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Ship Building - Aircraft Carrier

The "2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment (FSA)" of 14 Decmber 2016 stated "A minimum of 12 Aircraft Carriers are required to meet the increased warfighting response requirements of the Defense Planning Guidance Defeat/Deny force sizing direction."

On 02 March 2017 Donald Trump called for a 12-carrier Navy during a visit to the future USS Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia. “In these troubled times, our Navy is the smallest it’s been since World War I. That’s a long time ago. In fact, I just spoke with Navy and industry leaders and have discussed my plans to undertake a major expansion of our entire Navy fleet, including having the 12-carrier Navy we need.”

The Department of Defense (DoD) submitted to the Congress the Navy’s 2016 shipbuilding plan for fiscal years 2016 to 2045 in April 2015. Under its 2016 shipbuilding plan, the Navy would purchase 6 aircraft carriers between 2016 and 2045, at a rate of one every five years (referred to as five-year centers). That plan would be sufficient to maintain a force of 11 aircraft carriers through 2039. However, with a 50-year expected service life, the force would fall to 10 carriers in 2040 and beyond. To maintain a force of 11 carriers that serve in the fleet for 50 years would require purchasing 1 ship every 4½ years rather than 1 every 5 years as is called for under the Navy’s current plan. The Navy estimates an average cost of $11.3 billion for the 6 carriers in the 2016 shipbuilding plan, the CVN-80 through CVN-85. CBO’s estimate is $12.3 billion per ship.

The defense budget proposal for 2015 will keep an 11th aircraft carrier in commission. Defense Secretary Chucke Hagel said in a 24 February 2014 briefing: "The spending levels proposed under the president's budget plan would also enable the Navy to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. However, we will have to make a final decision on the future of the George Washington aircraft carrier in the 2016 budget submission. If sequestration spending levels remained in place in fiscal year 2016, she would need to be retired before her scheduled nuclear refueling and overhaul. That would leave the Navy with 10 carrier strike groups. But keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost $6 billion, so we would have no other choice than to retire her should sequestration-level cuts be re-imposed. At the president's budget level, we would pay for the overhaul and maintain 11 carriers."

In early 2014 four top think tanks — AEI, CNAS, CSBA, and CSIS — presented cutting the number of carriers as the “least unacceptable” option to deal with the deep budget cuts known as sequestration. None of the four teams in a recent “budget wargame” simulating the next 10 years chose to scrap all the flattops or even most of them. None of them even stopped building the new Ford-class carriers. Instead they opted to keep the industrial base alive with new production while retiring two, three, or even four of the existing carriers, which would avoid expensive mid-life overhauls like the one the USS George Washington is due to start in 2014.

Throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, the Navy pursued a goal of creating a fleet of nuclear carrier task forces. The centerpiece of these task forces, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, would be escorted by nuclear-powered surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines. In deciding to build nuclear-powered surface combatants, the Navy believed that the greatest benefit would be achieved when all the combatant ships in the task force were nuclear powered. Nonetheless, the Navy procured the last nuclear- powered surface combatant in 1975 because this vessel was so expensive. More recently, relatively new and highly capable nuclear-powered surface combatants have been decommissioned because of the affordability problems facing the Navy.

Flexibility of operations, such as the ability to steam at high speeds for unlimited distances without refueling; increased capacity for aviation fuel; increased capacity for other consumables, such as munitions; and the higher speeds of the advanced nuclear carrier over conventional carriers are some of the factors that need to be considered when evaluating nuclear- and conventionally powered carriers. Other considerations include the availability and location of homeports and nuclear-capable shipyards for maintenance and repairs and other supporting infrastructure, such as for training; the effect of out-of-homeport maintenance on the amount of time personnel are away from their homeport; and the disposal of nuclear materials and radioactively contaminated materials.

The midlife modernization period represents the service life extension program for conventional carriers and the nuclear refueling complex overhaul for nuclear carriers. A service life extension program includes repairs to the basic hull, power generation systems, and auxiliary systems; upgrades of basic support systems to meet present and future weapon system requirements; and upgrades of aircraft launch and recovery systems. A refueling complex overhaul includes refueling the reactor plant, making propulsion plant repairs, and performing the mandatory modernization of aircraft launch and recovery systems and ship electronics and communications systems.

Decommissioning and disposal costs to inactivate a Nimitz-class nuclear carrier is estimated at $750 million to $900 million, almost one-quarter the cost of procuring a new Nimitz-class carrier. These costs are normally funded in the Navy's operations and maintenance appropriation account. The nuclear carrier inactivation cost is approximately 20 times the cost estimated for the decommissioning and disposal of conventional carriers currently in the fleet.

   Annual Operating and Support Costs for
     Nuclear-and Conventionally Powered
   (Fiscal year 1993 dollars in millions)
Carrier type                            cost
----------------------------------  ----------
Nimitz-class nuclear carrier            $235.4
Kitty Hawk/John F. Kennedy class         196.3
conventional carrier         
Additional cost for nuclear-power         $39.1
Estimates include the cost of 
initial nuclear fueling and refueling. 

The US Navy's responsibilities under the National Security Strategy is defined primarily through the Global Naval Force Presence Policy (GNFPP). The opening sentence of the GNFPP states that USCINCCENT, USCINCPAC, and USCINCEUR each has a requirement for continuous carrier battle group and amphibious ready group (ARG) with embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (special operations capable)(MEU (SOC)) presence within their areas of responsibility. The Navy has not had the force structure necessary to meet this requirement for several years. Therefore, the GNFPP apportions the available CVBGs and ARG/MEU(SOC) assets among the Unified Commanders so that, on average, there are approximately 2.5-2.75 CVBGs and 2.5-2.75 ARG/MEU(SOC) forward deployed at all times.

By the end of the Cold War the Navy maintained about three carriers deployed overseas most of the time, though three carriers constitute only one-quarter of the carrier fleet. In peacetime, some carriers are in repair; others are in US ports to provide stateside duty time for their crews; still others are in transit to their operating stations. But the Navy maintained five of its 13 carriers overseas in the late 1970s, and throughout the 1980s the Navy planned on a third of the 15-carrier fleet being deployed overseas.

Some policymakers contended that the United States did not need a force of 12 carriers, since US tactical airpower substantially exceeds that of any potential regional adversary. The Navy had a variety of ships other than carriers, including surface warfare units and large flat-deck amphibious vessels, that contributed to maintaining a U.S. naval presence in peacetime. In 1990, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services recommended a force of 10 to 12 carriers. And during the 1992 campaign, President Clinton called for a Navy with 10 carriers.

The marginal increase in coverage realized from increasing carrier force structure does not significantly diminish until the number of carriers increases beyond twelve. Response time for the arrival of the first carrier is determined strongly by homeport and deployment locations relative to the crisis location and is not strongly influenced by the carrier force structure unless the number of carriers is significantly reduced from the current number. However, the time required to have two carriers respond to the crisis is strongly influenced by the number of carriers in the Navy force structure.

In 1993 the House and Senate disagreed strongly over funding for the CVN-76 aircraft carrier. Finally, in a compromise, a process was agreed to whereby up to $1.2 billion was provided, instead of the $3.4 billion approved by the Senate. In March 1993, the Secretary of Defense initiated the Bottom-Up Review (BUR) of the nation's defense strategy, force structure, modernization, infrastructure, and foundations to evaluated defense needs in light of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The BUR concluded that a force of 10 carriers was adequate to meet war-fighting requirements, but 12 carriers (11 active and 1 reserve/training carrier) were needed to maintain overseas presence. This force level objectives were subsequently reaffirmed in the Quadrennial Defense Review of 1997.

The Bottom-Up Review also directed the Navy to evaluate "a full range of sea-based platforms to project air power and meet our military needs in the period 2020 and beyond." The Navy's Future Sea-Based Air Platform Study Group recommended that the Navy pursue a two-pronged strategy. In the near-term, the would acquire a 10th Nimitz carrier (CVN-77) to replace the Kitty Hawk (CV-63) when it retires in the year 2008. And the second recommendation was the development of a plan for developing follow-on, sea-basing platforms for the 21st century. This Future Carrier Assessment was to be a five-year effort funded at $159 million over 1996-2001. However, the Congress has declined to fully fund this undertaking.

The draft Naval Vessel Force Structure Requirements report, which was requested by Congress in 1999 and completed in early 2000, called for a fleet of over 360 ships, 44 more than in the current fleet. It would include 15 aircraft carriers, three more than now in service, and 68 attack submarines, a dozen more than in today's force. The Navy would have to spend up to $19 billion for 10 to 12 ships annually, roughly triple the FY2000 budget of $6.4 billion shipbuilding, which funded the construction of six new ships. The Clinton administration's FY2001 shipbuilding budget request for FY2001 was $10.7 billion for eight ships, in including more than $4 billion for the 10th and final Nimitz class aircraft carrier.

Virginia Senator John W. Warner, a former Navy secretary and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a principal supporter of the aircraft carriers, which are built in Newport News, VA. Virginia 4th District Rep. Norman Sisisky, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who was another carrier advocate who provided bi-partisan strength in shipbuilding debates, died 29 March 2001. Along with the death in 2000 of 1st District Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, a Newport News Republican, and the retirement of 2nd District Rep. Owen B. Pickett, a Virginia Beach Democrat, the region lost much of the political clout it had previously enjoyed.

Andrew W. Marshall, the director of SECDEF Rumsfeld's Spring 2001 defense review, was said to favor a smaller force of big carriers and the development of a new, smaller design that would be cheaper to build and operate and less vulnerable to cruise missile attacks. Congressman J. Randy Forbes (VA-04), Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, released a bipartisan letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel 28 January 2014 on the importance of maintaining the U.S. Navy’s eleven nuclear aircraft carrier fleet. The letter was signed by eleven Members of Congress. “The Secretary of the Navy was right this past fall when he noted that a smaller aircraft carrier fleet would be unable to execute the missions described in the Defense Strategic Guidance,” Congressman Forbes said. “Such a reduction in the Navy’s carrier force would profoundly damage U.S. national security, limiting our ability to deter aggression around the world and respond to crises in a timely manner. It is unacceptable to pretend that the United States lives in anything less than an 11 carrier world given China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, rising instability in the Middle East and the persistent danger of global terrorism. As Rear Admiral Moore has phrased it so starkly, we're an eleven carrier Navy in a 15 carrier world.”

The Navy competitively awarded a contract to International Shipbreaking Limited of Brownsville, Texas, for the towing, dismantling and recycling of conventionally powered aircraft carriers stricken from service, 13 June 2014. Under the contract, the company would be paid $3 million for the dismantling and recycling of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Constellation (CV 64). The price reflects the net price proposed by International Shipbreaking, which considered the estimated proceeds from the sale of the scrap metal to be generated from dismantling.

The Navy continues to own the ship during the dismantling process. The contractor takes ownership of the scrap metal as it is produced and sells the scrap to offset its costs of operations. This is the third of three contracts for conventional aircraft carrier dismantling. All Star Metals of Brownsville was awarded the first contract Oct. 22, 2013, which included the towing and dismantling of ex-USS Forrestal (AVT 59). ESCO Marine of Brownsville was awarded the second contract May 8, 2014, for the scrapping of ex-USS Saratoga (CV 60).

After the initial award of one carrier to each successful offeror, the Navy has the capability of scrapping additional conventionally-powered aircraft carriers over a five-year period under delivery orders competed between the three contractors.

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