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Are America's Aircraft Carriers On Their Way To Obsolescence?

Back in May, Trump raised some eyebrows when he offered his candid opinion to Time Magazine on the advantages of steam catapult systems as compared to the Navy’s new Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) currently being installed on a new generation of aircraft carriers...apparently he's a fan of the "goddamned steam" systems if you must know.

You know the catapult is quite important. So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]. I said you don’t use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, "Ah, how is it working?" "Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air."

 

It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said–and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be–"Sir, we’re staying with digital." I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.

 

Unfortunately, given that the EMALS had already been installed on the Navy's latest $13 billion carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, that wasn't a fight Trump ever really had a shot at winning, irrespective of his 'technical expertise' on the topic.

But, with U.S. taxpayers set to spend over $40 billion on just three new carriers over the next several years, the real question isn't whether the new class of super ships should have steam or 'digital' catapults for launching aircraft, but whether the ships should be built at all.  Per Bloomberg:

At roughly $13 billion, the USS Gerald Ford is the Navy’s priciest ship and arrives with critical performance kinks that contractors are working to remedy by 2019. Two innovations that have thus far induced Navy headaches: an electric catapult launch system that replaces steam—a decision Trump derided in a magazine interview—and a landing system to arrest planes that saw its cost triple to $961 million, Bloomberg News reported. The catapult cannot yet launch an F/A-18 Super Hornet fully loaded with fuel, which limits the range and performance of the Navy’s workhorse fighter aircraft.

 

The Navy is spending $24.3 billion for the Ford and Kennedy, with another $17 billion expected for the third Ford-class carrier, the USS Enterprise. A General Accountability Office report this month blasted the service over costs on the Kennedy, which is about half finished. The report concluded that the cost estimate doesn’t address lessons learned from the performance of the lead ship.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated missile technology being developed in China and Russia make these ~$15 billion floating fortresses more vulnerable to attack.

When it comes to carrier deployments, the most immediate concern is the security of the more than 7,000 crew members who travel with a carrier strike group, an armada formulated to protect the ship and its aircraft as well as to serve as “a principal element of U.S. power projection capability,” as the Navy terms it.

 

But this formation is likely to face greater risks due to new missile technology in the coming years. China and Russia are both perfecting more sophisticated missile designs, and both are believed to be developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), weapons that travel faster than Mach 5, according to a Pentagon report obtained by Bloomberg News.

 

China already fields a ballistic missile, the Dong Feng-21D, which has been dubbed a “carrier killer” due to its 900-mile range and lethality. Over time, these types of weapons are likely to keep U.S. carriers farther from shore, which will require greater refueling capabilities for their aircraft complements.

Which is why some military strategists have proposed ditching future carriers altogether to focus on unmanned platforms and revamping the Navy's submarine fleet.

For several years, the Pentagon has “admired the problem” of how long-range enemy missiles affect its carrier fleet but has avoided tough decisions about how to increase the fleets’ aircraft range and provide for more unmanned aircraft, said Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a nonprofit think tank. Meanwhile, the Navy’s strike range from its carrier wings has actually dipped by 50 percent, below 500 miles, according to Jerry Hendrix, another CNAS analyst.

 

Last year, the they recommended scrapping the Ford-class carriers after the Kennedy’s completion and boosting the Navy’s offensive range with a greater reliance on unmanned aircraft, including a long-range attack platform. The Navy’s submarine fleet would also grow to 74, from 58, under the author’s recommendations, which reflected a 2 percent annual increase in Pentagon funding.

 

More spending for unmanned platforms, from electronics jamming to surveillance and reconnaissance, would give pilots in F/A-18s as well as the newer F-35Cs more range and effectiveness. But because the Pentagon hasn’t developed unmanned platforms, “naval aviators ... are accepting a world where the carrier has less relevance in higher-end fights, against high-end adversaries,” Scharre said.

But, despite these strategic shortcomings, as Bloomberg notes, there’s still a political reality to wrestle with: The carrier retains a mystique throughout the military and Congress; it’s an 1,100-foot giant that’s become a uniquely American symbol of dominating military power...in other words, John McCain thinks they're really cool and he's going to keep building them no matter what you think.