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Possible Savings from Decreasing the Aircraft Carrier Battle Fleet October 8, 2009

Posted by Stephen Abott in Analysis.
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air craft carrierWhile the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will not likely be released until early next year the rumor mill is humming. One of the largest procurement issues seemingly under consideration within the Pentagon is a proposal to decrease the number of aircraft carriers from today’s 11 to 8 or 9. While the strategic necessity for 11 carriers is up for debate and the issues of forward basing and the usefulness of aircraft carriers are regularly examined in military journals and studies, the budgetary impact of shrinking the carrier force seems to be left out of the discussion. The cost savings from shrinking the carrier force are undeniable, likely exceeding $47 billion over thirty years. Thus, an examination of the monetary savings resulting from shrinking the carrier force by two ships puts the rest of the debate in a different light and allows for a better weighing of costs and benefits.

The Navy currently plans to build seven Ford Class nuclear aircraft carriers over the next 30 years. This comes out to a new carrier nearly every four years.  By lowering this to five carriers and thus a steady state of 9 carriers, the Navy would procure a new ship every six years instead. The CBO estimates that each carrier costs approximately $11.2 billion, not including regular overhauls that will cost billions more over the life of the ship. Thus, at its face, the Navy could save at least $22.4 billion over 30 years if it decreased the carrier force by two, equivalent to two years of average naval ship procurement spending between FY 2003 and FY 2008.

The Navy could also decrease expected procurement of support and strike vessels, those that constitute each carrier’s battle group. While other naval vessels do not sail solely within Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) (many ships often steam alone or in mission-defined task forces) they are regularly attached to one. Thus, a decrease in carrier procurement could   allow for fewer strike and support vessels.

The exact makeup of each CSG varies, as it depend on the CSG’s specific mission, but they   generally consist of: 1 carrier and its air wing, 1-2 guided missile cruisers, 2-3 guided missile destroyers, 1-2 nuclear attack submarine, one or more frigates or other smaller ships, and support vessels. By cutting two CSGs, the Navy may be able to procure 2-4 fewer cruisers, 4-6 fewer destroyers, and two fewer submarines, along with cuts to support ships over the next 30 years (assuming a 30 year service life). Additionally, increased operational tempo could allow the Navy to require fewer ships to maintain or increase its deployments.  (Were the Navy to deploy other ships in place of a carrier, of course, this could reduce the savings.) This corresponds to at least $24.6 billion and possibly over $41.1 billion in decreased ship procurement, than originally planned by the Navy, over 30 years. A decrease of two CSGs would thus lead to total savings of at least $47 billion over 30 years, or the equivalent of more than four years of naval ship procurement. These savings do not include the billions that would come from the non-procurement of supply ships and carrier air wings, along with cuts in operations costs, all of which would save billions of dollars each.



1. Hank Gaffney - October 9, 2009

Once more, all this numerology tells us that we in the U.S. never have figured out a way to determine the number of ships the U.S. Navy is to have (I don’t say “should have” — that would be stretching it). McNamara could never figure it out in his DPMs. It seems simple to “have” so many carriers (and their air wings) and then to circle them with a screen of so many surface combatants. This never quite accounted for all those convoy escorts the U.S. bought — who knows where that number came from. And everybody knows that the CSG worked up together, both in the Cold War and after, and then, upon arriving overseas, scattered all over the place, including surface combatants to the Persian Gulf. Later, with the discovery of conventional land-attack Tomahawks, the surface combatants took on lives of their own (except that, of the 19,000 air weapons dropped on Iraq in 2003, only 802 were Tomahawks, while we have at least 7400 tubes on SSNs and surface combatants that can launch Tomahawks, and then added a few more with the SSGNs. The bottom line probably is still the overall defense budget, as determined over there in the Office of the President (OMB), followed by whatever division of the funds supports what we’ve had before, i.e., the service institutions, within which they figure out how many ships or aircraft or whatever they can fit into that budget. If they mess up that acquisition, as the Navy did when it decided to replace practically all ship types at once, then they get fewer ships than they had before. Does that make any difference? It is very hard to figure out…

2. douglas siegfried - October 31, 2009

decressing naval air would be a mistake the us since world war two has been the navy of the world every country in the world at one time or another has reousted help from us naval air in defense search and rescue or even as a way to deteru attack from other country takeing air power away is saying were weak as a country try to take the money from the over paid politicans they asked to be their way get paid so much are military cant be cut in times like this we should be making are military stonger try to combine all under one branch like in world war two army navy marines and airforce would do better as just us unifide defens

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