WASHINGTON: The Navy is launching a deep dive into the future of its aircraft carrier fleet, Breaking Defense has learned, even as the Secretary of Defense, dissatisfied with current Navy plans, conducts his own assessment. The two studies clearly show the deepening concern over how China’s growing might and the Pentagon’s eroding budgets could affect the iconic, expensive supercarriers.
The Future Carrier 2030 Task Force, which the service plans to announce next week, will take six months to study how carriers stack up against new generations of stealthy submarines and long-range precision weapons being fielded by China and Russia. It comes at a fraught moment time for the fleet, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper has taken personal ownership over the service’s force planning while publicly lambasting the Navy’s deployment model as broken.
Two sources familiar with the planning said the effort is focused on threats in 2030 and beyond — which, given the years it takes to design, develop, and build new classes of ships, could affect budget decisions in the fairly near future. The study could have major implications on how the Navy designs and builds carriers, the sources agreed.
The study will also have to account for knock-on effects on the work shipbuilders would get in the future, which is always a politically-charged issue. For decades, Newport News in Virginia — now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries — has been the only shipyard in the world capable of constructing a nuclear-powered supercarrier. The yard is currently under contract for the four new Ford-class carriers, worth tens of billions of dollars, which are slated to enter the fleet in the coming decade.
The Future Carrier 2030 Task Force is being put together by Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who expects a report back in about 180 days.
Modly’s task force study, however, will run in parallel with work already being done on the Navy’s future force structure by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist. Sec. Esper recently ordered his deputy to review both the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan and its highly-anticipated modernization plan after Esper was unsatisfied with the plans the Navy offered him. The secretary said last week in a letter to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee he expects the relook to wrap up by summer.
These two parallel — and to some extent competing — studies make Modly’s timeline tricky. His task force won’t wrap up until after the Pentagon’s reviews are done, and Modly will likely have left the secretary’s chair. The White House nominated Amb. Kenneth Braithwaite to be Navy Secretary last week, but it’s unclear when his confirmation hearing will be held.
Modly hinted at his study this morning during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We have a duty to look at what will come after the Ford,” he said, adding that the Navy has “some breathing room” before having to decide what comes after that last Ford is built in 2032.
Modly’s testimony, taken with similar recent comments about capping the Ford carriers at four before moving in a new direction, could signal a major shift in the Navy’s thinking. “I don’t know if we’re going to buy any more of that type,” Modly said in an interview published on March 4. “We’re certainly thinking about possible other classes. What are we going to learn on these four that’s going to inform what we do next?”
Back in January, he voiced similar concerns with the size and design of the current carrier fleet at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event. “The big question, I think at the top of the list, is the carrier and what’s the future going to look like…I think we agree with a lot of conclusions that [carriers are] more vulnerable.”
For decades, American aircraft carrier strike groups, led by massive big decks bristling with fighter planes and surveillance aircraft, have been the key to US power projection.
But with new generations of long-range precision weapons that can smack into a carrier from well beyond the horizon, military planners have started rethinking the risks of putting a 100,000-ton supercarrier anywhere near a contested coastline.
“The Navy is realizing they need to change that approach and perhaps think about using carriers in more peripheral ways in a fight,” Bryan Clark, senior fellow at Hudson Institute, said. Instead of launching aircraft for strike missions deep inland, as they’ve been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re more likely to “hang out out of range and do sea control,” covering down on large swaths of ocean.
In February, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower performed just such a mission, sweeping a path across the Atlantic for cargo ships full of Army equipment bound for major ground exercise in Europe. The expercise, run under the newly reconstituted 2nd Fleet, was the first drill simulating a contested crossing of the Atlantic since 1986.
The Ike, along with an unidentified submarine sweeping the depths of the ocean for unexpected Russian guests, sailed well ahead of the convoy while fighting off simulated electronic warfare and undersea and aerial attacks in a stress test for how prepared the Navy is to punch its way across the Atlantic.
As the Pentagon and Navy hash out what the Navy of the future should look like to meet challenges posed by China, they are experimenting everywhere. Navy and Marine Corps leadership have warmed to the “lightning carrier” concept, designed to pack amphibious ships with Marine Corps’ F-35Bs and sail them to the hotspots to cover places the big decks aren’t.
Late last year, the USS America photographed in the Pacific with 13 F-35s on its deck, something the services want to do more of as the so-called Gator Navy reinforces more decks to handle the fifth generation fighter. The Marines and Navy are working on a new strategy to more closely align their operations, which would allow both to provide more punch, and give the Marines the ability to launch from both ships and from small ad-hoc land bases to support the fleet.
Any potentially smaller carrier of the future will not be as small as an amphibious ship, as those ships can’t support high sortie rates over long periods of time like a Nimitz or Ford carrier. They would, however, certainly be smaller than the hulking Fords.
Before the carrier fleet can be reshaped, however, the Navy and secretary Esper need to agree on a new modernization plan and a new shipbuilding plan, both of which will be reviewed by a new Navy secretary and Congress, which has already mandated the Navy have a 12 carriers, a requirement the 11-carrier fleet beset with a litany of other spending priorities, has been unable to meet.