WASHINGTON — Former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly hadn’t been out of the job more than a month before the Navy canceled an ongoing study he’d launched into the future of aircraft carriers — a review he optimistically termed “Future Carrier 2030.”

Modly and his predecessor, Richard Spencer, had been excited by the prospect of fielding smaller, more risk-worthy carriers that could reduce the chance of China or Russia landing a major punch in a conflict simply by sinking or disabling a single ship, such as a Nimitz- or Ford-class aircraft carrier with thousands of sailors and tens of billions of dollars of hardware aboard.

But very soon after Modly’s spectacular departure, former acting Secretary James McPherson canceled the study until further notice. Still, as the effort to move to a smaller carrier seems frozen — as it has been for decades every time someone suggested it — the Navy is forging ahead with preparing its big-deck boats — the amphibious assault ships — for operating with the Marine Corp’s F-35B. The Corps’ F-35 fighter jet is a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant.

The Navy recently inked a $200 million contract with BAE Systems to upgrade the amphibious assault ship Boxer to be able to operate with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the fifth landing helicopter assault ship to be so amended.

“The USS Boxer [dry-dock availability] will complete a combination of maintenance, modernization, and repair of the following systems: Hull structure, propulsion, electrical plant, auxiliary systems, and communications and combat systems, as well as alterations to prepare the ship for operations with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF),” according to a statement from Naval Sea Systems command.

But the idea of smaller carriers is one the Navy has been flirting with more recently. Last fall, the Navy packed 13 F-35Bs on the amphibious assault ship America. Then-Navy Secretary Spencer later said the ship could hold up to 20.

“I will tell you, we are augmenting the aircraft carrier with our ideas, such as this lightning carrier,” Spencer said at the Brookings Institution think tank. “Twenty F-35 Bravos on a large-deck amphib. My cost performance there is tremendous. Does it have the same punch? No, it doesn’t, but it does have a very interesting sting to it.”

The Boxer, which is an older class of big-deck amphib, could likely pack about 15 F-35Bs if it were dedicated for the purpose, according to Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The idea of a lighter carrier is also one that has intrigued Defense Secretary Mark Esper. In an interview with Defense News that coincided with the fiscal 21 budget rollout, Esper raised the possibility that lighter carriers were still on the agenda.

“There are various ways to do carriers,” Esper said. “So we can talk numbers or we can talk the sizes of carriers, right? There’s been discussion in the past about: Do you keep building big carriers, or do you go to smaller carriers, lightning carriers? Acting Secretary Modly and I have talked about that.

“I think this gets into the future fleet designs we look at. That will be one element that we look at.”

‘What’s the objective?’

The Navy has shied away from lighter carriers for decades because, as expensive as the carriers are, they generate more sorties for less money than it would cost a comparable number of smaller carriers to generate.

But the utility of a smaller carrier that still has a mean bite was recently demonstrated when a COVID-19 outbreak on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt sidelined the flat top in Guam in the middle of its deployment. The Navy directed the America to the South China Sea to provide presence there to dissuade China from taking advantage of the Roosevelt’s misfortune.

Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Alexis Bias, assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, disinfects the mooring line on May 21, 2020, following an extended visit to Guam in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (MC3 Conner D. Blake/U.S. Navy)
Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Alexis Bias, assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, disinfects the mooring line on May 21, 2020, following an extended visit to Guam in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (MC3 Conner D. Blake/U.S. Navy)

That was a win for the idea of a smaller carrier, said Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute.

“The ability of the America to be on scene when the Roosevelt was not was a good thing,” he said. “Look I don’t think anyone is going to argue that it replaces a Ford-class carrier, but the idea of a more distributed force is a sensible one.

“I’m not saying that the Navy should stop building Ford-class carriers; I’m saying they should be including smaller carriers."

The reason is pretty simple, Cropsey said: China’s missiles.

“I think there is definitely a strategic reason to do it: It’s called the DF-21 and DF-24, and China’a ability to fill the sky with missiles over the South China Sea. The Navy gets it, but implementing the idea and turning into tangible programs is the problem.”

The first step for the Navy is to figure out what it wants to achieve when it comes to countering China, he said.

“My strong opinion [is] that the issue is compounded by the lack of a strategic concept,” Cropsey said. “What’s the plan? What’s the objective? Once the Navy is able to articulate that, questions such as the ones being asked about [smaller carriers] will resolve themselves much more easily.”