Is It Time For The US Navy To Get Out Of The Supercarrier Business?

Wikimedia Commons

Capt. John Sidney McCain III, U.S. Navy (retired), has flown on and off a lot of carrier decks. And he thinks they're getting too damn big.

McCain — the longtime Republican senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee — wants the sea service to build smaller, lighter CVNs. The Navy should "pursue a new 'high/low mix' in its aircraft carrier fleet," he declared in a January white paper.

As it turns out, McCain might get his way: The Senate's planned 2018 defense budget pauses spending on a third Ford-class supercarrier and instead calls for "$30 million for the Navy for a preliminary design effort to create a light carrier for the service," according to U.S. Naval Institute News.

What gives? Even after the flap about its newfangled catapults and President Donald Trump's preference for "goddamned steam," the fancy, futuristic Ford class has been the pride of the service. And now some of Congress's biggest military hawks want to scale the program back in favor of more, smaller carriers?

The big problem, as Popular Mechanics' Kyle Mizokami points out, is that Ford carriers are expensive as hell, even by DoD standards. "The only supercarrier built in the last decade, USS Gerald R. Ford, is two years behind schedule, cost nearly $13 billion, was 22 percent over budget, and incurred $4.7 billion in research and development costs," Mizokami writes; the second entry in the ship line, the upcoming USS John F. Kennedy, is projected to be only incrementally cheaper. Some analysts have also said that cost isn't worth the flattops' vulnerability to a whole host of new standoff weapons, like ballistic missiles, guided cruise missiles, and "super-cavitating" torpedoes.

The answer, McCain says, is to toss the carrier fleet's "day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counterterrorism" to "a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier." In that January white paper, the senator challenged the Navy to deliver a light carrier platform by “the mid-2030s.”

If that idea of a "high-low" mix of naval platforms sounds familiar, it's because it comes from McCain's old Navy days, in the 1970s. The chief of naval operations at the time, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, sought to balance big sub and carrier purchases with large quantities of smaller escort ships that could screen out threats to the carrier group. The result was the abundant Oliver Hazard Perry class of guided missile frigates, the last of which left active service just two years ago. (And not for nothing, but the Navy has discussed bringing some of those tin cans back off their mothballs in recent months.)

Lighter carriers, too, have a history in the service, Mizokami points out — as the U.S. pumped out new nuclear-powered Nimitz flattops in the 1970s and 80s, it continued to rely on smaller, conventional carriers of a World War II vintage for power projection — think USS Midway and Coral Sea, among others.

On the plus side, the Marine Corps' and Navy's F-35B and C fighter-jet variants have vertical- and short-takeoff capabilities, which could make smaller carrier decks feasible. But the services have to figure out how not to starve those F-35 pilots of breathable oxygen before drawing up a new billion-dollar-busting delivery ship.

So how realistic is this small-batch artisanal aircraft carrier plan? Who knows? McCain is a man who knows how to push a defense program through Congress, and his plan starts small.But shipbuilders are already working on more Burke destroyers, Virginia submarines, and Ford carriers, and the Navy's long-term planners are dealing with active ops from Syria to Southwest Asia.

To get a new platform in the mix is hard in the most peaceful of times. To do it when everyone's this busy may be, as they say in the sea service, a stern chase.


(U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stephane Belcher)

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would allow service members to seek compensation when military doctors make mistakes that harm them, but they would still be unable to file medical malpractice lawsuits against the federal government.

On Monday night, Congress announced that it had finalized the NDAA, which must be passed by the House and Senate before going to President Donald Trump. If the president signs the NDAA into law, it would mark the first time in nearly seven decades that U.S. military personnel have had legal recourse to seek payment from the military in cases of medical malpractice.

Read More Show Less
Maj. Jason Michael Musgrove (Lincoln County Sheriff's Office)

A major serving at U.S. Army Cyber Command has been charged with distributing child pornography, according to the Justice Department.

Maj. Jason Michael Musgrove, who is based at Fort Gordon, Georgia, has been remanded to the U.S. Marshals service, a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia says.

Read More Show Less
Maj. Mathew Golsteyn and 1st Lt. Clint Lorance (U.S. Army photos)

President Donald Trump, speaking during a closed-door speech to Republican Party of Florida donors at the state party's annual Statesman's Dinner, was in "rare form" Saturday night.

The dinner, which raised $3.5 million for the state party, was met with unusual secrecy. The 1,000 attendees were required to check their cell phones into individual locked cases before they entered the unmarked ballroom at the south end of the resort. Reporters were not allowed to attend.

But the secrecy was key to Trump's performance, which attendees called "hilarious."

Riding the high of the successful event turnout — and without the pressure of press or cell phones — Trump transformed into a "total comedian," according to six people who attended the event and spoke afterward to the Miami Herald.

He also pulled an unusual move, bringing on stage Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who Trump pardoned last month for cases involving war crimes. Lorance was serving a 19-year sentence for ordering his soldiers shoot at unarmed men in Afghanistan, and Golsteyn was to stand trial for the 2010 extrajudicial killing of a suspected bomb maker.

Read More Show Less
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Charles McGee (center), a decorated veteran of three wars, receives a congratulatory a send off after visiting with 436 Aerial Port Squadron personnel at Dover Air Force Base to help celebrate his 100th birthday in Dover, Delaware, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Associated Press/David Tulis)

Retired Col. Charles McGee stepped out of the small commercial jet and flashed a smile.

Then a thumbs-up.

McGee had returned on a round-trip flight Friday morning from Dover Air Force Base, where he served as co-pilot on one of two flights done especially for his birthday.

By the way he disembarked from the plane, it was hard to tell that McGee, a Tuskegee Airman, was turning 100.

Read More Show Less
The aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Strike Groups and ships from the Republic of Korea Navy transit the Western Pacific Ocean Nov. 12, 2017. (U.S. Navy/ Lt. Aaron B. Hicks)

Editor's Note: This article by Matthew Cox originally appeared, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The new acting secretary of the Navy said recently that he is open to designing a fleet that is larger than the current 355-ship plan, one that relies significantly on unmanned systems rather than solely on traditional gray hulls.

Read More Show Less