When a crisis break out, the first question the President of the United States asks is, “Where are the carriers?” It’s very understandable. Since December, 1941, the aircraft carrier has been America’s first responder to war and crises short of war. The nuclear-powered carriers (CVNs) in service displace about 100,000 tons of water, can reach speeds of over 30 knots, and can deliver several squadrons of aircraft to a crisis spot.
There is a price for this capability. Carriers are expensive – a Nimitz-class carrier costs $4.5 billion to build. The new Gerald R. Ford-class carrier will cost almost $10.5 billion per ship, not counting the R&D costs. They also take a long time to build. It takes at least four years, and in some cases as many as seven to build a nuclear-powered carrier, from laying the keel to commissioning. The Navy had kept all four Forrestal-class carriers and three of the four Kitty Hawk-class carriers (CVs) in reserve. USS America (CV 66) was sunk as a target to acquire data on the effects of combat damage on supercarriers, data used in the design of the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.
These seven carriers were oil-burning ships, with less endurance than the CVNs, but still able to deliver hurt to the bad guys. So, they were mothballed, ready to be reactivated in a time of crisis. That was the case until last year.
Since the start of 2014, the Obama Administration has been rushing these conventional-fuelled ships to Brownsville, Texas, where they are being scrapped. Four of these ships, USS Forrestal (CV 59), USS Saratoga (CV 60), USS Ranger (CV 61), and USS Constellation (CV 64) have been towed to Brownsville, and a fifth, USS Independence (CV 62), is slated to join them. That is bad enough, but a sixth carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65), was also slated for the scrap yard, and the Obama Administration has already begun that task, even as Russia and China have become more aggressive.
That makes six carriers that the Obama Administration is seeking to render permanently unavailable for service at a time when China has grown more aggressive in the South China Sea, and Russia has been more aggressive in Eastern Europe, while launching SS-N-30 “Sizzler” cruise missiles against Syrian rebels and (allegedly) the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State.
Remember, these might have been old carriers – USS Forrestal (CV 59) would have turned 60 this month – but having old carriers in reserve would beat having no carriers in reserve. And when it takes years to build a new carrier, scrapping the old ones remains sheer folly, especially when they are being sold for a penny each! That’s right – the government cannot get more than a penny for 81,000-ton oil-burning supercarriers. Would it not have made more sense to refurbish the old carriers to enable them to be quickly reactivated in time of crisis – or war? The Navy also could have given USS Enterprise (CVN 65) a second RCOH at the same time USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) was being refueled.
In the 1980s, President Reagan sought a 600-ship Navy with 15 carriers. It might not be a bad idea to get back to that total at a minimum – if not to shoot for an even 16, which would be the highest carrier total since 1973.
The refurbishment, though, would only be a short-term solution to making sure there are enough carriers. Given the long lead time needed to build new carriers, it’s only logical to assume that if America goes to war, it will be with the carriers we have, not the ones that we need to build. Between refurbishing and re-commissioning the older carriers, and buying one Ford-class carrier a year would enable the United States to reach a 16-nuclear carrier fleet by the end of the 2020s.
Such a carrier build-up (not to mention getting enough escorts) would be expensive. But the choice is between spending money now for ships, or spending blood and money later. The war that isn’t fought costs America nothing – and that is a hard bargain to beat.