Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the most expensive single weapons America buys — so expensive they’re paid for in installments.
And America’s newest carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, which is to be christened Nov. 9 at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, is the most expensive yet, costing more than $16 billion to develop and build.
But these ships are worth the cost, delivering a unique, flexible, national capability that lasts decades: the Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, was decommissioned only last year — after an astounding 51 years of service.
The new Ford-class carriers will remain in service for nearly a century. They’re expected to be less costly to run, thanks to new reactor, catapult and other technologies that cut 1,000 sailors from each ship’s crew, reducing life-cycle operating costs by billions of dollars per ship.
Critics argue aircraft carriers are obsolete dinosaurs vulnerable to missile attack and requiring too many assets to protect. But with new defenses and strategies to counter emerging threats, carriers will remain valuable military and diplomatic tools well into the future.
The Ford’s value is embodied in its expansive, well-designed flight deck, which brings to bear more than four acres of highly mobile sovereign American territory to influence events worldwide.
But the carrier alone is worthless without its air wing, which must include stealth aircraft and long-range manned and unmanned strike and reconnaissance jets to remain relevant into the future and to provide an unbeatable punch even as threats change.
Actually, the biggest threat to the carrier isn’t foreign missiles but domestic budget uncertainty and ill-considered budget cuts that can drive up the cost of a vital platform. Sticking to the design — and the production schedule — are essential.
While the Ford, and the next ship in her class, the John F. Kennedy, aren’t affected for the time being, the ships could be vulnerable later, thanks to sequestration and a continuing resolution. Without relief, there is a risk of halting construction on Ford, delaying Kennedy and setting back the planned overhaul and refueling of the George Washington.
America’s carriers are among just a handful of unique military capabilities that set the United States apart as a global power. Along with submarines, space, stealth and strategic strike and mobility programs such as long-range transports, aerial refueling and long-range bombers, these attributes are what make America a superpower.
This is why it is so essential that the military service chiefs focus their efforts not on retaining manpower and numbers but rather on capabilities and that they seize the initiative to forge a more efficient military that packs the maximum punch for the dollars invested. To do otherwise — to leave the future of the force to the political process — would be a grave mistake.
Colin Powell’s Base Force, crafted as a roadmap for a smaller military in the wake of the Cold War, remains the operative model for a sensible drawdown. It is an approach that should be emulated again.
Further budget cuts are inevitable. The deal that ended the government shutdown and extended the nation’s borrowing limit depends on sequestration-level reductions, and the odds are any ultimate deal will cut deeper still. The stakes could not be higher.
Congress must give the Pentagon the flexibility to cut smartly, and DoD and military leaders must drop the notion that more money might somehow still be available if they only argue successfully.
Leaders must budget for what they’re likely to get, not what they wish for, and must forge a plan that retains proven capabilities while investing in those needed for the future.