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September 01, 2020 1:28pm
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Navy makes shocking aircraft carrier decision while China threat rises

The latest budget war puts our Navy in dangerous straits. A shocking decision could delay the aircraft carrier program for two years, while the threat from China continues to worsen.

What a shock. According to the newly released budget, the Pentagon wants to slow down America’s aircraft carriers. You may be thinking: no carrier, no "Top Gun," no "Maverick." How we’d miss those thriller movies.  

But the facts are even worse. Delaying aircraft carriers courts disaster at a time when their deterrence value is higher than ever. The Navy has a budget plan for new aircraft carriers that can launch drones, carry lasers and face down China, but President Biden’s budget took out so much money that the whole aircraft carrier plan may fall apart.  

I can’t remember when I’ve seen such a policy and reality mismatch.  


Moving two aircraft carriers into place was vital to bottling up Iran and protecting deployed U.S. forces after the Hamas attack on Israel. The first thing Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did was send the USS Gerald R. Ford from the Aegean Sea to a combat position near Lebanon. Next the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower surged from her homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, to add more firepower near the Red Sea.  

The deterrence value of Navy aircraft carriers has never been higher. Don’t take my word for it. Back in December, Austin made a special trip to the USS Dwight Eisenhower, praising the action of her sailors and airmen. "Sometimes our greatest achievements are the bad things we stop from happening," Austin told the crew. "In a moment of huge tension in the region, you all have been the linchpin of preventing a wider regional conflict." 

Right now, the Ike is still there and the F/A-18EF Superhornet fighter planes she carries are mounting continuous air patrols, knocking down Houthi drones and missiles. At the same time, the U.S. has two carriers on operations in the Pacific making sure China’s navy and Coast Guard don’t block off vital sea lanes or encircle Taiwan. 

Deterrence in two major combat theaters is resting on these 100,000-ton ships. So, it’s astonishing that the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget just sent to Congress is going to slow down new Navy aircraft carriers by taking away shipbuilding funds for two years.  

You know what else makes me mad? China is racing to build aircraft carriers. It makes me mad to see Chinese President Xi Jinping’s admirals investing while the Pentagon backs off.  

China’s newest aircraft carrier, the Fujian is bigger and a technological leap ahead for China’s navy. The Fujian started dead-load catapult testing last November. China is serious about launching aircraft carriers to compete with the Ford-class designs.  

Their aircraft carriers are still not nuclear-powered, and overall are not as capable as the Ford-class, but they can cause plenty of trouble, especially for allies. If China keeps producing the Fujian class, Chinese carriers could lock out the U.S. and allies from the Strait of Malacca to the Sea of Japan.  

So, the carrier slip is also damaging because it impacts the new carriers. Believe me, these are carriers you want the Navy to buy. The Ford class took lessons from decades of carrier operations and created a ship class with innovations and room to grow.  

Take the new launch catapults and arresting gear – the wire apparatus that catches the plane’s tailhook. Old steam catapults delivered a huge jolt to launch aircraft. Remember the grimace when Tom Cruise as Maverick and fellow naval aviators launched from the carrier in the "Top Gun" movies? That was old school. 

The Ford’s electromagnetic catapults finesse the launch with gradually increasing power, and vary the speed for launching lighter airframes such as drones. Pilots do say it’s strange not to see the iconic steam wafting up. However, the USS Ford generated 10,396 sorties in 239 days underway with the new catapults.  

All that opens up new options. Retired Rear Adm. Michael "Nasty" Manazir (a real Top Gun pilot and aircraft carrier commander) once described the Advanced Arresting Gear for USNI News as still "a controlled crash, but relatively more softly." Navy planes had to be heavy to withstand the "cats and traps" getting on and off the ship. With the Ford-class carrier, "you can now start to do things with aircraft design that you couldn’t do before," Manazir said.  


Future carriers in 2040 in a heavy electromagnetic spectrum threat environment have many more options for the types of aircraft flying off their decks. But only if the Navy buys the carriers now.  

Don’t forget the Ford-class also has more electric power generation and can one day mount laser self-defense weapons. 

Law mandates at least 11 operational aircraft carriers and the Navy always says they’d prefer 12. (Carriers can’t all be deployed at once, due to maintenance, nuclear reactor overhaul, and training schedules.) Yet the Navy’s plan delays CVN-82 and basically, every ship afterward. Older Nimitz class carriers have to retire when their nuclear reactors age out.  

That may sound like Washington math, but it’s the beginning of a death spiral. You can imagine how complicated aircraft carrier construction is. Right now, parts of three new aircraft carriers are in the assembly drydocks at Newport News, Virginia. If the Navy hits pause on CVN-82, the shipyards and suppliers can’t catch up.  

Buying an aircraft carrier every six or seven years is not economical. Obviously. Worse, it’s probably not feasible. The precious workforce of American men and women who build carriers cannot stand around and they may drift away to other programs which have money. The Navy’s own charts show the result is a fall to 10, then nine aircraft carriers in the next decades. 

No carriers, no agile deterrence. Heck, we Americans invented the aircraft carrier and its Pacific tactics in World War II. China’s navy is already bigger than ours. The advanced aircraft carriers are key to America’s military edge that protects our way of life. This is not the moment to let China sneak ahead.  


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