The Ford Class Carrier: Missiles, Money and Military Strategy

News came out in recent testimony that the acting US Secretary of the Navy is considering cancelling any future purchases of the Ford Class Carriers. This news contains several extremely important implications.

What Does the New Deal Mean?

First, there is a new Secretary of the Navy waiting for confirmation. This may change the plans a few months about being announced. One of the Democrats’ talking points against Trump has been his administration’s reliance on acting heads instead of confirmed heads. I find this argument weak because it tends to overestimate the importance of bureaucrats in national security. But this is a case where a temporary head can make pivotal decisions with lasting consequences, only to have the next head change them.

Second, the Ford class carriers are extremely expensive. A single ship can cost as much as 13 billion, and they are extremely complex to the point that the navy still hast trouble operating the existing ship. Once the teething issues are resolved the ships should be more reliable to operate. But, like the F35, that is still an expensive, non-actualized promise. As I discussed, building a greater number of inexpensive work horses and a fewer number of expensive and complex behemoths could be a better option. For example, a light carrier offers many of the advantages of a Ford class for only 3 billion. Which means the US can have four light carriers for every one Ford carrier if they go this route.

This would also mitigate the fear behind carrier killing and hyper sonic missiles and risk of a massive single loss (see below.) However, some analysts contend that operating a bunch of small carriers is more expensive, redundant, and less combat effective than operating a single large one.

Future Plans

Third, there will still be four of these carriers completed through 2032, in addition to the regular fleet, so they aren’t the massive waste as they are perceived, but they would form an important yet smaller part of the future fleet. Essentially the debate mirrors the one the air force is having over the upgrades to F15s or buying for F35s. The F35s are the plane of the future designed to stealthily penetrate air defenses, but they are also expensive, require significant new logistical support, and have significant weaknesses. The F15s are an aging plane but still excellent at air to ground and air to air combat. They have lower operating costs, bigger missile payload, and excellent dog fighting capabilities compared to the F35. Thus, the air force air force leaders want to operate both of them together so the F35 can penetrate air defenses and acquire targets that the F15 quickly pounds.

Advantages of the Ford Class Carriers

The Ford Class carriers have upgraded power generation that allow it to operate a full array of modern systems.  The radar for instance is the same kind found on Zumwalt class destroyers which make it better to detect incoming missiles. In theory at least, the ships are designed to be manned by fewer personnel and offer a wide array of advantages over traditional ships. In practice, they have been hard to operate and exhaust the crew. Overall they are costly per unit, and the kinks haven’t been worked out yet which means this decision could lead to a greater number of small ships piggy backing off the capabilities of a few Ford Class Carriers like the F15x as a low cost way to supplement the F35.

Motivations Behind Going With the New Fleet

Fourth, the buzz surrounding this decision suggests that American leaders are worried about fleets being vulnerable to the super and hyper sonic missiles fielded by potential adversaries like China and Russia. This reignites a long-held debate with two sides.  The first side argues that the new missiles represent a dangerous game changing technology. They are faster, harder to track, and designed to be part of a swarm that overwhelms existing missile defense technology. If a single missile hits an important asset like a carrier, especially the massively expensive Ford Class, it would represent a victory. The danger from this missile would result, like the Japanese that kept their super battleships in port during World War II, in the US keeping its fleet so far away from the conflict that they become 13 billion-dollar floating hotels sitting in ports.

The other side of the argument is that these supposedly game changing missiles are simply the newest versions of technology that have been around since World War II. There have been 70 years of advances and strategy developed to counter them. Many of these advances are built into the Ford Class Carriers. It has advanced launching capability that can facilitate 25% more combat sorties than Nimitz class carriers. As mentioned, it has the same advanced radar of Zumwalt class carriers, which are designed for missile protection. And the Ford Class carriers come with advanced close in defenses. In every category then, the Ford class carrier is the combination of the newest and most advanced technology designed to counter missiles. Moreover, its power generation is designed to accommodate technological upgrades such as lasers.

The discontinuation of the Ford class carrier is important. But it doesn’t mean the carrier was a failure or that they are deathly afraid of new missiles, only that the navy is seeking the best combination of limited resources to meet American missions and counter potential threats.