Alternatives to aircraft carriers? Easier said than done

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrives at Naval Air Station in San Diego on Aug. 10, 2015. The crew will soon conduct a hull swap with the USS Ronald Reagan.


By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 18, 2015

Questions are being raised in Washington about the future of aircraft carriers, so should Huntington Ingalls Industries be worried?

HII's Newport News shipyard is the sole U.S. manufacturer of the nuclear-powered behemoths and is the state's largest industrial employer. Thousands of jobs and paychecks are tied to the future of the Gerald R. Ford carrier program. It calls for three next-generation carriers beginning with the Ford, now pier side at Newport News and its construction nearly complete.

But last week, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee repeated his call that the U.S. should pursue smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers if the Navy can't control costs on the Ford program.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also talked about bringing new competition into the market. His 18-page report, devoted solely to the Ford, was titled "America's Most Wasted."

He has also directed the Navy to study whether something other than a nuclear-powered supercarrier should be a key part of the Navy's future.

One analyst who has looked at this issue said HII executives shouldn't lose a whole lot of sleep.

The cost overruns and delays that have dogged the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford were entirely predictable, the result of unrealistic assumptions that are "by no means unique" in the Defense Department, a government watchdog official told Congress Thursday.

Loren Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute, said the Navy has examined this question before. Each time, it has settled on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers as the ship that gives the biggest bang for the buck. McCain's ire over the Ford is part of a larger concern about reforming Pentagon purchasing practices, he said.

"This study presents no threat to Newport News Shipbuilding," he said, "because it will just discover what other previous studies have found."

The first-in-class Ford will end up costing taxpayers about $12.9 billion, about 22 percent over initial estimates. The Navy plans to take delivery of the Ford next year, although questions persist about all the new technology incorporated on one ship.

Thompson said smaller, cheaper ships come with their own problems. A smaller ship carries fewer aircraft, both in sheer numbers and variety. And the Navy would need more of them.

"Although money might be saved, it would be penny-wise and pound foolish," he said.

Another analyst has a more discerning answer. Bryan McGrath is the deputy director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute. He co-authored a 108-page report released two weeks ago that examines the role of aircraft carriers in future conflicts. The study devoted a short section to alternative carrier designs.

He said a switch to a new design could have a dramatic effect on Newport News and its many suppliers around the country.

But a switch raises serious questions, which he described in an email to the Daily Press.

It is not immediately clear that another U.S. shipyard could build a smaller, nuclear-powered carrier without a lot of investment.

"So if a smaller, nuclear variant was chosen, HII would still likely build it and there would be no competition," he wrote.

He agreed with Thompson that any cost savings comes with a decline in capability.

"The performance declines -- sorties, ordnance storage, fuel capacity for the air wing -- from a smaller, conventionally powered carrier are dramatic," he said.

The Hudson Institute study cited a late-1990s Navy analysis that said a smaller nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would cost 87 percent to 92 percent of a Ford-class ship, but with a 50 percent drop in sortie rate.

To put it another way, "size matters," McGrath said.

If the Navy chose to build a non-nuclear-powered carrier, HII's Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss., would enter the competitive mix, he said. That yard currently builds amphibious warships and destroyers.

McGrath says the Navy has closely examined alternative designs over the years, but in-depth analysis always leads back to nuclear-powered supercarriers.

"That they keep reaching the same conclusion is the result of in-depth work and solid analysis," he said.

Thompson agreed.

"The reason we have large-deck aircraft carriers is because they have proven to be the most cost-effective application for the money," he said. "This is not just the consequence of a series of random decisions."

Thompson said the Ford program is part of the larger debate over reform of Pentagon purchasing practices -- a high priority for McCain. As one of the big-ticket items in the Pentagon inventory -- and with past admissions from Navy leaders that Ford's design/building process was flawed -- it has become somewhat a poster child for how things can go wrong when the Defense Department buys expensive things.

That said, Thompson sees no broad-based support for moving away from aircraft carriers, or for increasing competition for Newport News Shipbuilding.

"When you only build one item every five years, there's not a whole lot of enthusiasm for others getting into the business," he said.

HII officials declined comment for this story, but company CEO Mike Petters raised a similar point in June when speaking at a conference hosted by Deutsche Bank. A robust competition requires enough business to support multiple players, he said.

"Would the nation be well served with competition on aircraft carriers? Well, if you had enough of them to build, yes," he said.

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