As the Department of Defense considers future force design, it must recognize that in many scenarios, the United States can deploy a CVN/CVW combination in place of a large onshore footprint, while taking full advantage of international air and sea space, without requiring over flight or basing rights. Affordability -- the central tenet in big-deck carrier critics' arguments -- fails to consider the cost-avoidance value of these marvels of power, efficiency, and adaptability. Seen this way, the dollar cost of the carrier is a bargain and the political advantages are overwhelming, especially for a war-weary nation looking to avoid protracted commitments in foreign lands.
But the United States is also struggling to repair its fiscal house, and the aircraft carrier is expensive -- being arguably the most complicated and technologically advanced weapon system in the history of warfare. But if one views that investment through the lens of a 50-year service life (which, by the way, is how long our CVNs are designed to last) that includes warfighting upgrades, modernization, and upkeep, carriers promise a pretty good return. Consider the legendary 51-year history of the recently retired USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Designed in and for a different age, "Big E" was combat-ready and credible in her first deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, just as she was combat-ready and credible during her final deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan in 2012.
Today, the U.S. Navy is building the Ford class of aircraft carriers. Many recent articles quote values ranging from $13-15 billion as the cost to build the first ship of the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). Those figures, however, include not only the cost of building the first of ship, but also all of the design and development costs for the entire Ford class -- a class of ship that will be in service for the next 94 years. Factoring the design and development cost of the entire class into the price of the first ship is like saying the first iPhone cost $150 million or the first Toyota Prius cost more than $1 billion. When the design and development costs are removed from the inflated "shock value" cost of the CVN 78, it is only 18 percent more expensive than the most recent ship built in our current Nimitz carrier class. Moreover, the design and development investment in the Ford class will deliver a product that is more capable and has lower life cycle costs ($4 billion less) than its predecessors, and which will continue paying dividends for nearly a century.
Even in light of that return-on-investment timeline, affordability remains a key consideration and the Navy is leveraging the learning on CVN 78 to further reduce costs on the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). In real terms, CVN 79 will cost more than $1 billion less to build than CVN 78, and will require fewer man-hours to build than the last carrier in the current class. In the end, the Navy is building one Ford class carrier every 5 years, which represents about 0.4 percent of the defense budget during that time frame. If we take a long strategic view and keep the USS Enterprise in mind, that is pretty good return on investment.
Finally, some critics have questioned whether an aircraft carrier can remain relevant in tomorrow's threat environment. The answer to that question lies not only with the aircraft carrier, but also with her embarked air wing. The USS Midway (CV 41) was commissioned in 1945, with an air wing consisting of Corsairs and Avengers. During her final combat cruise in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, her air wing was comprised of Intruders, Hornets, Prowlers, and Hawkeyes. Likewise, the air wing complement on Ford class carriers at the end of their service life, we postulate, will be radically different than the air wing CVN 78 will carry at the time of her commissioning.
Unlike other classes of ships, the aircraft carrier does not need to be retired when its primary weapons system becomes obsolete. Similarly, defensive systems are more easily upgraded aboard an aircraft carrier than any other ship. The USS Midway's 1945 five-inch guns, for example, had been replaced by the Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile system as well as Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) capable of defending the carrier against Anti Ship Missiles (ASM), aircraft, and littoral warfare threats by 1991. Likewise, by the time she retires in 2065, the Ford's Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, and CIWS will likely be replaced by entirely new defensive systems that we can't even imagine today -- and her two nuclear reactors and unprecedented electrical power will provide plenty of "juice" to integrate the directed energy weapons of the future. Greenert has used the USS Enterprise as a prime example in his "Payloads Over Platforms" theme for the future design of our Navy, and it is a testament to the aircraft carrier's proven track record of strategic adaptability. This record of strategic adaptability is proof-positive that we ought never to cede battlespace to any potential adversary.
For more than 70 years, the unmatched range, speed, endurance, and flexibility of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier strike force has presented the United States with global freedom of action while operating -- even when contested -- in international waters and air domains. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a "permission slip" for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power.