The U.S. Navy is betting $42 billion on a new class of aircraft carriers, the world’s biggest and costliest warships ever, even as the Pentagon budget shrinks and China and Iran arm themselves with weapons to disable or destroy the behemoths.
The Navy says the new carriers -- rising 20 stories above the water, 1,092 feet (333 meters) long, moving at 30 knots (35 miles per hour) with almost 5,000 Americans on board -- can project U.S. power around the globe.
“A carrier is 4 1/2 acres of sovereign U.S. territory,” Captain Bruce Hay, a Navy pilot who helps set requirements for the new carrier, said in an interview. “An aircraft carrier is a piece of America, and we’re going to do what it takes to keep them relevant because a carrier is presence and American resolve all at one time.”
According to Bloomberg, the ships’ rising costs are drawing scrutiny from lawmakers at a time when the military faces cuts in personnel and funding for new weapons. Critics see the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers as big targets for rival militaries expanding their arsenals of ballistic and cruise missiles, undersea mines, submarines, drones and cyber weapons.
“Our future adversaries are developing a set of capabilities specifically for the purpose of attacking our aircraft carriers,” Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview.
Although it’s still about five years from entering the fleet, the price tag for the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first carrier in the class being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HII), based in Newport News, Virginia, already has climbed about 18 percent in four years to $12.3 billion, according to Defense Department data.
The Navy is trying to assure lawmakers that it was worth the money to start from scratch designing a new carrier.
With an electromagnetic system to launch aircraft similar to those used to propel roller coasters at Walt Disney World, the Ford-class carriers are designed to send swarms of fighter jets over vast expanses of water to deter potential enemies.
The Pentagon’s revised global strategy, released in January, emphasizes a shift to the waters of the Asia-Pacific region at the same time the Pentagon is moving to cut $487 billion from previously planned spending over the next decade. More than $500 billion in additional defense cuts will be required unless the president and Congress agree on plans to avert the automatic reductions known as sequester that are set to begin in January.
The Navy’s oversight of construction on the Gerald R. Ford, or CVN-78, has drawn criticism as cost overruns of at least $800 million have been disclosed this year. Critics led by Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot, say the technologies that set it apart from the Navy’s 10 existing carriers may not work as planned when the carrier is launched and begins testing as early as 2013.