Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta reaffirmed the value of aircraft carriers last summer, telling the crew of USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as it redeployed to the Middle East that carriers are key to American defense because they’re “agile, deployable, on the cutting edge of technology and can defend the United States of America any time, any place, anywhere.” At the time, the Stennis was one of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Since then, the first nuclear-powered carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65), has been decommissioned, temporarily leaving the Navy with only 10.
Those 10 ships have 50-year life spans, meaning USS Nimitz (CVN 68) is next in line to be decommissioned — probably around 2025. It stands to reason, then, that the carriers’ ability to continue defending the United States depends on our ability to keep building new ones — and to do it affordably.
The Navy is currently building two aircraft carriers. Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the first in a new class of carriers, is 90 percent structurally complete and scheduled to be delivered in 2015, when it will restore the fleet size to 11. The “first cut of steel” for John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) took place in 2010, and the Navy is planning for delivery not later than 2022. The Navy also announced at the decommissioning of Enterprise that the third Ford-class carrier, CVN 80, will be named Enterprise, but that ship is not yet under construction and won’t join the fleet until the late 2020s.
How much do these new carriers cost? As noted by the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings: “The current cost for Ford is estimated to be about $12.9 billion,” a figure comprising design, planning, material, labor and $3.7 billion in nonrecurring engineering costs necessary for the design of the entire Ford class. More importantly, the total ownership cost for the acquisition, operations, manpower and disposal over the 50-year lifetime of each Ford class ship will be about $4 billion less than the current Nimitz class. That is a per ship savings of about $72 million a year.
As the former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, I can assure you: This is money well spent and is one of the very best investments this country can make to support our national security strategy and to preserve our freedoms and help maintain world order.
It’s also important to note that the Navy is getting more capability for less. Ford-class carriers will have a number of significant operational enhancements over their Nimitz-class predecessors. The new ships will generate 25 percent more aircraft sorties every day because of a more efficient flight deck layout, improved electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear and improved weapons elevators. To provide ample margin for future growth, the new ship has an improved power plant with increased electrical power generation and distribution capabilities. The Dual Band Radar, one of the most advanced detection systems in the world, is the centerpiece of the ship’s new Integrated Warfare System. All of these systems provide for more efficient maintenance and operation while reducing manning and total operating cost.
As America’s allies, rivals and potential future foes look across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to Capitol Hill, they see an American economy in deep crisis, coupled with a growing isolationist trend among some politicians who seek to shrink our global engagement. Should federal budget-cutters unfortunately opt to undercut our carrier force — anywhere, but particularly in the Pacific — they will, in effect, be telling our allies to look elsewhere for the vital support we have offered them, to our mutual benefit, since 1945.
Shared pain for the greater good in times of crisis is an American tradition. I urge members of Congress to remember that the greater good is defined by more than line items in a budget. Short-sighted cuts at the expense of our nation’s strategic priorities are not the answer. We must do what it takes to ensure that our 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers continue to defend the United States of America “any time, any place, anywhere.”
Adm. Timothy J. Keating (Ret.) was commander of U.S. Pacific Command.