WASHINGTON --- Last week, President Donald J. Trump chose the deck of the newest U.S. aircraft carrier, the $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, for a speech extolling his planned boost in military spending.
Trump vowed that the newest generation of “Ford Class” carriers - the most expensive warships ever built - will remain the centerpiece of projecting American power abroad.
“We're going to soon have more coming,” Trump told an enthusiastic audience of sailors, declaring the new carriers so big and solidly built that they were immune to attack.
Trump vowed to expand the number of carriers the United States fields from 10 to 12. And he promised to bring down the cost of building three “super-carriers,” which has ballooned by a third over the last decade from $27 to $36 billion.
The Gerald R. Ford alone is $2.5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, military officials say. The second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is running five years late.
Trump's expansion plans come as evidence mounts that potential enemies have built new anti-ship weapons able to destroy much of the United States’ expensive fleet of carriers. And as they have been for decades, carriers remain vulnerable to submarines.
In a combat exercise off the coast of Florida in 2015, a small French nuclear submarine, the Saphir, snuck through multiple rings of defenses and “sank” the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and half of its escort ships. In other naval exercises, even old-fashioned diesel-electric submarines have beaten carriers.
All told, since the early 1980s, U.S. and British carriers have been sunk at least 14 times in so-called “free play” war games meant to simulate real battle, according to think tanks, foreign navies and press accounts. The exact total is unknown because the Navy classifies exercise reports.
Today, the United States is the only country to base its naval strategy on aircraft carriers. The U.S. fleet of 10 active carriers is 10 times as big as those deployed by its primary military rivals, Russia and China, who field one active carrier each.
Roger Thompson, a defense analyst and professor at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, says the array of powerful anti-ship weapons developed in recent years by potential U.S. enemies, including China, Russia and Iran, increase carriers’ vulnerability.
The new weapons include land-based ballistic missiles, such as China’s Dong Feng-21 anti-ship missile, which has a claimed range of 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) and moves at 10 times the speed of sound. Certain Russian and Chinese submarines can fire salvoes of precision-guided cruise missiles from afar, potentially overwhelming carrier-fleet anti-missile defense.
Russia, China, Iran and other countries also have so-called super-cavitating torpedoes. These form an air bubble in front of them, enabling them to travel at hundreds of miles per hour. The torpedoes cannot be guided, but if aimed straight at a ship they are difficult to avoid.
A 2015 Rand Corporation report, “Chinese Threats to U.S. Surface Ships,” found that if hostilities broke out, “the risks to U.S. carriers are substantial and rising.”
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, a carrier is just a target,” says defense analyst Pierre Sprey, who worked for the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s office from 1966 to 1986 and is a longtime critic of U.S. weapons procurement.
Navy leaders stand by the carrier. In an interview late last year, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, lauded carriers’ versatility. Swift says they remain “very viable,” sufficiently impregnable to be sent into the thick of combat zones.
Swift said he would order carriers into close battle “in a heartbeat.” Nevertheless, citing the new anti-ship weapons, Swift says the carrier “is not as viable as it was 15 years ago.” (end of excerpt)
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