On Track to Tomorrow's Carriers

By RAdm. H. T. Rittenour and Capt. Mark O'Hare
NAVAL AVIATION NEWS January–February 1997

The carrier of tomorrow. What will it look like? What will its capabilities be? How will we modify today’s carriers to take advantage of the technology breakthroughs which are sure to happen during the ship’s 40- to 50-year life span? Since 1993, the Navy has been developing a comprehensive plan to modernize our aircraft carrier force for the next century. An important feature of this strategy is a dual-track approach that will modernize the past and transition to the future while simultaneously maintaining essential capabilities and force structure. The first element of this strategy is the procurement of the tenth and final Nimitz-class carrier, CVN 77, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2002. Scheduled for commissioning in 2008, CVN 77 will replace a 47- year-old Kitty Hawk class conven-tional carrier. She also will be a transition ship, incorporating new technologies that result from carrier research and development (R&D) efforts currently under way.

The experience gained with CVN 77 will lay the foundation for the second element of our dual-track strategy—the design of a new class of aircraft carriers. Construction of the first ship of the new class, now referred to as CVX, is scheduled to begin in FY 2006. The CVX will retain the core capabilities resident in our carriers today, but will also feature improved characteristics in selected areas, such as launch and recovery equipment; flight deck lay-out; Command, Control, Communi-cations, Computers and Intelligence (C 4 I); and survivability. And, crucially, the ship will incorporate features that make it more affordable to operate.

Together, these two programs will ensure that the Navy preserves a modern, capable carrier force which meets the requirements of our war-fighting commanders and provides enduring military value for the taxpayers’ dollars. The dual-track strategy will enable us to transition from the highly successful— but 1960s-vintage–Nimitz design to one specifically designed to the operational mandates of the 21st century.

Shaping the Strategy

If past experience is any guide, the “average” Nimitz-class carrier will make 25 overseas deployments, respond to over 20 major interna-tional crises, and see action in sever-al regional conflicts over its nominal life span. While the Nimitz class continues to meet our security requirements very well, major changes in threats, missions, tech-nology and budgets call for a review of fundamental assumptions. The basic principles and core capabilities of sea-based aviation—its value and role in providing peacetime pres-ence, response to crises and winning regional wars—will endure, but we must review how we fulfill these principles, including the design of these aviation sea bases. The Defense Department’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review, which directed the Navy to evaluate “a full range of sea-based platforms to project air power and meet our military needs in the period 2020 and beyond,” pro- vided us with the opportunity to develop what eventually became our dual-track strategy.

The key threads in the strategy as it has evolved are risk assessment and balancing, ascertaining the remaining economical service lives of our older ships, and deciding when we will have to add new ships to the fleet in order to maintain force structure and combat capability. These, in turn, depend upon opera-tional tasking, the funding available for R&D, new construction and upgrades, acquisition strategy, and the state of the carrier industrial base. They also depend on develop-ments in existing and prospective aircraft programs, since individual carriers must have the ability to accommodate current and projected air wings, as well as on the output of the Joint Strike Fighter and other future aircraft programs.

Managing risk also means weigh-ing near-term force structure with longer term war-fighting capability. Up until 1996, there had been no significant carrier-related R&D for more than 30 years. Consequently, the CVX design, and the technology that would make it feasible at a rea-sonable cost, will not be immediate-ly available. And, yet, we still need a new-construction carrier to replace our last Kitty Hawk-class conventional carrier as she reaches the end of her service life in the first decade of the next century. Hence, CVN 77 will be a critical force-structure bridge, particularly if the Navy is to maintain our 11+1 car-rier force structure mandated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed, force-structure requirements are the most fundamental “drivers” of the future carrier equation. Carrier force levels are based in large part upon the needs of the regional com-manders in chief (CINCs).

The CINCs, whose areas of responsibility encompass the three strategic deployment “hubs”—the Mediterranean basin, Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean area and the western Pacific—all seek a continuous car-rier presence in their regions, but filling this demand would require a force of at least 14 carriers, a number that is currently unafford-able.

The Navy is meeting its global commitments at pru-dent risk with a force of 12 carriers. But this carrier force is being stretched, so the replacement program has been struc-tured to maintain at least 12 of these critical warships at all times. Preserving our force structure and capabilities requires newly construct-ed carriers. Further extending the ser-vice lives of existing carriers could help us meet our current require-ments but would do little to ensure that we have a combat- and cost-effective force in the future. CVN 77 and the first CVX will replace two older, less capable carri-ers: CVN 77 will replace a Kitty Hawk-class carrier in 2008, while the first CVX is slated to relieve the 52 year-old Enterprise (CVN 65) in 2013. The Navy has worked to get the most service out of these older carriers, conducting a Service Life Extension Program on the Kitty Hawk-class ships and a nuclear Refueling/Complex Overhaul on Enterprise. These actions have added more than 15 years to the originally planned service lives of the older ships, but as they age further, the cost of maintaining and modernizing them will increase significantly.

Finally, risk management also encompasses the critical carrier industrial base. We cannot wait too long for new carrier construction without incurring major costs in reconstituting lost shipyard and ven-dor capabilities and rehiring skilled personnel. Construction on the ninth Nimitz-class carrier, Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), began last year and will be completed in 2002. Current projections show that in the structural trades alone over 2,000 skilled ship-yard workers would be lost if a hiatus were to occur between CVN 76’s completion date and the start date on CVN 77. Trying to reconstitute this type of industrial capability is simply not realistic or fiscally responsible.

Developing the Carrier Force of Tomorrow

The dual-track strategy represents another major step forward in the evolution of aircraft carriers. The term “evolution” is appropriate, because programs that promise “revo-lutionary” improvements in capability are often accompanied by unaccept-ably high levels of technological and fiscal risk. This is especially true when dealing with a platform as complex as an aircraft carrier. Consequently, the dual-track strategy takes a building-block approach, rely-ing upon a continuing R&D program and a series of technology demon-strations. The end result will be more capable systems, more affordable systems, or both.

Besides sustaining force structure, CVN 77 will also play a key role as a technological bridge between the Nimitz class and CVX. With a modest R&D effort, CVN 77 will be the most capa-ble, technologically advanced ship in the Nimitz class, and will utilize some of the technologies that are planned for the first CVX. Incorporating these key design fea-tures in CVN 77 could reduce total ownership (life cycle, operational and support) costs by as much as 15 percent. Once these features are implemented and evaluated they may also be backfitted into existing CVNs, thus significantly reducing the remaining life cycle and support costs of those ships. Some of the concepts currently under consideration include an inte-grated information system, fiber-optic backbones, and zonal electrical distri-bution. Depending on the available funding, CVN 77 could also be the test bed for systems such as multi-functional, embedded antennas which could replace many of the radar and other antennas that currently populate the islands of existing carriers. The ship could also feature a modified island structure that makes greater use of composite materials to manage the carrier’s radar signature.

The Navy has neither the time nor the money to introduce major design changes in CVN 77. Changes in propulsion, for instance, were ruled out due to high technical, schedule and fiscal risks, as well as our current dependence on steam catapult technology.

We will apply many of the techni-cal and operational lessons learned from CVN 77 to the new CVX class. Moreover, the CVX design will incorporate additional innovations and capabilities. The Navy is pursu-ing some targeted improvements in future carrier designs that build upon the capabilities resident in our current class of carriers. The CVX Program Office (PMS 378) has distilled a number of specific goals from these broad categories, including: There may be several ways to reach these goals. For instance, to improve the efficiency of flight oper-ations and aircraft turnaround, the program office is investigating elec-tromagnetic and internal combustion catapults, possibly integrated with ski-jumps. Other options include automated weapons selection and movement to aircraft, and advanced systems for flight operations manage-ment encompassing air operations and launch and recovery control. As far as increased survivability is concerned, the significant topside design changes being examined for our future carriers and reductions in other electromagnetic signatures could make CVX significantly “quieter.” The ship’s self-defense sys-tems will be tailored to respond to the proliferation of antiship missiles and other threats throughout the world. Automated battle damage manage-ment and zonal electrical distribution will allow a smaller crew to effective-ly cope with damage while opera-tions continue.

The CVX team is also examining many other measures to ensure that the future carriers are combat- and cost-effective. It will review all propulsion alternatives, from improved nuclear plants to gas tur-bines. The CVX may also benefit from “virtual organizations,” where the crew is linked to other organiza-tions by state-of-the-art C 4 I systems. And, recognizing that the new carrier will have a potential life span of 40 to 50 years, the team is developing a design that is easily modified to accept upgrades over the course of the ship’s service life.

As we move to meet these techni-cal challenges, however, we must always keep the affordability of CVX in mind. The Department of Defense faces a period of tight budgets into the foreseeable future, and one of the key considerations in maintaining the health of our carrier force is our abili-ty to buy and operate new ships with-out breaking the Navy’s shipbuilding or operations and maintenance bud-gets. To this end, the Navy plans a design to reduce life-cycle costs in the new class by 20 percent. We have taken some major steps along the path toward CVX this year. The program officially entered the concept exploration phase in late March when the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, Dr. Paul Kaminski, approved the mission need statement and the preliminary acquisition plan for CVX. Additionally, in the FY 1997 budget, Congress appropriated the first carrier-specific R&D funding in decades.

For its part, the Navy has initiated a cost and operational effectiveness analysis. The first part of this effort will examine various concepts of oper-ations for employing sea-based, com-bat aviation in future conflict scenar-ios. Among other things, this analysis will focus on the required size and composition of future air wings. We have also convened the CVX Oversight Group, which meets monthly to receive briefings on and provide input to critical, near-term issues that arise during the analysis. The group is made up of flag-level participants who assist the Navy’s decision-making process as the analy-sis proceeds through its first year. Channels are also in place to solic-it critical fleet input to the future car-rier acquisition process (see “Ike Paves the Way for the Future,” p. 44). Fleet Process Teams convene quarter-ly on each coast to ensure a contin-ued exchange of information between fleet representatives and CVX pro-gram engineers.

A Dual Track to the Future

The Navy is addressing a multi-tude of operational, technical, fiscal and programmatic issues as it imple-ments the carrier replacement plan and program for the 21st century. Our paramount concern is supporting CINC requirements for an affordable and effective carrier presence in their areas of responsibility, both today and tomorrow.

The dual-track carrier procurement strategy ensures that the Navy is always able to meet our national security requirements whenever and wherever we are needed. The strategy also ensures that we are good stew-ards of the taxpayers’ money. Using CVN 77 to leverage its design changes in support of present and future carriers is not only smart, it is clearly in the best interests of dwin-dling defense budgets.

We are confident that this strategy will maintain the high-caliber, high-capability carrier force that the United States possesses today, and extend it well into the middle of the next century.

RAdm. Rittenour heads the Carrier and Air Station Programs Branch of the Air Warfare Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Capt. O’Hare is Program Manager, Aircraft Carrier Program Office, Naval Sea Systems Command.