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US Navy’s 2020 Budget Opens Debate on Future of the Aircraft Carrier

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US Navy’s 2020 Budget Opens Debate on Future of the Aircraft Carrier

Proposals would reduce carrier fleet from 11 to 10 and invest in new capabilities.

US Navy’s 2020 Budget Opens Debate on Future of the Aircraft Carrier
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Matt Hildreth courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries/Released)

The U.S. Department of Defense released its proposed 2020 budget on Tuesday. The Navy’s budget confirmed stories that emerged in the last few weeks that the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman would not have its nuclear reactor refueled in 2024 as previously planned.

Without a mid-life refueling the Truman will have to be retired and decommissioned later in the 2020s, nearly 25 years shy of its designed 50-year service life. If the Truman’s early retirement is approved by the U.S. Congress, it would leave the U.S. Navy with 10 aircraft carriers over most of the next three decades.

Key U.S. congressional leaders have already signaled that they are unlikely to support the Navy’s proposal this year, but both the Navy and Congress have until the 2021 budget to make final decisions before the Truman’s refueling would be impacted.

On its face, the decision to retire the aircraft carrier early frees up billions of dollars for the U.S. Department of Defense to invest in newer, more distributable, and likely unmanned platforms that the Pentagon believes will be more important in future conflicts than having an extra aircraft carrier available. Some long-time budget watchers, however, see the move as a bureaucratic tactic by the Navy to placate skeptical Pentagon officials while betting that the U.S. Congress will force the Navy to keep the Truman for its full service life anyway.

Breaking Defense first learned that the U.S. Navy was proposing to defer refueling the USS Harry S. Truman’s nuclear reactor, forcing its early retirement. This news puzzled Washington insiders because it would effectively reduce the United States’ carrier fleet to 10 for most of the next three decades instead of 11. The planned 11-carrier fleet was already somewhat controversial because the U.S. Navy’s own published force structure requirements say it needs 12 carriers to meet its mission requirements and the U.S. Congress has mandated not only that the Navy maintain at least 11 active carriers but also to work towards a steady 12-carrier fleet.

Foreign Policy reports that the deferred refueling was necessary to secure former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ support for the Navy buying two Ford-class carriers at once. Secretary Mattis was of the view that aircraft carriers were becoming too vulnerable against Chinese and Russian advances in long-range missiles and hypersonic weapons. The U.S. Navy decided that it would rather have a smaller, newer fleet of aircraft carriers whose service lives could extend into the 2070s than ensuring a larger fleet through the 2030s-and-40s. The two new carriers will be delivered in 2028 and 2032.

Acting-Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s focus since taking over from Mattis in January has been on “China, China, China,” and ensuring that the U.S. military was organizing and equipping itself to face the PLA’s increasingly advanced capabilities. Retiring the Truman will allow the Defense Department to invest in new capabilities that can operate against China in places that carriers are becoming too vulnerable, and whose loss in combat would not have the same disastrous impact as losing a multi-billion ship with thousands of people onboard.

A U.S. defense official explained to Foreign Policy that the deal was not about saving construction or refueling costs, but an expression of uncertainty about the aircraft carrier’s role in coming decades, saying “do you believe in the year 2040, 20 years from now, that carriers are still going to be relevant?”

These questions about the role of aircraft carriers in the coming decades stem from a suite of faster, longer-ranged, and more precise weapons being developed by Russia and especially by China.

China has pursued long-range, high-speed, maneuverable ballistic weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 to use against ships and subsequently dubbed “carrier killers.” In addition, China is working on a range of other hypersonic anti-ship weapons, including so-called “boost-glide” and “waverider” designs. These weapons’ effectiveness against real, moving ships at-sea is unknown, but if they are, they represent a threat that U.S. carriers have never faced, and against which there are still only uncertain defenses.

None of this means that carriers are becoming entirely irrelevant, but that they may have substantially less utility in their current primary missions in places China can effectively target and inundate with these new high-speed weapons (which is why they are considered “area denial” weapons).

In this respect, aircraft carriers may be entering a period analogous to that of the battleship between the world wars. At the end of World War I, heavy battleships armed with massive guns were the measure of every navy in the world. At the outset of World War II just 20 years later, the aircraft carrier, whose planes could reach out hundreds of miles instead of a battleship gun’s 20-mile range, was the dominant expression of naval power.

The battleships in major navies’ fleets were not irrelevant, but they were largely relegated to support missions providing shore bombardment to the army and marines, or providing anti-aircraft and surface defense for the aircraft carriers that displaced them as the fleet’s centerpiece. As useful as the battleships were in these support roles, they were not necessarily cost-effective platforms to conduct them either, and after the war the giant ships mostly disappeared from the world’s fleets.

The Ford-class carriers each cost around $14 billion to build, several billion more to outfit, and around a billion dollars to operate each year. This is not to mention the 5,000 people that make up each ship’s crew and air wing. This extraordinary investment means that protecting the carriers is one of the rest of the fleet’s most important jobs. It also means that as the carriers become more expensive and exquisite, the tolerance for exposing them to operational risk gets lower.

As potential peer adversaries’ weapons get faster, more maneuverable, and longer ranged, it may soon be the case that the only way to ensure the United States’ carriers’ safety is to keep them out further away from the most contested zones. In their place, the U.S. Navy and will send optionally-manned and un-manned vehicles, and new, longer-ranged precision strike weapons systems. In a nod to the high-threat environments they are envisioned to operate in, the Navy’s budget describes these unmanned systems as “attritable options.” But aircraft carriers still have strong advocates in Congress and the Navy, and integrating new unmanned systems into the U.S. fleet is as likely to augment the carrier’s power long before they are mature enough to replace them.