U.S. Navy planners are beginning to realize that the large, nuclear powered aircraft carrier may no longer be practical or affordable. Costing over $12 billion each, these ships are prime targets for a growing number of large, fast anti-ship missiles designed to evade defenses and go after large ships like this. Soon the United States will have to start replacing its ten Nimitz class carriers and given the amount of money the navy can expect to get over the next decade, the cash is not there to replace the Nimitz ships with $12 billion Ford class vessels.
This problem is not something sudden and unexpected. There have been signs that this was where carrier costs were headed. For example, in 2012 the U.S. Navy began the lengthy and expensive process of retiring its first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. That left only ten nuclear carriers, all of the Nimitz class in service plus two new Ford class carriers (in effect an “improved Nimitz” design) under construction. Despite being escorted by warships with powerful anti-missile and anti-submarine systems, simulations show that the dwindling carrier force is increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of mine, missile and torpedo designs customized to sink large carriers. It was also embarrassing to discover how expensive it was even to just take a nuclear carrier out of service.
Enterprise entered service in 1962 and was decommissioned in 2013 after half a century of service. While the U.S. Navy has made many large vessels available as museum ships, the nuclear powered carriers are off-limits. This is because it costs over half a billion dollars to retire a nuclear powered carrier and most of the cost goes to removing and disposing of the nuclear reactors. That leaves the carrier partially disassembled and in no shape to be a museum. In contrast a non-nuclear powered carrier costs less than $60 million to decommission. Many veterans of the ten Nimitz class carriers pressed the navy to allow the “island” (the tall structure on the side of the flight deck) of the Nimitz (to be retired in 2025) to be preserved as a museum, but the navy refused. It would be too expensive. That may not be a problem, as there are over half a million veterans who served on a Nimitz class carrier and some of them may come up with a solution and the needed cash.
Meanwhile the U.S. already has five retired aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) that have been turned into museum ships. There are also ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) plus over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines. More are on the way, if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. The World War II museum ships are all up for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive, even more so for post-World War II ships.
The existence of these museum ships also serves to remind people how much warship building costs have escalated since World War II. A World War II carrier, like the Essex class, would, with inflation, cost about a billion dollars to build today. But the Essex class ships were about 30 percent the size of the Fords. But even if you multiply the World War II price by four the “modern Essex” would cost only a third of what the Fords cost. Several other developments account for the cost difference. One is technology. This enables older designs to do a lot more without being larger or weighing more. All this tech is not cheap. But the other problem is warship construction is not a competitive business and in addition to being sloppy many additional costs (most of them political rather than practical) have been added. Lots of it is new government rules, some of which are politically motivated and many others add nothing to a warship but higher costs. The worst problem is that new tech makes it possible to create new weapons that make these large, expensive carriers easier to destroy. Too easy as far as many navy planners can see. The cost and requirements problems are moving navy planners to seriously reconsider the current plans for replacing the Nimitz class carriers on a one-for-one basis with Fords. Doing that is increasingly no longer affordable. Alternatives are more missiles on ships or much cheaper ships carrying lots of missiles or vertical take-off aircraft. While these large carriers are quite useful during peacetime, they have become an unaffordable liability in wartime.