The U.S. Navy brass loves to perpetuate the cliché that the first question any U.S. president asks during a time of overseas crisis is: Where are the carriers?
But what the service is less likely to trumpet is that this has been the very same question among federal budget cutters through the years, especially since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, carriers and their costly cousins, the Navy’s submarine fleet, have been targeted by many as relics of an obsolete deep-water strategy to defeat a defunct Soviet superpower. Even though both vessels have proven themselves to be operationally relevant in current conflicts, their enormous price tags have made them a large bull’s-eye for defense cost cutters.
To keep their prized vessels viable in today’s economic climate, the Navy has had to prove the carriers and submarines were relevant in terms of their acquisition and procurement — that the service could squeeze enough cost out of the programs to make them worth the time and investment.
The service says it has done just that with its Ford-Class carriers and Virginia-Class subs, and there is evidence to suggest the Navy is on the right course.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see why budget cutters take aim at sub and carrier programs. The Navy has spent about $16.5 billion on submarine-related contracts and modifications since 1999, according to an Aerospace DAILY analysis of federal contracting data provided by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.
That was the fifth-highest single category among Pentagon expenses, the analysis shows. Ranking sixth during that time were aircraft carrier expenses, at about $15.9 billion. When nuclear components and related work are factored in, though, submarine and carrier work totaled about $42.3 billion. By comparison, the total for fixed-wing expenses — the largest single expense category during that time — and engines is about $40 billion, the analysis shows.
To keep the budget cutters away, the Navy has focused on trimming procurement and life-cycle costs out of both the Virginias and Fords.
For example, the service wants to cut the acquisition costs for its fiscal 2012 subs, partly by reducing the time it takes to build them. And the service wants to cut costs further by incorporating changes like a large-aperture bow array and 12 vertical launch tubes.
On the Fords, the Navy has a new power plant meant to reduce reactor department manning by 50% and make more electricity.
The new class also will incorporate electromagnetic catapults, which will further cut manpower needs, and redesigned weapons stowage, handling spaces, and elevators to reduce manning, increase safety, and increase weapons throughput. And the ships’ integrated warfare system is intended to be adaptable to technology upgrades without requiring expensive retrofits.
For the most part, these are incremental changes — but the “savings” add up, especially over the life of a ship. When you are talking about such large platforms, even the smallest of percentage savings can mean a great deal. And they can be enough, the Navy is finding out, to keep the budget cutters away.