Speaking from America’s newest aircraft carrier, President Donald Trump promised Americans he would bolster Navy by adding another aircraft carrier to the fleet. In addition he implicitly promised to increase the Navy by 6,419 ships, although it is not clear he knew what he was saying when he made the claim.
Trump toured the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of the next generation Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, last week along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump rode on an aircraft elevator and addressed an audience of sailors, telling them that he was committed to a twelve aircraft carrier fleet, two more than the Navy currently has.
The number of aircraft carriers operated by the U.S. Navy has fluctuated over the years. In December 1941, the U.S. Navy had seven aircraft carriers and one smaller escort carrier. Four years later, the Navy had 99 carriers of both types. At the height of the Vietnam War, it had 25 carriers. At the end of the Cold War it still had 14 ships.
The number of carriers has slowly trended downward since. It remained at 12 carriers through the 1990s and 9/11, but in 2007 dipped to 11. In 2011, concerned that carrier levels would dip even further, Congress mandated a minimum force of 11 carriers.
Currently the U.S. Navy has 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. That’s below the number mandated by Federal law, but the Navy was granted a waiver while it waited (…and waited) for Gerald R. Ford to enter the fleet. The first in its class, incorporating a slew of new technologies, Ford has seen repeated delays. The Navy expects Ford to enter the fleet this Spring, but hasn’t yet set a commissioning date.
In addition to Ford, two more carriers are currently planned or under construction. The second ship in class, USS John F. Kennedy, should join the fleet in 2020. The third, USS Enterprise, should join the fleet in 2025.
Much like January, when Trump took credit for F-35 savings that were going to happen anyway, Trump will be able to take credit for a twelve carrier fleet without actually doing anything. USS Nimitz is planned for retirement in the 2022 to 2025 time frame. If Kennedy and Enterprise join the fleet on schedule, there will be a brief, two year period between 2020 and 2022 when the U.S. will have 12 carriers—a number which, if held to schedule, dovetails nicely with the next presidential election season. After that, Nimitz will fall off the roster and Enterprise will replace USS Eisenhower, dropping us back to 11 carriers again.
If Trump wanted to make that magic number 12 more durable? He’d have to start construction of a fourth Ford-class carrier ASAP. Trump’s recent announcement of a $54 billion increase in defense spending makes no mention of a new carrier. That means a new carrier will have to wait until 2018, which doesn’t exactly sound like a high priority. And even if Trump finds the money, the Navy’s only carrier-building center, Newport News in Virginia, is currently building two and may not have the capacity to add a third.
Twelve carriers doesn’t mean that the Navy can put all twelve ships to sea during a crisis, either. The typical rule of thumb is that during peacetime it takes 12 ships to keep four ships at sea at all times. For every one ship at sea, a second is training and being outfitted to go to sea and a third has just returned and is standing down. The number of carriers can surge in a crisis–during the 1991 Persian Gulf War the U.S. Navy should normally have been able to field five carriers at most but managed to surge six to participate in the air war against Iraq.
Trump also promised to build out the Navy to historic levels. According to Military.com, Trump told crowds, “Our Navy is now the smallest it’s been since—believe it or not—World War I,” he said. “Don’t worry. It’ll soon be the largest it’s been.” There’s only one problem with that promise: It’s impossible to keep. At the end of World War II the Navy had 6,768 active duty ships, or 6,418 more than it has now. The Navy also had a personnel strength of 3.3 million, a number two and a half times the size of today’s entire U.S. military.
The Navy’s World War II size, both in numbers and gross ship tonnage, will probably never be equaled. The next aircraft carrier, Kennedy, costs $11 billion and the smallest combatant, the littoral combat ship, costs $360 million. Even if the increase comes entirely from building cheap littoral combat ships, Trump’s buildup would cost an astonishing $2.3 trillion, and that’s not even including personnel and operating costs.
Not only is this Navy unaffordable, it’s also completely unnecessary. The Navy of World War II was built to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan, and to sustain invasions of all three countries. There’s no threat even remotely comparable to Germany’s U-boat fleet or Japan’s fast carrier fleet.
Is there another metric that makes the current Navy better than the Navy of World War II? Yes. The modern Navy is undoubtedly more powerful and could handily defeat its World War II-era self. Each modern carrier probably packs the firepower of at least 15 World War II carriers. The ability of a Nimitz-class carrier to place bombs on target hundreds of miles away with accuracy measured in inches makes each orders of magnitude more powerful than even carriers of the Vietnam War period. Trump already has most powerful navy ever.