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New Ford Class Flattop Construction Costs Still Climbing

by Greg on May 19, 2010

Back in April 2009, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates upended the program of record, he announced that construction of the new Ford (CVN-78) class carriers would be slowed to one carrier every five years. His reasoning: it would put carrier construction on “a more fiscally sustainable path.”

Naval analyst extraordinaire Ron O’Rourke explains how it was supposed to work:

“As a simplified notional example, if carriers are assumed to cost $10 billion each, then shifting from a four-year interval to a five-year interval would reduce the average amount of carrier procurement funding needed each year from $2.5 billion to $2.0 billion, a reduction of $500 million per year.”

That is not what’s happening. O’Rourke crunched the latest figures on the first three ships in the Ford class and they don’t look good. The estimated costs for CVNs 78, 79, and 80 in the proposed 2011 budget are 10.3%, 13.3% and 26.7% higher than the same estimates in the 2009 budget. In the 2009 budget, CVN-80 was projected to cost $10.7 billion; now its projected cost is $13.5 billion.

He surmises that increasing the build interval may reduce “learning-curve benefits” from one carrier to the next and may reduce the spreading of fixed overhead and material costs by the shipyards. The five year interval might also have a ripple effect on other ship builds, including mid-life reactor refueling on the Nimitz class carriers and the Virginia class submarines.

More squeeze on an already tight shipbuilding budget.

– Greg Grant

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Richmor May 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I heard congress was going to switch back to a 4-year build cycle. Wouldnt that solve this problem

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brian May 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Umm, the point of slowing the Carrier construction is to reduce Carrier Operating Costs by having fewer Carriers available to man, not the construction costs. The Cost of building a new Carrier is trivial compared to the cost of fielding, manning and equipping it. Because these are capital construction programs, this has the added benefit of tying the hands of the next administration if they should choose to expand production. In Reality once the Carrier Force has lost a Carrier, its never replaced because the political costs are too high. Once a Carrier is built is used until retirement and those funds can't be used elsewhere, like SS and Medicare.

Obviously this is an stupid policy, since the 2020's will most likely see a sharp increase in the threats that a Carrier is built for to tackle. This inevitably means that we will need to keep aging carriers well past their primes because we will not have new carriers to replace them in an increased threat environment. In such a case we will have to pay more since we will not be seeing the cost savings that the new Ford class introduces.

If we really wanted to make some savings, we should decommission Carriers ahead of schedule and increase production now. That way will have a more affordable better armed Carrier Force when we need it in 10 years

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SMSgt Mac May 19, 2010 at 11:25 pm

First, stretching a program costs more because there is an infrastructure overhead that is there as long as you're making the product. Adding a year to the plan increases shipyard overhead 20%. Nice move. There is a huge fraction of the workforce you now have to keep working longer to produce the same number of units, in this case 'one' in that five year period. If turnover of personel is x%, you just increased the training burden by at least .2*x%. Long lead items already purchased have to be stored and manged longer. Future items not yet procured are bought in more expensive, later-year dollars. It goes on. Everyone should have to take MIcro and Macro Economics in middle school, repeat and expand upon it in High School and College. That way everyone would know this stuff and stupid ideas about 'savings' through 'stretching' would never arise.
Second. One of Norm Augustine's most enduring 'Laws' is that 'change' costs…no mater what kind of change it is.

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SMSgt Mac May 19, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Sheesh.
'managed' not 'manged'
'MIcro' not 'MIcro'
'matter' not 'mater'
…and I wasn't even on the PDA this time. Need new glasses or fingers or both.

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SMSgt Mac May 19, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Sheesh x 2:
'Micro' not MIcro'

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mike j May 20, 2010 at 1:38 am

It's part of Murphy's Law. All comments on typos contain typos.

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joe May 19, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Time for the Stupid Question…

Do we still need "Super Carriers" to begin with?

Are the Carriers we have now, going out with the full compliment of Aircraft intended, or reduced strength? Could a Carrier built at the size of the Lexington, proform the same duties and face the same threats as the Super Carriers of today, but with todays technology, automation, Self Defense, and smaller crew size?
Could we possibly send a carrier with 2/3s the aircaft of today and still complete the missions required of it? Would this be possible to get a ship building program that provides 1 1/2 Carrier per 1 Carrier today?

Just how big is the threat, and capabilities of preceived enemies in 2020 and beyound?

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Day May 20, 2010 at 4:20 pm

while it is true that smaller "carriers" such as america class amphib ships are able to get most jobs done in low intensity conflict situations, supercarriers are able to project naval and air power like nothing else on earth, and current small carriers just cant match them. add to this the fairly unstable world environment of today, id say theyll be around for some time yet, even if only as a conventional deterant.

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Bert09 May 20, 2010 at 12:16 am

It won't be long before the Obama Administration decides we can't afford these carriers. It simply takes too much away from the entitlement-expansion budget.

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Bert09 May 20, 2010 at 12:18 am

"Just how big is the threat, and capabilities of preceived enemies in 2020 and beyound?"

World War I was the "War to end all wars". I'd rather maintain a Navy capable of fighting larger enemies like North Korea or, God forbid, China than scale down to one only capable of fighting insurgents only. And then learn we shouldn't have done that.

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Howe May 20, 2010 at 12:28 am

Not stupid at all Joe.

Those kinds of questions need to be asked. (to the military & congress)

BTW…The Ford class carriers will have a smaller crew…a thousand people less.

I personally like carriers…but I also realize that their time has come and gone. We shouldn't be replacing the Nimitz class carriers at all, once their done, their done.

Countries like Russia & China could sink a carrier so easily, they would serve no useful purpose at all in a big war. and smaller wars…its only a matter of time before countries like Iran get good enough with missiles that they too will be able to press a button, and make a carrier disappear.
I'm all for a strong military, including the Navy…but the big uber-expensive carrier, isn't the way.

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martin May 20, 2010 at 1:13 am

"…Costs still climbing"…kinda like Reaganomics. We shouldn't worry. All this dough will soon trickle down to the middle class.

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Locarno May 20, 2010 at 9:33 am

Relative to what, though?
A stand-off bomber/strategic conventional capability headquartered in the continental US, obviously, but that's comparing apples to wednesdays.

If you want the ability to field 20-50 tonne combat aircraft anywhere in the world (which is a yes-no question, it's not a given response), then either you need:

a) Static airfields within flight range of everywhere in the world
b) The tanker network from hell (and somewhere to quarter the tankers – which either requires a partial version of 'a' or needs more tankers to fuel the first tankers…)
c) A mobile airfield – i.e. a carrier – and navalised aircraft

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Locarno May 20, 2010 at 9:33 am

Given the current threat everyone's getting terrified of is conventional ballistic missiles, a carrier is a lot safer place to be than an immobile target – however 'hardened'.

Yes, anti-ship missiles are a bigger risk, but (in theory) you can't aim over the horizon at it, because if you can't see it in real time, you have to assume it's moved, and (in a war situation at least) anything heading towards the carrier group in the air, on the water or up in orbit to get an exact position gets turned into scrap metal, and you're operating far enough off-shore that things like small craft swarms and short-legged jet aircraft can't reach you.

So goes the theory, at least.

Of course the problem is if someone fires ACBMs at the ship 'pre-emptively'. Then you have a bad day.

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Chops May 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm

The protection layers for a Carrier Battle Group are very strong–but–what chance would the CBG have if they were facing a massive launch of missiles and aircraft.Not to mention the fact that one nuke within a mile of a carrier would probably put it out of action.If it didn't sink it it would at least end flight ops–then what?

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Dean May 20, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Hey Chops
If the bad guys hit us with a nuke then it would be all over for them shortly.

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Chops May 20, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Possibly–but I doubt that our current president would have the stones to retaliate in kind.

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J Weich May 21, 2010 at 6:06 am

No offence, but after seeing the over-the-top reaction to 9/11, which involved killing an awful lot of innocent people that had nothing to do with it, I think it would take much larger stones to
think twice in the face of the braying hordes calling for revenge.

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Blight May 21, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Impetuous has it: that the apex naval weapon is the one with the most range and sufficient power. The question is is if the carrier still qualifies. The answer might be no.

If Putin/Medvedev says screw IMF treaty then it's time to bring back IRBMs and turn some SSBNs into IRBM boats. I don't know if a Tomahawk exchange versus the assassin's mace would work out but I suppose it could be wargamed.

Considering that China would decentralize their missile launching platforms and control systems, there's no hope that a quick surgical strike would cripple the mace.

The Soviets had draft plans for a submersible aircraft carrier, but I doubt anything beyond paper was thought of. Would putting more of the Navy under water improve survivability?

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Blight May 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Scratch that, the Soviets were working on submersible LSTs during the Cold War.

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Dennis October 18, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The for see able future enemy?
For planning purposes, I would look at the worst case situation.
1) china spazzes about Taiwan and the South China sea like Lybia did during the President Reagon day's about the Gulf of Sidra. Worse Taiwain unifies with China and all the tech that they have goes to China.
2)Russia is trying to bring all the x Soviet countries back into the fold with Putin's proposal of a Russia Union. Clearly trying to rebuild the glory day's of the Soviet Union and become a world power again. trying to bring Europe to its knees by supplying all their natural gas through Ukraine.
Both countries have a good size naval presence if a conflict should occur.
YES, Carriers are still needed.
With the entry above, yes things would have gone wrong with that many missles inbound.
I was stationed on board the USS NIMITZ from November 1986 for a total of 6 years.
1) the radar will detect the incoming planes at about 500 + miles out.
2) Fighters will intercept before 200 miles.
3) Then Ageis can take over at 200 miles and sams would be fired.
4) Then the new box like missle launcher that is new to the fleet, that has 32 missles per box and there is usually two of these on a carrier and have a range of 5 miles would be used at any incoming missles.
5) The the ciwis which there are at least two on most carriers would be used with a range of 2000 yards.
6) Plus you have chaff on carriers as well as ecm. (Electronic Counter Measures)
7) While this is going on you have the escorts as well with all their missles firing.
It would take quite allot of planes to get through.

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J Weich May 21, 2010 at 5:52 am

I wish I had your faith, but none of this has been proven. Carriers don't disappear in the ocean and are easily trackable, unless you "decommission" the other sides satellites. If you do that then it's armageddon. Even without them a carrier battle group makes one hell of a noise. There are a lot of weapons that have been designed specifically to take out carriers. Like every weapon before carriers, there are countermeasures. Carriers are great for threatening up countries like Iraq, but are rapidly heading for obsolescence as a viable strategic force. Witness their hasty withdrawal from the Straits of Hormuz because of the threat from such a lowly power as Iran. Carriers' days are numbered. They have performed their duty well, but they are now becoming just large targets, as Gates implied last week.

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J Weich May 21, 2010 at 6:00 am

Except that up until now an aircraft carrier could defend itself with aircraft. But steerable, satellite guided ballistic missiles and supersonic anti-ship missiles were not around in the 1950s.The defences against those have not really been proven, and from what I've heard, the powers that be no longer have faith that they could be countered. The problem with carriers is that they are too big to fail (what does that remind me of!). If one is lost, then what then? There is only one option, and that ain't pretty. Gates is right.

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talkmoreprogram May 21, 2010 at 2:49 pm

"steerable, satellite guided ballistic missiles" lol, what are you talking about? People like you make me remember the day when they shouted out that the day of tanks were numbered because of ATGM.

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Dean May 21, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Hey J
Do you remember the old Soviet Union? They devoted great resources in systems and weapons who sole purpose was to destroy the carriers-that's how much they feared the carriers. Remember the Backfire bomber and the Shipwreck/Sunburn missiles? The Navy put systems and weapons in place to deal with this 'real' threat-not vapor ware like the Chinese stuff. The Soviet understood the power of the carrier and that's why they devoted so many resources toward destroying them, but ultimately the Navy was able to stay a few steps ahead of the Soviets and negate their systems. While there is no perfect defense against any offensive weapons you can make it very very expensive for the bad guys to attempt an attack on the carrier. So my question to you is: if we don't have carriers what do we have?

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J Weich May 22, 2010 at 3:44 am

As Israel found out to be true in it's last incursion into Lebanon.

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J Weich May 22, 2010 at 3:48 am

Actually the Soviets had high confidence in their ability to destroy carrier battle groups and with good reason. That was thirty years ago. Time moves on, and as it does, carriers become more vulnerable, not less.

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Jimbo May 22, 2010 at 4:40 am

And yet tanks are the best option in Iraq, land of IEDs and RGP-7s, interesting….
And read history before you mention Israel. They lost that incursion because of poor planning and tactics, not because the tanks were arcane technology destined for the graveyard.

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talkmoreprogram May 22, 2010 at 8:18 am

come on, read some history first. Lebanon was just a walk in the park compared to Yom Kippur.

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talkmoreprogram May 22, 2010 at 8:23 am

From when did "confidence" become equal to "capability"? "carriers become more vulnerable, not less" – Prove it! Actually all you did is just screaming your own opinion, judgment without any supporting fact. Save yourself and others some time.

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