Scrap the Truman? Make Your Case, Navy

USS Harry S. Truman, CVN 75. Navy Photo.

Despite 12 years of work for the Virginia shipyard where these magnificent beasts are born, maintained and where they go to die, I am no expert on nuclear aircraft carriers.  Political games around budgets, however? There I have a bit of experience.

A few years back the United States Navy made what appeared to be a serious effort to retire the USS George Washington at the mid-point of its life, but it fizzled, and the ship is currently undergoing the overhaul needed for an additional 25 years of service.  The work is employing thousands of craftsmen and contractors and consuming plenty of taxpayer dollars.   

Now the Navy is trying again, this time proposing in the new federal budget to defer the scheduled overhaul of the next carrier in line, the USS Harry Truman, CVN 75, commissioned in 1998.  The argument once again is that these capital ships are highly vulnerable to submarines and hypersonic missiles, and the dollars spent on Truman’s maintenance and crews over the next 25 years could be better used elsewhere.

The editorial response was predictable, with  Norfolk’s The Virginian-Pilot and the Richmond Times-Dispatch among those to weigh in so far.  The state’s political delegation is brushing off the economic talking points from the fight over the Washington.  Being naturally contrarian (and having sold my shipyard stock), I wonder.   The economic benefit to Virginia is meaningless, a distraction even (there go my tickets to any future christening.)

The story first broke in the Washington Post and was then fleshed out in a defense industry organ, Breaking Defense, which quoted former deputy defense secretary Robert Work saying,

“We would end up with a smaller, but younger fleet…. Secretary [Bob] Gates made a decision to move to five-year [gaps between carriers], which would ultimately result in a 10-carrier fleet around 2040. So we are still on that path… “A 10-carrier, nine Carrier Air Wing force sounds about right to me,” said Work, who pushed for the Pentagon to embrace new strategies and technologies against high-end threats, “as technological uncertainty over the carrier’s vulnerability continues to be high.”

An American Nimitz-class carrier and a British Invincible-class carrier. The new HMS Queen Elizabeth II is closer in size, but still almost 200 feet shorter. Click to expand.

These ships are wonderful examples of American technology, unmatched by allies or enemies, providing important mission platforms in an era when fewer and fewer countries will accommodate our forces inside their borders.  But as I learned when my son joined the USAF, some engineers build weapons and some build targets.  If the gold braids and their wonks – with access to intelligence data we’ll never see – are telling us the carriers are easy prey in the current combat environment, we’d be idiots not to pay attention to them.

Then again, our approach to military spending is often idiotic, with the lust for contact dollars and the economic boost from a military installation overpowering strategic considerations.

A bit of background, because all this aside, this ships are incredibly cool, and I never passed up a chance to ask questions about them or board one.  The ten Nimitz-class carriers all have a design life of 50 years, but to get there need a new load of nuclear fuel at 25 years.  The Ford-class carriers (number two, the future USS John F. Kennedy, CVN 79, is under construction now) will have the same life cycle.

While in the shipyard for new fuel, the Navy and NNS give each ship a complete make-over, from the radars and other electronics to the galleys to the catapult and arrest systems.  It takes more than three years but the ship leaves as the most up-to-date in the fleet.  As mentioned, the Washington (CVN 73) is going through that now,  the Stennis (CVN 74) should be next, and then the Truman.

Newport News Shipbuilding is also where the ships are retired, or at least de-nuclearized, and without the reactors they aren’t going anywhere.  The first carrier, the USS Enterprise, CVN 65, is gutted and rusting at a pier there, and next in line for retirement is the USS Nimitz.  The economic benefit of having all this done in Virginia largely by Virginians is massive.

If this is just a game by the Navy to turn the Truman into a budget bargaining chip, then shame on the admirals for trying to fool us a second time.  Here are some questions I would ask if given a crack at them.

If the carriers are so vulnerable as to be a liability in a shooting war with a well-equipped enemy (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea), why did the Navy just sign a contract with NNS to build not one, but two more versions of the Ford class?  Especially since the U.S.S. Gerald Ford, CVN 78, is still dealing with major glitches that prevent it from deploying in the foreseeable future.

Just what force structure will you build instead with the billions saved over 25 years by retiring one carrier early, or the billions more saved by shrinking the carrier fleet further?  Will it be a more dramatic move into autonomous weapons in all battle spaces?  To be blunt, is there an actual plan?

Newport News Shipbuilding is also engaged in building two naval weapons systems with value nobody questions, Virginia-class attack submarines and the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.  Is that the next direction?

The ease with which the Washington retirement threat was reversed, the lack of any major public case made to justify a move away from the carrier-centered surface warfare strategy, then, now or in the future, feed the impression this is just more budget poker.  Budget poker is a stupid game.  Planning and building the right fleet for the next war is a vital exercise.  Given that we remain a maritime nation and our wars are always Navy wars, a very detailed, frank and public debate is called for.

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6 responses to “Scrap the Truman? Make Your Case, Navy”

  1. …and here I thought rising sea level was the greatest existential threat to Norfolk. I did not consider hypersonic missles.

  2. Back before World War II, a lot of people still thought that battleships should form the core of the Navy. Pearl Harbor pretty well demolished that idea. During the war in the Pacific, battleships did little more than serve as floating anti-aircraft barriers and, occasionally, bombarding the crap out of coral islands. Aircraft carriers ruled.

    It should surprise no one that in a world of continuously evolving technology, aircraft carriers might lose their dominance, just as battleships did. Submarines have always been a threat to carriers, but they can be defended against. I don’t have the competence to judge whether there is any defense against a volley of hypersonic missiles. What’s the word on rail guns? Can they spit out projectiles with sufficient accuracy to knock out hypersonic missiles?

    As an armchair strategist, I have one other question. If the U.S. wants to project force to other parts of the world, what alternative to aircraft carriers — other than establishing military bases — is there?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s the problem:

    and we do this while our own needs for health care and infrastructure is not being met.

    we have no choice in our role in the world – but like roads and indeed health care – there will never be enough money to do all that you want to do – and warships these days are giant targets of not only planes and missiles but drones.. of all kinds air, sea and underwater.

    Think in terms of “smart” autonomous torpedos that lie on wait or trail a ship – waiting to strike. This is why US warships these days are in extreme danger when they are in ports… or in waters close to land.

    We are using drones ourselves these days – to actually take out automobiles travelling at 60 mph. Think about that, if we can do that – then others can also… so what does that mean for warfare in general – it’s totally changed and our warships now in the 21st century are akin to the warships of 1800 when modern guns and submarines came to be.

    That matters not to most localities like Hampton. They just want the jobs. They really don’t care if the country is going broke buying too much warfighting equipment; that’s someone elses problem.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Less than $25 billion of that is for ship construction and repair, Larry. More on the new Navy budget request here.

      Jim’s right, there is no good substitute for the large deck carrier for missions which do not involve war against a well-equipped enemy. For war against a weak enemy (and the game is to avoid any fair fights), for humanitarian response, a little gunboat diplomacy, the carrier is unsurpassed.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Carriers in the era of drones, cheap missiles and satellites are giant targets though and they need a virtual armada of other boats and places to provide them with an “umbrella”.

    That’s pretty costly…

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Yes, Larry, the full life cycle cost of one carrier group with its escorts and air group and full personnel costs would probably exceed the annual defense budget of some of the countries on that budget chart you cited. Those who consider them dinosaurs, kept alive for economic value and because it’s just what we do, they should make their case. This blog is not the forum, and its readers are not the experts, but I think that debate is essential.

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