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Pork Pie

Why on Earth Are We Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

They’re antiquated and susceptible to attack. But they employ a lot of people in a lot of congressional districts.

When Gerald Ford became president, the Michigan Republican was known to a scandal-weary nation as a man who called himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” That same claim of humility and thrift can’t be applied to the Navy aircraft supercarriers that today bear Ford’s name. The first Ford Class carrier, fittingly named the USS Gerald R. Ford, was put to sea in 2017, took more than a decade to build, and cost $13.3 billion. Its three successors, all still under construction, are projected to cost about the same. That’s not a Ford. That’s not even a Lincoln. That’s a Rolls-Royce.

“Aircraft carriers are the centerpiece of U.S. Naval forces,” explains a Defense Department document accompanying President Joe Biden’s $842 billion Pentagon budget request released in March. Accordingly, the Biden budget asks for $2.7 billion toward completing the second, third, and fourth Ford Class supercarriers.

The Ford Class is the first new carrier type in more than 40 years. Like the Nimitz Class carriers that they succeeded, Ford Class carriers are nuclear-powered, which means they don’t have to be refueled and can remain at sea indefinitely. The USS Gerald R. Ford is 1,092 feet long, 256 feet wide, stands 250 feet high, and can accommodate a crew of 4,539. It is the biggest warship in the world.

Carriers may be the Navy’s centerpiece, but their steep cost and growing vulnerability to missile attack cast doubt on whether they will remain so for much longer. “The question,” James Holmes, a maritime strategist who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, told me, “is whether [supercarriers] are defensible in battle, and whether they deliver enough return on our public investment if we get into a scrap.”

A more mundane question is whether an unofficial bipartisan supercarrier caucus can be dissuaded from building more supercarriers. As with much of defense spending in the United States, the trouble is some combination of inertia and parochial interests. And defying the stereotypes of the two parties, if anything, support tilts Democratic. The strongest advocates in the House include Democrats Joe Courtney of Connecticut, who sits on the seapower subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, a liberal Democrat from Newport News, where every aircraft carrier since the 1960s has been built.*

Members of Congress support supercarriers not for reasons of strategy but because they create civilian jobs. Yes, carrier assembly takes place only at one shipyard, Newport News Shipbuilding, in only one state, Virginia. But, as the state’s Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner pointed out last year when they introduced a resolution celebrating the aircraft carrier’s centennial, the Ford Class supply chain consists of 2,450 companies in 48 states and 364 congressional districts, employing 13,100 people along the way. And the Newport News shipyard alone employs 25,000 more. The resolution cleared the Democratic Senate by unanimous consent but never made it out of committee in the then-Democratic House. Even though many experts on military strategy have come to agree that it’s time to forget the Ford, the political class that decides how Pentagon money is spent just can’t quit their love of expensive and oversize vessels.

The aircraft carrier’s heyday came during World War II. When six Japanese aircraft carriers attacked Pearl Harbor, they destroyed or damaged eight battleships, sidelining most of the Pacific fleet. But the U.S. Navy’s three aircraft carriers were spared; two were at sea and one was docked in San Diego. From then on, carriers played a leading role throughout the Pacific theater, displacing the once-dominant battleship. One of these, the USS Enterprise (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry fancied its name), participated four months later in Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched retaliatory bombing raid on Tokyo. Carriers were similarly crucial in the Korean War, and played smaller, but still significant, roles in the two Iraq wars.

Trouble was, the damned things kept getting bigger and more expensive. Gerry Doyle, an editor at Thomson Reuters, and Blake Herzinger, a Navy veteran and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, document these changes in Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the Early 21st Century. In the two decades after World War II, carriers got 25 percent bigger and 100 feet longer. The USS Midway, commissioned one month after V-J Day, weighed 45,000 tons, took only 17 months to build, and cost $90 million—or $1.5 billion in current dollars. The USS Gerald R. Ford weighs 100,000 tons, took 12 years to build, and cost more than eight times as much (accounting for inflation).

By the 1970s, critics were starting to ask why we didn’t replace these leviathans with smaller, cheaper “light” carriers, a type of ship that today costs only $3 billion. President Jimmy Carter, himself a former naval officer, tried to begin that shift, but backed down in the face of overwhelming congressional opposition. (When the Navy named a vessel after Carter a few years later, it chose a nuclear submarine, not a supercarrier.)

The supercarrier debate took on a new urgency after China produced the Dong Feng DF-21D missile in 2010. The DF-21D is the first long-range precision missile developed specifically to target aircraft carriers. It was followed in 2020 by the longer-range DF-26B. Both missiles are nicknamed “carrier-killer.” Russia and Iran say they’re developing carrier-killers on the Chinese model, too. We don’t know how capable these new missiles are; China has only conducted one known test on a moving target, back in 2020, and didn’t publicize the result, which probably means it failed. Still, missile-guidance technology has made enormous progress in recent years, and it stands to reason that the bigger an aircraft carrier is, the easier it will be for a carrier-killer to hit it.

“The march of technology,” wrote Navy Capt. Henry J. Hendrix, now retired, and Marine Lt. Col. J. Noel Williams, also retired, in the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings, “is bringing the supercarrier era to an end, just as the new long-range strike capabilities of carrier aviation brought on the demise of the battleship era in the 1940s.” Hendrix and Williams’s article was headlined “TWILIGHT OF THE $UPERFLUOUS CARRIER.” It was published a dozen years ago. Since then, the Navy has allocated more than $50 billion toward building even more supercarriers. If we stopped building Ford Class supercarriers right now, according to the Congressional Budget Office, we could save $18 billion over the next decade.

Starting in the 1990s, China embarked on a rapid naval buildup that by 2020 gave it the largest navy in the world, with about 340 ships to America’s 292. China’s warship binge constitutes a natural experiment on the question, “If you were starting the world’s largest navy from scratch, how many supercarriers would you build?” China’s answer is three, with just two more expected by 2030. The United States has 11 supercarriers, with three more on the way.

The sinking of a U.S. supercarrier would likely prompt an instant declaration of war. The stakes would be too high. Thousands of American sailors would be dead, and $13 billion would lie at the bottom of the sea. Knowing this probably deters China (and Russia and Iran, if those countries really do have carrier-killers) from trying to sink U.S. carriers outright. The Chinese DF-21D is actually designed not to sink a carrier, but rather to achieve “mission kill,” i.e., disable it sufficiently that it can’t launch planes. Perhaps 1,000 sailors would die, and the carrier would limp back to port for repairs. But even that would be difficult, Hendrix told me, because the only two dry docks right now that can repair a Ford Class carrier are halfway around the world from China, in Newport News and nearby Norfolk.

Why bother building more supercarriers? Prestige is part of it. Big carriers have been useful for intimidating foreign nations when they behave badly. But carrier-killers call into question how long we can keep doing that. “Historically, the top leadership of military organizations has not abandoned obsolete prestige weapons until compelled to do so by a calamity,” Stephen Wrage, who teaches political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, says in Gregg Easterbrook’s 2021 book, The Blue Age. Easterbrook draws a comparison with the British Royal Navy’s fixation on its giant battleships on the eve of World War I. Told that the Germans were building newfangled underwater ships called submarines, “rather than adjust to a new reality, some in the British admiralty hoped that gliding below the waves could be declared piracy so that captured submariners could be hanged as common criminals.”

Another argument for aircraft carriers is that there are efficiencies of scale in being able to cram up to 90 aircraft on a single carrier, as you can on the USS Gerald R. Ford. But Hendrix told me that the retirement of various aircraft types after the Cold War brought the number of aircraft aboard a supercarrier down closer to 60, and the new planes have much shorter range at the very moment when carriers have to situate themselves farther from their targets to avoid carrier-killers.

The best argument that defenders of aircraft carriers make is that it’s harder to hit one with a missile than you might think. Ford Class carriers have fighter jets that can intercept missiles. They travel with other ships that are armed to the teeth. What assets they don’t have we can give them. James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, reeled off to me a litany of possible improvements: lasers, cyberweapons, drones, deployment of special forces, and so on. Still, he said, in the meantime, we must “only move them close to China … when we are reasonably certain we can provide protection.” In an April appearance on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt’s podcast, Stavridis went further, predicting that after the USS Doris Miller, the latest Ford Class carrier to begin construction, the Navy will shift to “another class of aircraft carrier” that’s “smaller, so we can build more of them,” with drones instead of manned aircraft.

The ultimate reason we still make supercarriers is all those jobs. Naturally, we wouldn’t want the 13,100 workers in 48 states and 364 congressional districts who participate in the Ford Class supply chain or the 25,000 more who work at the Newport News shipyard to lose their jobs. But it’s past time to put these companies to work building something else: smaller, cheaper naval vessels that would present a far less tempting target to China, Russia, Iran, and all the other countries that will eventually be able to hit what former Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and Navy veteran who supports building Ford Class carriers, once called (in a moment of frustration) “a nuclear-powered floating barge.”

* This article originally misidentified another Democratic House Armed Services Committee member as a strong advocate for aircraft carriers.