircraft Carrier Study to Find Cost Savings

Navy leaders have launched a study to find ways to lower the costs of aircraft carriers, explore alternatives to the big-deck platforms, and increase competition among vendors.

The Navy study is expected to last about a year and will examine technologies and acquisition strategies for the long-term future of Navy big-deck aviation in light of a fast-changing global threat environment, service officials said.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers, the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials said.

The effort gained momentum and attention after Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Chief of Naval Operations to increase competition in the process of building aircraft carriers and look into whether other technologies or platforms might be needed to counter emerging and future threats.

The Navy’s high-tech first Ford-class aircraft carrier, slated for delivery in March of next year, is widely known for cost overruns that brought the eventual cost of the platform to $12.8 billion.

“With the first three Ford-class carriers, despite cost-overruns of more than $2 billion each, this program has not exceeded the cost cap in the last three years,” McCain said. The cost overruns with the Ford-class carriers have resulted in constant scrutiny from lawmakers and government watchdog groups.

“We must also carefully examine the future aircraft carrier fleet and the carrier air wing – $12 billion or more for one ship is simply too expensive. We must do even more to reduce costs and increase competition within the aircraft carrier program. And as challenges to American power projection grow, we must chart a path to achieve unmanned strike capability from our aircraft carriers,” McCain said in written testimony.

Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer for carriers, told reporters the Ford effort has been on track controlling costs in recent years. He cited a handful of potential explanations for the cost overruns such as efforts to integrate new technologies on an aggressive time table. He also said cost increases resulted from a “first-in-class” ship beginning construction before design work was finished and materials were in place.

“We have learned a lot on the 78 (USS Ford). Nobody is satisfied with the cost performance of the 78. There are a lot of reasons why we got to where we are – some of those are self-inflicted wounds on the things we could have done better. Certainly things were a direct result of the decision to accelerate all the new technologies onto this first ship when they were originally supposed to go on three ships. We were asked to bring the new technology on sooner,” Moore explained.

Moore said the Navy and Huntington Ingalls-Newport News Shipbuilding are on track to build the follow-on Ford –class carrier, the USS Kennedy, for more than $1 billion less than the USS Ford at $11.4 billion.

Responding to questions about the study, Moore said the Navy will evaluate ways to increase competition in the carrier construction process.

“Newport News is the only person capable of building a Ford Class carrier. He (McCain) has asked us to go back and look at whether there are other things out there that would meet our needs and introduce competition. We are happy to respond to the chairman. My understanding is that OPNAV (Navy Operations) will go conduct a study for the chairman with another look at whether there are alternatives that the Navy can use,” Moore said.

While making a point not to characterize the nature or content of the ongoing Navy study,Moore explained that an “exhaustive” analysis of numerous alternatives was completed about 20-years ago before the Navy embarked upon the mission to build the Ford-class carriers. He indicated that many of those key analytical questions would likely be analyzed in the ongoing study with a mind to today’s high-tech global environment.

Part of this analysis is likely to fall along the lines of assessing new and emerging threats to carriers such as anti-ship cruise missiles designed to restrict the distances from shore at which carriers can operate.

"Senator McCain believes it is very important to be taking a look at this given what the Ford-class carriers are going to cost and the changing environment they will be operating in. These are important issues for the Navy to be examining,” Dustin Walker, SASC’s spokesman told

Regarding the potential evaluation of alternatives to carriers, some analysts have raised the question of whether emerging technologies and weapons systems able to attack carriers at increasingly longer distances make the platforms more vulnerable and therefore less significant in a potential future combat environment.

For example, the Chinese military is developing a precision-guided long-range anti-ship cruise missile, the DF-21D, a weapon said by analysts to have ranges up to 900 nautical miles. While there is some speculation as to whether it could succeed in striking moving targets such as aircraft carriers, analysts have said the weapon is in part designed to keep carriers from operating closer to the coastline.

In addition, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional panel of experts, recently published a detailed report on the state of Chinese military modernization. The report cites the DF-21D along with numerous other Chinese technologies and weapons.

The commission points out various Chinese tests of hypersonic missiles as well. Hypersonic missiles, if developed and fielded, would have the ability to travel at five times the speed of sound – and change the threat equation regarding how to defend carriers from shore-based, air or sea attacks.

“Some countries, China particularly, but also Russia and others, are clearly developing sophisticated weapons designed to defeat our power-projection forces,” said Frank Kendall, the Pentagon acquisition chief said in a written statement to Congress in January. “Even if war with the U.S. is unlikely or unintended, it is quite obvious to me that the foreign investments I see in military modernization have the objective of enabling the countries concerned to deter and defeat a regional intervention by the U.S. military.”

At the same time – despite these concerns about current and future threat environments, carriers and power projects – few are questioning the value, utility and importance of Navy aircraft carriers. The current Navy plan is for the Ford-class carriers to serve into the next-century to 2110, Moore said.

The Navy is working on number of next-generation ship defenses such as Naval Integrated Fire Control –Counter Air, a system which uses Aegis radar along with an SM-6 interceptor missile and airborne relay sensor to detect and destroy approaching enemy missiles from distances beyond the horizon. The integrated technology is slated to deploy this year.

The service specifically engineered Ford-class carriers with a host of next-generation technologies designed to address future threat environments. These include a larger flight deck able to increase the sortie-generation rate by 33-percent, an electromagnetic catapult to replace the current steam system and much greater levels of automation or computer controls throughout the ship, among other things.

The ship is also engineered to accommodate new sensors, software, weapons and combat systems as they emerge, Moore explained.

The ship’s larger deck space is, by design, intended to accommodate a potential increase in use of carrier-launched unmanned aircraft systems in the future, such as the Navy’s now developing Unmanned Carrier Launched Aircraft Surveillance and Strike system.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at