Navy Shelves Review That Might Have Cut Ford Class Production To Build Smaller Carriers

The presumptive new Secretary of the Navy has voiced outright support for the long-troubled Ford class.

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The U.S. Navy has shelved plans to conduct a review of its aircraft carrier fleets, which was set to explore the possibility of cutting the troubled Gerald R. Ford class to just four ships and buying smaller flattops. This comes as Kenneth Braithwaite, the man in line to become the next Secretary of the Navy, has openly endorsed the Ford class and questioned the value of lighter carriers.

USNI News was first to report that Acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson had decided not to proceed with the carrier study, formally known as Future Carrier 2030, on May 12, 2020. News that the service would be reviewing its carrier force structure had only first emerged in March. McPherson took over as Acting Secretary in April after then-Acting Secretary Thomas Modly resigned in the wake of a scandal surrounding a major outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus onboard the Nimitz class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the decision to fire that ship's commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier over a letter warning about the severity of that situation.

“Acting Secretary of the Navy James E. McPherson recently determined the Department of the Navy will not, for the time being, move forward with the Future Carrier 2030 effort," Navy spokesperson Commander Sarah Higgins informed USNI News. "DON will fully support the Department of Defense’s internal study on future force structure requirements, which will include a carrier review."

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Acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson, left, wearing a mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes in Illinois.

That Navy is already involved in a major review of plans for the future structure of its surface and submarine fleets, which the service originally planned to complete some time in 2019. This assessment has gotten repeatedly pushed back amid a separate back-and-forth debate over the total size of the Navy fleets. Since 2016, there has been a Congressional mandate to meet a goal of 355 ships and submarines in the service's active duty fleets, which it has continually struggled to work toward.

Persistent troubles with the first-in-class Ford, which has, at best, limited capabilities at this time and looks set to be a non-operational training ship for the foreseeable future, along with the growing costs associated with the subsequent ships in the class, have been not insignificant factors in those discussions. How to integrate ever-larger and more capable unmanned surface vessels (USV) and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) into the Navy's fleets has also become an increasingly important topic of debate

The Navy only expects to take delivery of the last of the first four Fords, the future USS Doris Miller, in 2032. Reports indicated that the Future Carrier 2030 study would look at ending the acquisition of any more of these supercarriers at that time and shifting to a new, smaller, and cheaper class of likely non-nuclear-powered carriers. 

The service was also expected to reexamine how it employed carriers, in general, potentially moving away from using them for front-line operations during major conflicts and using them instead for controlling broad areas of the ocean, as well as protecting critical supply lines. A fleet of smaller carriers could be ideal for those kinds of missions and the concepts of operation are reminiscent of how the Navy employed dozens of light escort carriers during World War II.

However, in written responses to questions ahead of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of the Navy nominee Kenneth Braithwaite called the utility of lighter carriers into question and expressed clear support for the Ford class. "It is my understanding that a 2016 study completed by the RAND Corporation, which examined notional aircraft carrier variants that could replace or supplement the Ford class CVN, confirmed the design attributes of the Ford class CVN in a near-peer conflict," Braithwaite said, using the abbreviation for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when talking about the Ford.

"It is further my understanding that the capabilities of survivability, maintainability, and power projection have been designed into our Ford class CVNs to support the high-end fight," he continued. "However, should circumstances change, I will keep an open mind to other alternatives that provide the right warfighting capabilities required by the Combatant Commanders."

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The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford.

It is worth noting that Braithwaite did not dismiss the possibility of revisiting alternate carrier designs in the future. In April, Defense News reported that the Office of the Secretary of Defense had produced its own initial review of the Navy's force structure that called for the elimination of two carriers from the planned final total.

At the same time, as is the case with the 355-ship-fleet, Congress has enshrined in law a requirement that the Navy must always be working toward having at least 12 supercarriers. Legislators have repeatedly pushed back at plans to cut flattops from the service's force structure, most recently in the case of the Trump Administration's brief and still curious push last year to retire the Nimitz class USS Harry S. Truman ahead of schedule.

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The Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

What might actually happen in the end to the Navy's carrier plans remains to be seen. Defense budget cuts were already looming before the COVID-19 crisis shook the U.S. economy. As Braithwaite himself noted by raising the RAND Corporation study from four years ago, discussions about the service possibly buying smaller, conventionally powered carriers that are cheaper to build and operate than supercarriers and could supplement or supplant those larger ships in a variety of operational scenarios are hardly new

The Navy, together with the U.S. Marine Corps, is already actively experimenting with the Lightning Carrier concept, which involves configuring amphibious assault ships for more sustained operations using F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. Again, ships in this configuration are not meant to replace supercarriers, but instead offer a valuable alternative, or supplemental aviation capacity for a traditional carrier strike group, in certain situations.

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The first-in-class amphibious assault ship USS Wasp seen with an unusually large number of F-35Bs on board last year.

There also remains a standing debate about whether it makes sense to pour so many resources into a relatively small number of very large carriers. These concerns are magnified when considering the potential vulnerability of supercarriers to new and emerging anti-access and area denial capabilities that major adversaries, such as China and Russia, are steadily developing and fielding.

The Navy has experienced a tumultuous past few years when it comes to its senior leadership, so it very much remains to be seen what direction the service will take, broadly, if Braithwaite does get confirmed. If and when this happens, which does seem likely, he will be the first confirmed Secretary of the Navy since Richard Spencer got forced out over a scandal concerning the handling of a war crimes case against Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher in November 2019. 

Spencer had also famously told President Donald Trump to fire him if all of Ford's Advanced Weapon Elevators were not working when the ship departed its most recent major stint in dry dock. The former Secretary of the Navy had subsequently lashed out at members of Congress and shipbuilding Huntington Ingalls after it became clear that that goal would not get met. 

All told, despite all the criticisms and concerns, the Navy's existing plans for the Ford class now seem secure for the moment. Still, the debates about the future composition of the service's carrier fleets don't appear to be going away, either.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com