Friday, 23 November 2012

In a crisis, just where are the carriers? The worrying level of USN carrier availability...

News broke recently that the USS NIMITZ, one of 11 USN super carriers, has had her deployment to the Persian Gulf delayed by several months due to engineering problems. This delay will reduce the availability of carriers in the Gulf to just one active vessel for much of 2013.

This news, while in itself not exactly unexpected – after all NIMITZ is nearly forty years old now, and it is inevitable that vessels that age develop machinery challenges – does perhaps illustrate a wider concern about just how thinly stretched the USN is now, and how this is likely to get more challenging.

On paper from next week the USN will operate 10 aircraft carriers, all NIMITZ class, after the USS ENTERPRISE is decommissioned. In reality those 10 vessels are going to be thinly stretched across the globe. Right now, of the 10 hulls, Nimitz is undergoing repairs, three are forward deployed (two are in the Gulf, one is in Japan) and another is available for tasking in the US. One (Abraham Lincoln) is available, but is about to enter deep refit for refuelling, while two more are in deep refit or being refuelled, with a further two in minor refit. As of today, the US Navy has just three operational deployed aircraft carriers at sea, with a fourth available in the US if required, and this is unlikely to change before summer 2013. (A good source of information can be found here -

The worry is that these sorts of availability problems will continue to grow as the class gets older. Make no mistake, these are some of the most complex and capable warships on the planet, but they are also getting old. Three of the hulls have now been commissioned for over thirty years, and another two for over twenty years. Although designed for an optimised 50 year lifespan, it is likely that as they age, maintenance is going to be increasingly difficult and availability will suffer.

Although a replacement class is now under construction, only one has been ordered so far, and the deep budget cuts likely to hit the DOD over the next few years means that it is by no means certain that further orders can be guaranteed in time to generate replacement hulls on time. This is a grim situation and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.  

Nimitz Class at sea

While the USN currently remains the most capable navy in the world, it is facing an increasingly challenging future, with a wave of issues likely to cause it difficulty over the next twenty years or so.

The first issue is that of budgets and manpower. The full impact of the likely budget cuts to the US military are yet to become clear, but deep cuts to procurement, force levels, manpower and maintenance budgets are almost inevitable. At the same time though, there is a growing ‘bow wave’ of new construction required which has yet to appear in service, or even the builders yards.

Despite many years, and millions of dollars expenditure, the USN has not yet introduced a wholly new ship class since the DDG51s entered service back in the late 1980s. Although a couple of small ‘Littoral Combat Ships’ have entered service, the programme is delayed and it feels as if it is unlikely to ever yield large scale unit production. The USN surface fleet is getting a lot older though, with the Ticonderoga Cruisers, the older Arleigh Burkes and the residual Oliver Hazard Perry frigates all getting into their late teens through to late twenties. These ships have been worked hard for years, and yet no replacement is currently in site and likely to enter service within the next 5-6 years. The US escort fleet is increasingly reliant on the DDG51, which looks like it will remain in serial production for at least another twenty years. Of the replacement frigates and cruiser programmes, no signs of real progress seem to be occurring. While this situation drags on, funding is going to be needed soon for the next pair of CVNs to ensure serial production of the Ford class continues. So, the USN has a major problem in managing an ever more elderly fleet with ever fewer ships likely to be active. As spares budgets are cut, it will become harder to keep vessels at sea, while procurement of replacements seems ever more delayed.

Arguably, the USN is finding itself now in the position that the RN has found itself in since the end of the Cold War. The priority is to allocate funding and resources to high end capabilities like carriers, amphibious shipping and submarine construction – not only to replace older vessels, but also secure a drumbeat of construction to prevent yards closing and skills from being lost. This priority comes at a price, which is fewer resources to support the surface fleet, and ever fewer orders for escort ships. The situation todays USN is in is arguably no different to the Royal Navy, and perhaps shows that in both navies, the priority is to put resources in the complex capabilities and not the escort ships – no matter what impact that may have.

An additional challenge facing the USN is manpower – Carriers are hugely manpower intensive, with their crews alone totalling over 3000 personnel for the hulls without even considering the airwing. Even allowing for refits, it’s fair to say that the best part of 30,000 personnel are assigned just to operate CVNs in the USN, and that’s before you count the airwing crews. In other words, the USN has more personnel working on carriers, than the entire Royal Navy has manpower.

As budgets are cut, the inevitable temptation is to try to reduce headcounts in order to reduce salary and other associated costs. It’s much easier to reduce headcounts than equipment as the savings are significantly greater over the long haul. At present, the crews for the carriers account for some 10% of the USN manpower bill, but in reality with airwings as well, the figure is edging closer to 15-20%.

In a much smaller USN, the carriers are going to occupy a disproportionate level of manpower, which will cause challenges for recruiting and training. If the headcount is reduced, but carriers remain the same, then the emphasis on recruiting and training skilled personnel will be ever more focused on recruiting to fill the carrier force. This means a need to make significant savings elsewhere, and reduces the availability of personnel to man existing ships. In other words, a 10 carrier USN in a smaller sized navy is going to have significant structural challenges for the remainder of the navy.

The Royal Navy is experiencing similar issues – of the 30,000 people in the RN, by the time you discount the Marines, Fleet Air Arm, Submarine Service and so on, there are actually relatively few ‘sailors’. The USN is going to have the same challenge – discount the submarine service, naval aviation and so on, and it quickly starts to run out of sailors. Make no mistake; the USN of the future is going to struggle to keep 10 carriers at sea without making major cuts elsewhere.

An increasingly rare sight - a pair of Nimitz class operating together

What does this all mean?

At its most simple, the reality is that for all the good that carriers do, the USA as a nation is going to have to probably invest more time and effort than ever before in securing airbases and access. A 10 carrier navy, getting ever more elderly, is going to be unable to operate across much of the world – while a CVN can provide some capability, the days of a carrier permanently steaming in the Med, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere have probably gone forever. To be certain of delivery of airpower, the US will need to have access to landbases – and this comes at a significant political price.

The likelihood is that over the next 5-10 years, the sight of a US Navy carrier operating in Europe will be minimal, and that outside of the deployment to the Gulf and Japan, the USN is going to be deploying its vessels into theatres where they don’t have organic airpower, AEW or the benefit of air cover. In other words, the USN is going to be working with ever more elderly ships, where they won’t be operating under the traditionally assumed umbrella of protection from a friendly nearby carrier, and they will be increasingly vulnerable unless land based airpower is nearby. This of course does not consider the role of the LPH in all this, as it is not yet clear what roles LPHs will play and if rumours in the press are to be believed, it is still not completely certain they will have a STOVL jet to fly from them.  

The reality is that the USN now is probably in the same place as the RN found itself in the mid-1960s – mid 1970s. Reduced budgets, elderly vessels still in service, while the new designs (T42s, 22s) were taking longer than planned to come into service, and yet operationally committed across the globe.

The ability of the USN to operate with impunity across the globe, steaming where it wanted on its terms, and able to stand its ground against almost any aggressor has gone forever. Todays’ USN remains a fiercely capable and strong navy, but its ability to exert unlimited and unchallenged control of the high seas has gone, probably forever. Instead it would be more realistic to judge that the future USN will provide a capability to deploy power into some areas, but only at the cost of reducing capability and influence in others.


  1. My understanding is that the longer term future of the LPH fleet is still undecided. They are very expensive to build, crew and operate and, as an aviation platform, represent relatively poor value for money commpared to the CVNs. I'm sure I read on a US defence site that the existing ships would probably not be replaced on a 1:1 basis, but it's a year or two ago so I cannot be sure.

  2. The USN facing the problems it does is by no means a good thing, either for them or for the western world in general.

    I do however take comfort in the fact that even as it's number slowly contract, losing a few escorts, and maybe even a handful of carriers and LPH the USN will still unquestionably be the most powerful in the world.

    For instance, China putting a carrier in the water shouldn't be dismissed as unimportant, it is a worry. But ultimately if the USN alone still has 10 of them, and larger, more capable ones with highly experienced crews at that, then I'm not going to be terrified just yet.

    I believe as well that their are no direct replacements for the Ticonderoga cruisers and Oliver Hazard Perry frigates because they are being indirectly supplanted by more Arliegh Burke and eventually the Littoral Combat Ship.

    As for USN carriers standing guard in Europe, well it's about time the leading Europeans took a great deal more responsibility for what happens in our own backyard. I mean the French, Spanish, Italian and Royal Navies either are or will soon be operating some vestige of carrier power, perhaps not on a Nimitz scale, but still enough to make a decent contribution to our own security and power projection.

  3. Thank you for an excellent post. I have taken the liberty of quoting from it over at 'my place'.

    David Duff (Cpl - ret.!)

    1. Thanks Duff - I thought your own article was extremely interesting and you've got an excellent blog there!

      I'm linking over to your site from here so others can view it too.

  4. The bigger issue is the age of the aircraft on the decks. Since the A12 was cancelled, the average age of aircraft in the USN has climbed and where that increase has slowed, is less to do with new F18E/F and more to do with retiring other a/c without fully replacing the capability (S3, KA6, F14).

    If as some suggest, F35C gets canned, then the USN will be out of the power projection game against a credible oppo within 15 years.

    As noted above, the cherished european assumptions that "someone else will do it" are going to need a stiff revisiting for a lot of operations/scenarios.

    1. The average age of USN aircraft is significantly lower than that of the USAF, which is still flying large numbers of old F-16 and F-15, that furthermore have more flight hours on them than they should have, thanks to a few war adventures. F-22 cancellation has hit hard here, and I dont believe for a minute, that F-16 will be replaced 1:1 by JSF, the cost is simply too high.

      The USN is actually in a fairly favorable position regarding airframes, b/c if JSF sees reductions (very likely) or termination (unlikely, despite spiralling costs), they can simply replace their A/B Hornets with more E/F or further improved variants, which will remain viable assets well into the next decade and probably beyond, depending on when the Chinese can sell significant numbers of 5th generation AC for export (a direct confrontation will be a problem for the US in a few years in any case).

      The challenge for the USN is and will remain getting new and capable hulls into the water. The new Arleigh Burke is already hitting insane heights in procurement costs, not really justifying what is a 30 year old design. DDG-1000 remains cut to three hulls, though a long-term solution will probably be based on that design (which has been stable on costs for a while now and would go down with further numbers), assuming all the new tech works as expected.

      There is still the isse of replacing OHP...the LCS is clearly not capable to do that. My notion is, the USN wont have a mid-sized ship to do that anymore and is stuck with 9k ton vessels forming their entire (credible) surface fleet excl flat-tops and LPH, which are all liabilities in this context.

    2. Unfortunately, what you say is true, Tens if not Hundreds of Billions of dollars have been spent on defense procurement programs that have not resulted in no, or fewer than projected, operation units; this has occured in all branches (Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, E-10, Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter, CG-X, Crusader Self-propelled howitzer, RAH-66, etc.). Even the programs that have progressed have been reduced leaving gaps in capability that have gone unfilled or allowed to degrade (F-22, V-22, etc.). So it is not a problem, unfortunately, that is contained to the US Navy.

      Worse, as you had pointed out, the reach of the replacement platforms have decreased, bringing capital units closer to harms way. For instance, due to the reduced ranges of newer aircraft, carriers will need to operate closer to shore, bringing them within range of more threats. Due to the end of the new Marine Amphibious Vehicle program, ships will not be able to conduct over the horizon amphibious operations, and due to the end of the programs to develop and produce a long range and accurate round for the 5 inch naval gun, ships will need to come closer to the shore or fire support will have to rely on costly missiles or air support.

    3. Para - I think you'll find that the USN frames have had a few war advetures as well. The F18A/B are almost entirely in AMARC now and the F18C/D fleet is ageing heavily.

      Unlike the USAF, the USN has not had it's premier fighter capability (F14) replaced, whereas the USAF has had 180-odd F22.

      It is true that in the event of F35 cutbacks, that the USN can extend the FA18E/F line, but there is no reason why the USAF can't piggyback on the export F15/16 lines that are still (just) open.

      I wouldn't argue against the surface fleet issues though, other than to say that DDG1000 and probably LCS are the answers to questions no-one asked. In common with teh UK maritime industry, the US has "forgotten" how to design military ships quickly and without fuss - which may actually be a function of our procurement "systems".

  5. The simple truth is that the US Navy has made some incredibly poor choices and has no one to blame for its current predicament but itself. Furthermore, the foreign policy of the US-by accepting large land wars as something "normal" drained what resources there were to hand. Britain wasted itself in the Middle East in 1956, the US wasted itself in the Middle East from 2001-2012 and beyond. Th results will be the same a forced retrenchment. And some sort of retrenchment from the Gulf is long overdue-especially if the US becomes a net energy exporter as some predict. As far as the Middle East is concerned-less is more.

  6. Haven't missiles made aircraft carriers obsolete?

    1. Not really - missiles are potent, but need good targeting, accurate intelligence and a good smattering of luck to work well.
      Never discount a threat, but personally I apply a high level of cynicism about any article which claims carriers are 'dead'. To get a missile onto a carrier requires exceptionally accurate information and an ability to track a target for sufficient time so as to gurantee you know where it will be when you need to attack it.
      Also, never understimate that ability of both hard and soft kill installations to make a real difference in the survivability of any platform.


      My new favourite link.

      A US Carrier Battle Group operated in the Northern Pacific, mounting mock strikes against nuclear submarine and bomber sites, for four days without the Soviets even realising it was in the general area, never mind marking it as a viable ballisitic missile target.

  7. On the manpower issue, I'd add that it seems that its not only the carriers which require massive manpower. A rather crude comparison between an Arleigh Burke Flight IIA and a Daring leaves 323 crew versus 190. By no means are the two ships equivalent (nor manning policies), but across a fleet of 75 DDGs thats 9,975 crew.

    To me what seems to be really squeezing the USN is its complete inability or opposition to a new design of destroyer. We managed to go reduce the crew on our destroyers by ~70 whilst increasing size, is there a reason the USN can't/won't do this? Aside from the mess they made of the Zumwalt class? At $1.8b a pop, Arleigh Burkes aren't exactly cheap as well.

    1. The Arleigh Burkes sure aren't cheap, but they are a dam sight cheaper than the ridiculous Zumwalts!

      An eventual fleet of 75 destroyers is seriously impressive, plus in terms of both size and capabilities they are more like cruisers!

    2. They may be cheaper to buy, but again looking at the crew they'll certainly be more expensive in that regard. A brief Google showed Zumwalts' with a crew of 142- again compared to 323 leaves 190 sailors less to pay for.

      75 destroyers are going to be in place of ~100 escorts, of which 61 are destroyers and 22 cruisers. When they claim they want a 300 ship navy, I'd say they're better off with 60 DDGs and 40 FFGs.

      In any case, I was simply trying to suggest that there are other areas in the USN that are great stores of manpower- and by continuing with a now 20 year-old design they're increasing manpower costs by a fair amount. At $90,000 dollars a sailor a year (NAVSEA), 9,975 crew saves nearly $900m. A destroyer every two years. Or put another way, against a Daring, it's $359m across a ship's 30 year life; $27b across the class or 15 'Burkes.

  8. A good read, a good post, and I put it on my blog too.

  9. The elephant in the room that is not mentioned in this article is that due to domestic policies favored by the Left/Liberals in the United States. Specifically, the year to year growth of "mandatory budget" (entitlement (social security, welfare, medicare (soon Obamacare), etc.)) spending in the Federal Government is quickly outpacing and dwarfing the defense budget; and, an increased focus on education spending more interested in increasing educator/teacher compensation without a significant growth in student performance (for example see the once great education system of California). Just these two issues are making it difficult for the Federal Government to maintain a reasonable and sustainable global naval force, as well as increasing the difficulty of recruiting highly educated and capable Sailors/Soldiers/Marines/Airmen/Coasties. Instead, as had occured in the United Kingdom in the late 20th Century, more funding and resouces went to grow domestic programs rather than maintain a strong military.

    This topic is one recently discussed in the USNI blog, and I recommend reading that post as well.

    Thankfully, we have the ability to choose whether to grow the entitlement state (which one can argue is not among the enumerated powers in Article I of the United States Constitution), or to maintain a military with the ability to defend against agressors and support/advance our national interest on a global scale.

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