US allies are 'back in the big carrier business,' but the US isn't so sure how many flattops it'll have in the future
While the US's new aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, was undergoing testing off the East Coast last month, the Royal Navy's new carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, was landing and launching jets in UK waters for the first time in a decade and the venerable French carrier Charles de Gaulle was setting off on its first deployment since its 18-month-long midlife overhaul ended late last year.
That activity is a sign the French and the British "are now back in the big carrier business," Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of the Navy's recently reestablished 2nd Fleet, said this month in Washington, DC.
"Having that global carrier force is real beneficial. That helps our operational dilemma quite a bit," Lewis added in response to a question about his command's partnerships with European navies.
The Queen Elizabeth and its sister carrier, Prince of Wales, have a long life ahead of them, and France is wrapping up studies on a potential future carrier of its own. The Ford and the two carriers following it will also serve for decades, but changes could be coming for the size and role of the US carrier fleet.
Lewis deployed as an exchange pilot aboard the British carrier HMS Invincible, which was sold for scrap in 2010, and while on the USS Harry S. Truman, he sailed with the carrier HMS Illustrious, which was sold for scrap in 2016.
The Illustrious had already turned in its airplanes, "so we actually used US Marine AV-8Bs," Lewis said, referring to the AV-8B Harrier short takeoff and vertical landing jet, which is being replaced by the F-35B.
"They used US Marine AV-8Bs on that ship then, and it's something that's pretty easy to do," Lewis said. "The Queen Elizabeth is a pretty nifty ship because ... it was basically designed around the F-35."
The F-35B's first landing on the Queen Elizabeth was in September 2018, as it sailed off the US coast. The Queen Elizabeth has since landed and launched British F-35Bs, but its first operational deployment, in 2021, will be with a US Marine Corps F-35 squadron.
"We'll be sailing through the Mediterranean into the Gulf and then to the Indo-Pacific region with F-35B variants, both UK and US Marine Corps," Edward Ferguson, minister counsellor defense at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, said this month.
"This is a really powerful, interoperable US-UK capability that has huge potential that hasn't yet been tested in the high north, but I think we certainly see potential in the North Atlantic, up into the high north, as well as globally," Ferguson said at an Atlantic Council event. "This is a 50-year capability. It's been designed to be flexible."
Time to think about the other things
MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters on the Ford's flight deck, January 16, 2020.
The first-in-class Ford finished aircraft compatibility testing at the end of January, successfully launching and landing five kinds of aircraft a total of 211 times. The second-in-class carrier, John F. Kennedy, was launched in December.
The next two Ford-class carriers have been named — Enterprise and Doris Miller, respectively — but won't arrive for years, and it's not certain what kind of fleet they will join.
"The big question, I think at the top of the list, is the carrier and what's the future going to look like and what that future carrier mix is going to look like," acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said on January 29 at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event. Modly spoke as the Navy conducted its own force structure assessment.
The carrier and its strike group are now the Navy's centerpiece, with the carrier air wing as the main offensive force and the strike group's destroyers and cruisers mostly in a defensive role.
The future fleet will have to be "more distributed to support distributed maritime operations," its sensors and offensive weapons spread across different and less expensive ships, Modly said.
Modly pointed to the Indo-Pacific region as one where the Navy has to be a lot of places and do a lot of things at once, and the Navy has experimented with breaking those escort ships away from the carrier to act in a more offensive role as surface action groups.
An F/A-18F Super Hornet, left, and an E/A-18G Growler on one of the Ford's aircraft elevators before being lifted from the hangar bay to the flight deck, January 21, 2020.
The Ford-class carrier "is going to be an amazing piece of equipment when it's done," but those carriers are $13 billion apiece, Modly added, "and that's not including the cost of the air wing and everything else."
"I think we agree with a lot of conclusions that [carriers are] more vulnerable," Modly said. "Now of course we're developing all kinds of things to make it less vulnerable, but it still is a big target, and it doesn't give you that distribution."
The Navy is required by law to have at least 11 carriers in service, and plans for a 355-ship fleet include 12 carriers, a number the Navy is set to reach by 2065. But Modly said the focus should be on the coming years rather than planning to 2065, when "we'll all be dead."
"You should think about what we can actually do," he added, "and I think that number is going to be less" than 12.
Such a shift could spark backlash like when the Navy broached plans to cancel the Truman's mid-life refueling, which would have cost $4 billion and kept it in service for 25 years, in order to pay for unmanned vessels and other emerging technologies to counter the carriers' vulnerabilities to new weapons, like long-range Chinese missiles.
The Navy relented on that, but Modly admitted the changes he mentioned would require further discussion with lawmakers.
"We'd have to talk to them about this, and I think this ... can't be a discussion that we just have inside the walls of the Pentagon," Modly said. "I think as many people that get involved in this, the better. Congress obviously has interest. Our shipbuilding industry has interest. We all do."
The carrier's future will have to be considered when formulating the acquisition and building plan for the carrier after the Miller, the as-yet unnamed CVN-82, Modly said, adding that such thinking will be influenced by changes in the surface fleet and the threat environment.
But the Miller likely won't arrive until the early 2030s.
"Thankfully, we have some time to think about that," Modly said. "We don't have time to think about the other things, like the unmanned systems, the smaller [amphibious ships], that amphib mix," he added. "We've got to start getting answers to those now."
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