The U.S. Navy is facing a cash crisis. Its current fleet is still full of Cold War era ships that are rapidly wearing out. The replacements cost more than the navy can afford, now or in the next decade or so. Looking for ways to manage the inevitable shrinking, some navy officials are saying the unthinkable, that the navy rely less on carriers, if only because it cannot afford to replace the ten it has now. The most extreme solution is to build fewer carriers and more destroyers and rely on cruise missiles fired from surface ships and submarines, instead of smart bombs dropped by carrier aircraft.
A study of combat situations over the last few decades that involved carrier aircraft showed that most of these brief campaigns could have been handled by cruise missiles launched from destroyers and submarines. This is particularly true now because new models of cruise missiles have two-way communications and the ability to look for targets as well as attack them. The missiles have a longer range (2,500 kilometers) than carrier aircraft and long range reconnaissance UAVs (like Global Hawk, which even the navy is buying), along with satellites, provide the eyes that carrier aircraft long featured as a key capability.
To deal with situations requiring longer (sustained) operations, four or five carriers could be kept in service. Carrier admirals find this appalling, but with the high cost of new ships and shrinking budgets, something has to give. While the 8,000 VLS cells on U.S. ships must carry anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-missile missiles in addition to cruise missiles, many of the cells can be filled with cruise missiles and these have increasingly been used in combat over the last two decades. American nuclear submarines can deliver over 500 cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, the shift from carriers to missile carrying ships is already under way. Four years ago the U.S. Navy decided to build only three of the new DDG-1000 class ships and resume building older DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers instead. It was a matter of cost. The new DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost $1.9 billion each. The last of 62 original Burkes was ordered in 2002, and the last of those entered service in 2011. But now, another 13 are on order and construction has begun. The DDG-51 is less than half the cost of the DDG-1000, but some navy officials believe that, in the long run, the larger and more expensive DDG-1000 would be a better investment. Existing Burkes and cruisers are being refurbished to extend their service life. The key problem here is the inability of the navy to control costs, and cost estimates, and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for new technologies.
The first of the new Ford-class (CVN-21) aircraft carriers will go for at least $14 billion (this includes R&D for the entire CVN-21 class). The current Nimitz-class carriers cost $4.5 billion each. After the first one, Ford class carriers will cost twice that. Both classes also require an air wing (48-50 fighters, plus airborne early-warning planes, electronic warfare aircraft, and anti-submarine helicopters), which costs another $3.5 billion.
World War II carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy (the only fleet to use large carriers). Only the U.S. has a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. But no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new weapons for use against carriers and made plans to use them, but that war never occurred. China is beginning to build carriers but is not committed to having a lot of them. Many naval planners worry that the next war will find carriers coming off second best to nuclear submarines and missiles. As in the past, we'll never know unless there's a war to test any new theories about how you give battle to aircraft carriers.
Over the last three decades, the United States, and later several other nations, have adopted the eight cell VLS (Vertical Launch System), where anti-aircraft, anti-ship, or cruise missiles are launched directly from the vertical launch tubes (cells) just beneath the decks of warships. The launch tubes also contain electronic connections that enable the crew to monitor the condition and readiness of the missiles. Most cells contain only one missile, although the smaller Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missile can fit four to a VLS cell. Since 1982, over 11,000 VLS cells have been installed in nearly 200 American and foreign warships. The most common VLS user is the American Burke class destroyer, with 90 VLS cells. A smaller number of cruisers have 122 VLS cells each. Some of the older Spruance class destroyers got 61 VLS cells.
In the 1980s, there was some debate over the need for an at-sea VLS reloading capability for surface ships. A system was developed, but it meant losing six cells (three for the forward VLS cells and three for the ones aft, in the rear of the ship). This crane system was dropped, so that the ships could use more cells for missiles. Back then, it was believed that any future war would mainly be a series of hard fought initial battles, when every VLS cell counted. It was also found that actually reloading those cells was very difficult at sea and was really only practical if the ships dropped anchor in a harbor or other sheltered space to do the reloading. Currently, the U.S. Navy has 3,500 cruise missiles, with most of them deployed about ships and submarines. This inventory would have to grow at a cost of several billion dollars (the missiles cost $1.5 million each) to provide a war reserve, in addition to solving the reloading problems.