While the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will not likely be released until early next year the rumor mill is humming. One of the largest procurement issues seemingly under consideration within the Pentagon is a proposal to decrease the number of aircraft carriers from today’s 11 to 8 or 9. While the strategic necessity for 11 carriers is up for debate and the issues of forward basing and the usefulness of aircraft carriers are regularly examined in military journals and studies, the budgetary impact of shrinking the carrier force seems to be left out of the discussion. The cost savings from shrinking the carrier force are undeniable, likely exceeding $47 billion over thirty years. Thus, an examination of the monetary savings resulting from shrinking the carrier force by two ships puts the rest of the debate in a different light and allows for a better weighing of costs and benefits.
The Navy currently plans to build seven Ford Class nuclear aircraft carriers over the next 30 years. This comes out to a new carrier nearly every four years. By lowering this to five carriers and thus a steady state of 9 carriers, the Navy would procure a new ship every six years instead. The CBO estimates that each carrier costs approximately $11.2 billion, not including regular overhauls that will cost billions more over the life of the ship. Thus, at its face, the Navy could save at least $22.4 billion over 30 years if it decreased the carrier force by two, equivalent to two years of average naval ship procurement spending between FY 2003 and FY 2008.
The Navy could also decrease expected procurement of support and strike vessels, those that constitute each carrier’s battle group. While other naval vessels do not sail solely within Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) (many ships often steam alone or in mission-defined task forces) they are regularly attached to one. Thus, a decrease in carrier procurement could allow for fewer strike and support vessels.
The exact makeup of each CSG varies, as it depend on the CSG’s specific mission, but they generally consist of: 1 carrier and its air wing, 1-2 guided missile cruisers, 2-3 guided missile destroyers, 1-2 nuclear attack submarine, one or more frigates or other smaller ships, and support vessels. By cutting two CSGs, the Navy may be able to procure 2-4 fewer cruisers, 4-6 fewer destroyers, and two fewer submarines, along with cuts to support ships over the next 30 years (assuming a 30 year service life). Additionally, increased operational tempo could allow the Navy to require fewer ships to maintain or increase its deployments. (Were the Navy to deploy other ships in place of a carrier, of course, this could reduce the savings.) This corresponds to at least $24.6 billion and possibly over $41.1 billion in decreased ship procurement, than originally planned by the Navy, over 30 years. A decrease of two CSGs would thus lead to total savings of at least $47 billion over 30 years, or the equivalent of more than four years of naval ship procurement. These savings do not include the billions that would come from the non-procurement of supply ships and carrier air wings, along with cuts in operations costs, all of which would save billions of dollars each.