The Navy is now investigating whether some Nimitz-class carriers could keep operating after their projected retirement dates.
The U.S. Navy has launched a study to investigate the possibility of keeping some of its Nimitz class carriers sailing beyond their currently projected retirement dates. The service is looking into this possibility as a way to ensure that it has sufficient aircraft carrier capacity in the decades to come. This all comes at a time when China is growing its naval forces and existing American carriers are reaching the end of their original expected service lives.
The Navy announced that it was conducting this study as part of the rollout of its latest 30-year shipbuilding plan earlier this week. As it stands now, the plan sees the service largely being able to sustain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, including new Ford class ships, as is required by law, through at least the 2039 Fiscal Year. In that period, there is an expected dip down to only 10 flattops in the 2027 Fiscal Year, but the fleet size is expected to go right back to the baseline in the next fiscal cycle.
It’s not clear yet how many total Nimitz class carriers the Navy could be looking to extend the service life of or what specific ships might be under consideration. The service’s shipbuilding plan currently calls for the decommissioning of the USS Nimitz and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in Fiscal Years 2025 and 2027, respectively. There have also been discussions about retiring the USS Harry S. Truman early. Those divestments, if they proceed, would bring the total number of Nimitz class carriers in service down from 10 to seven in the coming years.Somewhat akin to what a new employee might get from the human resources department when discussing health care, the Navy’s overall 30-year plan offers three options for shipbuilding beyond Fiscal Year 2027. The options kick in after the completion of the Future Years Defense Program, which lays out the Navy’s shipbuilding plans for the new five fiscal years, including those contained in the Navy’s recently announced Fiscal Year 2023 budget request.
In all three potential courses of action, the Navy projects it will be able to maintain an 11-carrier force between Fiscal Year 2028 and Fiscal Year 2039. However, starting in Fiscal Year 2040, the carrier fleet size will begin to drop to 10 or even nine ships, depending on which plan is adopted.
Beyond carriers, after the FYDP, the first two proposed Navy shipbuilding plans are based on no real budget growth between Fiscal Years 2028 and 2052. The third option would cost an additional $75 billion, in Fiscal Year 2022 constant dollars, over that period for all ship construction, not just carriers, according to the plan. That represents an increase of about 2% per year in the Navy’s shipbuilding and conversion fund. It is unclear how much the aircraft carrier portion of that would be. Navy officials tell The War Zone they are working to get those figures.
Overall, the more expensive third option “informed by industrial base capacity and on-time and on-budget performance, achieves 326 manned battle force ships in the mid-2030s, and ultimately achieves 363 manned battle force ships in FY2045,” according to the budget document. A 2019 Navy plans called for having 355 ships by 2034. You can read more about that here.
During a media call on Wednesday to discuss the new 30-year shipbuilding plan, Jay Stefany, the senior U.S. government official currently performing the duties of Assistant Navy Secretary for Research, Development, and Acquisition, told reporters that the Navy is now conducting a study to determine what life is left in the Nimitz class carriers, among other things.
The Navy, he said, is investigating whether “we can get it extended enough to do another deployment on the first couple of the Nimitz class.”
The effort is part of the Navy’s Program Objective Memorandum 24, looking at “potentially extending” the service of “at least a couple of the first” Nimitz-class carriers. The future number of the Navy’s carrier force depends in part on how quickly the service can replace Nimitz and Eisenhower.
At present, the next two Ford class carriers, the future USS John F. Kennedy and USS Enterprise, are expected to be commissioned in 2024 and 2028, respectively. The hope is that these ships will not suffer from the extensive difficulties that USS Gerald R. Ford faced in reaching a basic level of operational capability, as you can read more about here. After years of delays, Ford is expected to finally head out on its first operational deployment this fall.
During the media call yesterday, Vice Adm. Scott Conn, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities, was asked if the Navy was considering extending the life of not just the Nimitz, but fellow Nimitz-class carriers Eisenhower, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), as well.
“In terms of an extension to the existing Nimitz class carriers, it’s pre-decisional,” said Conn. “There are questions based on real-world events. Does it make sense based on the number of planned carriers we may have in maintenance? In certain years, it may make sense, and maybe worth a return on investment, getting another year or more from the carriers that we have.”
During the Wednesday media call, Conn and Stefany talked about how the further out budgets are projected, the more uncertainty there is, both in terms of how much money they will have to spend, and what China and Russia are doing.
The Navy raised concerns about the growing challenge posed by China and Russia in its budget book released Monday.
“As Russia invades Ukraine, positioning overwhelming military force in and around Ukraine on land and in the Black Sea, China continues to menace Taiwan and other countries in the region,” according to the budget book. “Both countries continue advancements in weapons technology, and China, in particular, is building all domain capabilities at a capacity to challenge U.S. influence in the Pacific. America needs a flexible, forward-deployed, engaged fleet that keeps the seas open and free, generates credible deterrence at sea, and provides quick response options for U.S. leadership.”
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has only about half the tonnage of the U.S. Navy, but it has 355 ships, “constituting the largest navy in the world,” according to the budget book. “In addition, the PLAN’s overall battle force is expected to grow to 460 ships by 2030. Given its narrower scope of operations and geographic commitments than our Navy, the PLAN has enough ships to pose a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy.”
Regardless of what carriers might be in line for life extensions, there are various factors that could impact the Navy’s immediate plans to retire certain Nimitz class carriers. Last year, it emerged that the Navy was once again considering retiring Truman early in order to free up funds for other priorities. The Pentagon had previously proposed this plan in 2019, but abandoned it quickly in the face of massive pushback from Congress.
Congress could similarly balk at the prospect of retiring the USS Nimitz in Fiscal Year 2025. This would reverse a Fiscal Year 2022 budget “decision to extend the life” of that aircraft carrier “to gain about a year of operational use,” according to a Navy’s budget highlights document, released Monday. “The life extension would have required over $300 million in maintenance costs for a small return on investment.”
The carrier “will now retire in FY 2025, at 50 years’ service life,” according to the budget book.
“Nimitz was supposed to go into a late Fiscal Year 23 [availability] where the extension could have been done,” said Conn. “Bottom line is we will revisit Nimitz as part of the FY 24 shipbuilding plan.”
But dealing with the Nimitz class carriers is just part of the Navy’s plans to secure its fleet of flattops at a time when power projection in the vastness of the Pacific ocean against a peer adversary becomes even more important.
“Nuclear powered carriers (CVNs) and carrier air wings (CVWs), the Joint Force’s most survivable and adaptable aviation basing option, provide sea control and power projection in contested battlespace, offering a uniquely valuable combination of maneuver, operational reach, volume of fires, sustainability, and organic sensors,” the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan states. “As the center of maritime crisis response, these platforms provide sustained striking power, flexibility, and adaptability for a range of missions, from humanitarian aid to full-scale combat.”
Able to deploy “the broadest range of sea-based aviation coupled with the capacity to arrive ready to execute and remain on station, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers provide combatant commanders with an array of combat capabilities unmatched in the world,” the plan states. “As with other surface platforms, maintaining the survivability of CVNs is a priority for the Navy.”
The Navy is going to still have to make decisions about how it will maintain fleet size beyond 2039. Shipbuilding takes time so those decisions can’t really wait too long.
Conn said the Navy faces a big decision around the Fiscal Year 2025 timeframe on whether to buy two new carriers at once or make two separate purchases.
That would be similar to the way two other Gerald R. Ford-class carriers – the USS Enterprise (CVN 80) and the USS Doris Miller (CVN 81) – were procured, Stefany noted. The plan was to construct them four years apart, he said.
Single-ship carrier purchases, he added, were typically about five or six years apart.
The next decision centers on purchasing CVN 82 and CVN 83, currently unnamed ships slated for 2028 and 2033 respectively, according to the 30-year plan.
“We’ll revisit and see if we can buy those two ships, maybe like that, which would then increase the number of ships in the inventory, which would then give us at least 10” carriers, Stefany said.
Under federal law -10 U.S.C. 8062(b) to be exact – the Navy is required to maintain a force of not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers. And that 2007 law was actually a reduction of one carrier from the previous level set a year earlier.
The Navy’s last 30-year shipbuilding plan, unveiled in Fiscal Year 2020, stated that carrier procurement would shift from procuring one carrier every five years to one every four years after the procurement of CVN-82 in Fiscal Year 2028, and a 12-carrier force would be achieved on a sustained basis in the 2060s, according to the March CRS report.
The new plan, however, calls for one new carrier procurement every five years after the FYDP, commencing in Fiscal Year 2028.
Conversely, it plans to retire eight carriers between Fiscal Year 2025 and Fiscal Year 2048.
The Navy has also previously discussed introducing a class of smaller aircraft carriers – known as light aircraft carriers, or CVLs – to augment its flattop fleet, however, that was not part of the most recent 30-year plan. You can read more about those carriers here.
In addition, technology might change enough in the next 20 years that the mandate for 11 carriers may change as smaller vessels, perhaps operating mostly unpiloted systems, prove a better match to fight China or Russia.
So far, the Navy has committed at least more than $50 billion between 2008 and 2019 on the purchase of four next-generation carriers in the USS Gerald R. Ford class.
According to a March 31 Congressional Research Service report, the cost of the first four Ford-class aircraft carriers is as follows:
The USS Gerald R. Ford was procured in Fiscal year 2008. The Navy’s proposed Fiscal year 2022 budget
estimates the ship’s procurement cost at $13.3 billion.
The USS John F. Kennedy was procured in Fiscal Year 2013. The Navy’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget
estimates the ship’s procurement cost at $11.9 billion and is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in June 2024.
The USS Enterprise was procured in Fiscal Year 2018. The Navy’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget estimates
the ship’s procurement cost at $12.4 billion. The ship is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in March 2028.
The USS Doris Miller was procured in Fiscal Year 2019. The Navy’s Fiscal year 2022 budget submission estimates the ship’s procurement cost at $12.5 billion. The ship is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in February 2032.
The Enterprise and the Doris Miller are being procured under a two-ship block buy contract that was authorized
by Section 121(a)(2) of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, according to CRS.
You can read more about the cost of the Ford class aircraft carriers here.
The Navy is building the carriers as quickly as it can, said Stefany.
But, he said, there will be situations in the future when the Navy cannot swap out a new carrier for one that is retiring.
And the Navy will keep lawmakers informed, Conn said.
“Throughout this process, we will be completely transparent with Congress,” he said.
And Congress, of course, has the final word. And the Navy’s Fiscal year 2023 shipbuilding program has already come under fire. It remains to be seen how this plan survives lawmaker contact.
Contact the author: Howard@thewarzone.com