The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was commissioned this week, and it was not just her sleek design that drew gasps from crowds. The ship’s eye-watering $13 billion projected cost, once fully operation in 2020, three years after commissioning, continued to amaze pundits, politicians, naval enthusiasts, and just casual observers. To give the reader some perspective, the entire twenty-four aircraft carrier fleet of the Essex class built during WWII cost $1.75 billion–about $20 billion in 2017 dollars. Three Ford-class carriers are expected to cost at least $43 billion.
What is often mentioned in the media is that the Ford will be equipped with a state of the art electronic propulsion jet launcher rather than the steam launcher featured on most aircraft carriers of the last five decades. As if this was a good reason for Newport News Shipbuilding to be billing the U.S. Navy the stupendous price tag for the ship. What is not likely mentioned are a number of modern wish list items promised to be eventually operational. This likely include the latest anti-ship anti-missile system, close proximity defense system (e.g., to fend off fast attack boats), electronics surveillance and electronic warfare suite, satellite communications system, and nuclear propulsion. The ship’s self sufficiency is also likely to be enhanced over that of its predecessors.
The fact is that most of the ship’s costs are wrapped up in research and development and system integration, rather than the actual building of the hull and superstructure, and the installation of its various parts. The ship is the pinnacle of a defense contractor boondoggle, employing thousands of engineers and fabricators across dozens of U.S. states that sport congressional representatives on plum defense spending committees. Only Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program is likely to have as many pigs feeding at the trough.
Another chunk of the cost is no doubt due to the fact that only one shipbuilder builds aircraft carriers, just like only one airframe manufacturer builds F-35 Lightning II’s. As this blog has emphasized in the past, choosing only one prime contractor to build one weapons system at a time is a stupid way for the Defense Department to procure military hardware. Not only does the lack of competition bloat costs far in excess of any savings in logistics, it slows down innovation that would otherwise normally occur due to natural competition.
The former Soviet Union was fond of dumping enormous sums of treasure into state-of- the-art weapons systems, particularly in aircraft and submarines. Their equipment was often the best in the world and unmatched in head-on-head comparisons with comparable NATO equipment. Their advanced equipment was also unreliable and rife with operational shortcomings that often limited their application in a sustained conflict. If this sounds familiar, it is because the Pentagon has been accused in the last twenty years of engaging in the same type of ego-driven procurement.
The fact is that the USS Ford aircraft carrier was already obsolete before its commissioning. Floating forward mobile bases committed to specific operating theaters are likely to be the platform of the future–bases that service a variety of smaller and faster naval vessels, including significantly cheaper light carriers that can quickly get into missions with smaller and more efficient crews. And they won’t harbor the same defensive limitations that traditionally-hulled vessels have by their very nature.
There is no question the USS Ford is a magnificent boat. It is the ultimate admiral’s plaything–sexy and powerful, and capable of tremendous force projection. It is also the modern-day equivalent of the HMS Dreadnought. Just like battleships were superseded by carriers, supercarriers will have their comeuppance.