January 24, 2013: Strategy page
The U.S. Navy is running out of money and is having a hard time avoiding the consequences. Thanks to all the new information systems added in the last two decades, the navy has been finding out quickly and in great detail how its current policies are running the ships and sailors ragged. The problem is that the navy has less money (because of budget cuts) and is unable to cope with high costs of replacing carriers and submarines that are dying of old age. The leadership has been unwilling to accept a small enough navy, especially one with fewer carriers, to match the current budgets. So ships are going to sea longer, with more broken or borderline equipment and crews that are fed up with all the time at sea. This problem has been growing for over a decade as more Cold War era ships got older and more difficult to maintain.
Efforts have been made to address the crew morale problem. Five years ago the navy adopted a policy of adjusting ship schedules so that crews spend at least half their time in port. This is called "dwell time." With some 60 percent of navy personnel married, time in port is important. The navy also eliminated its decades old policy of regular six month deployments at sea. These deployments were far away and kept sailors cut off from home. The new policy was to keep ships closer to their home port, the better to "surge" a larger number of warships in an emergency. In the past ships returning from a six month cruise usually required a month or so of maintenance and repairs in port, with a lot of the crew taking leave. Military personnel get 30 days of leave (vacation) each year. Thus ships returning from the old six month cruises were out of action for a month or more. The new policy eliminates most of that and more ships are available all the time. The new 50/50 policy uses a lot of shorter trips to sea. Carriers only go out for a week or two at a time, so their pilots can get some practice.
This new policy failed when the navy declared that growing tensions with Iran and China required a surge and has been hustling to find sailors and working ships to maintain a strong presence in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific. The data management systems show maintenance being deferred, spare parts not available to keep a lot of weapons and equipment on ships running, and more and more sailors, especially experienced specialists, deciding that they have been pushed too far for too long and are getting out. Many navy leaders want to cut back on sea time and allocate money saved towards improving maintenance, readiness, and retention (sailors staying in).
Another issue that cannot be avoided much longer is that the navy cannot afford as many carriers as it has been used to. Replacing the existing Nimitz class carriers is simply too expensive. The new Ford class aircraft carriers keep getting more expensive. The first of them, the USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78), was originally supposed to cost $8 billion, plus $5 billion for R&D (research and development of new technology and features unique to this class of ships). Now it appears that the cost of the Ford will not be $13 billion but closer to $15 billion. The second and third ships of the class will cost less (construction plus some additional R&D). Thus the first three ships of the Ford class will cost a total of about $40 billion.
The current Nimitz-class carriers cost about half as much as the Fords. Both classes also require an air wing (48-50 fighters, plus airborne early-warning planes, electronic warfare aircraft, and anti-submarine helicopters), which costs another $3-4 billion. Four years ago the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), the last of the Nimitz class carriers, successfully completed its sea trails and was accepted by the U.S. Navy. The Bush was ready for its first deployment in 2010. The next new carrier will be the first of the Ford class.
The first Nimitz entered service in 1975 and is currently set to serve for 49 years before decommissioning. All of the Nimitz class carriers are similar in general shape and displacement. But over four decades of use each new member of the class received recently developed equipment. This stuff was installed in older Nimitzs eventually as they went in for maintenance. The Bush, the last of the Nimitz class, has a lot of new gear that wasn't even thought of when the first Nimitz entered service. The first ship of the next class of carriers, the USS Ford, will be about the same length and displacement of the Nimitz ships but will look different. The most noticeable difference will be the island set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship.
While the Fords are much more expensive, the navy expects to reduce (by several billion dollars) each carrier's lifetime operating expenses because of greatly reduced crew size. Compared to the current Nimitz class carriers the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty. There will be a lot more automation, computer networking, and robots. The Bush has a lot of this automation already.
By the time the Ford enters service in 2015, even more of the crew will be replaced by robots than is the case in the Bush. The Ford will have as few as half as many sailors on board. Carrier based UAVs are also on the way. Work on flight control software for carrier operations is well underway. Combat UAVs (UCAVs) weigh about 20 percent less than manned aircraft and cost 20-30 percent less. They use less fuel as well. The Ford can take advantage of UCAVs because it is built to handle more sorties each day (about 150) and surge to about 50 percent more for a day or so. For this reason, many naval leaders believe a reduction in carriers is practical, as the use of UCAVs and smart bombs makes the remaining carriers (as few as six) much more effective.
Whatever the case, something has to be done, or the navy will tumble into a state of disrepair and inability to do much at all.