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Is a U.S. Fleet of Ten Supercarriers Sustainable? Rapidly Rising Costs of Warships and Naval Aircraft Could Force a Reduction in the Fleet's Size

August 04th - 2018

Having commissioned the USS Gerald Ford in July 2017, the first supercarrier of the Gerald Ford Class, the United States Navy is reportedly planning to induct ten of the gargantuan next generation warships the art warships to replace the ageing Nimitz Class carriers over the coming two decades. Displacing 100,000 tons each, the new supercarrier class is highly similar to its predecessor in its size, role and appearance. The ships do however deploy more sophisticated technologies such as state of the art electromagnetic catapult systems - replacing the less effective steam catapults of the Nimitz Class, a more efficient A1B nuclear reactor, new arresting gear and an advanced dual band radar. Though a considerable improvement to the original supercarrier design, the Gerald Ford Class' capabilities represent more of an update to a tried and tested concept rather than a revolutionary or game changing new one - and with the Nimitz Class ships requiring replacement in the coming decades the Gerald Ford is set to adequately provide this without making any major changes to way the Navy carries out carrier operations. The warship's endurance, carrying capacity, speed, range and other essential capabilities all remain essentially unchanged. What would otherwise be a smooth transition from operating the Nimitz Class to its more modern successor however may well be disrupted by the inhibitive and outstanding cost of the new carrier class, which brings the Navy's ability to afford a ten carrier fleet to fully replace the Nimitz Class into serious question. 

While the USS Gerald Ford was estimated to cost over $13 billion, making it the most expensive warship ever built by a considerable margin, future Ford Class carriers are set to cost considerably more per ship despite being built in large numbers. The fourth of the nuclear powered warships, the yet unnamed carrier CVN-81, is set to cost the U.S. Navy $15 billion to commission - though costs may again fall for later warships. The reasons for the CVN-81’s considerably greater cost relative to the first Gerald Ford Class ship remain uncertain, but it is notable that negligible savings have been realised across the program contrary to what had been expected as the design matured. While the cost of the upcoming supercarrier represents a considerable increase over the original warship, the discrepancy is greatest when considering the cost both of foreign built carriers and of the preceding and highly similar Nimitz Class. The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), the final Nimitz Class warship built, would accounting for inflation cost approximately $6.5 billion to acquire today - meaning the new supercarrier is to set the U.S. defence budget back 100-133% more per warship without a considerable increase in capabilities. 

When considering the cost of acquiring combat aircraft for the new carriers, with the F-35C and F-18E Block III fighters and MQ-25 drones that will support them costing considerably more than their predecessors deployed by the Nimitz Class both to acquire and to operate, the cost of the new Gerald Ford Class may well amount to several times that of its predecessor. The F-35C single engine stealth fighter, designed exclusively to deploy from the new supercarriers, faces a combination of considerable cost overruns in its development and some of the very highest maintenance requirements of any fighter in the world - surpassed only by the F-22 and F-35B. With a relatively small order being placed compared to its ground based variant the F-35A, the carrier based stealth jet will not benefit from considerable economies of scale in production. Not only is each fighter set to cost the U.S. Navy several million if not tens of millions of dollars to operate annually, but the aircraft's final acquisition cost could well be 50% more than the A variant - at over $120 million where the F-35A's cost per unit is set to fall to approximately $80 million as it enters full production. While a final price is yet to be revealed the MQ-25 stealth drones, which are increasingly critical to supporting fighter operations in contested theatres such as the Pacific, and FA-18E Block III fighters, given the technologies they are set to integrate, are also projected to be considerably more costly than the fighters deployed by the Nimitz Class warships. These factors have considerable implications for the U.S. Navy's ability to afford the commissioning of the ten Ford Class ships as initially planned.

Not only is the USS Gerald Ford far more costly than the preceding Nimtz Class ship, but it is also significantly more expensive to acquire and operate than carrier platforms planned for service in growing numbers by rival powers. With Chinese carriers, despite their smaller size, being commissioned for approximately $4 billion each, and with Russia itself considering the commissioning of a supercarrier projected to cost under $6 billion, the Gerald Ford Class may well have eliminated the price competitiveness of the American warships - with dire implications as it faces two near peer adversaries with plans for a rapid expansion of their carrier fleets. With China set to deploy seven carriers by 2025, possible several more in future, and with Russia itself likely to deploy its new carriers to the Pacific theatre, the last thing the United States and its allies currently need when attempting to maintain a favourable balance of power in the strategically critical region is a shrinking carrier fleet. Given the apparently poor cost effectiveness Gerald Ford Class carrier program relative to its predecessor the Nimitz Class, and the inability of the U.S. Navy's budget to increase at a rate which can match that at which the price of replacement weapons systems has increased, it is a distinct possibility that America could for the first time in decades see its supercarrier fleet shrink below ten warships once the last Nimitz Class ship is retired.

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