What's the Most Expensive Part of Building a Carrier?

USS Ford (CVN-78) christening, 2013.  One down, 14 to go? (AP photo)

USS Ford (CVN-78) christening, 2013. One down, 14 to go?
(AP photo)

In word: Time.

On the stump last week, John Kasich claimed he’d expand our nuclear-powered carrier fleet to 15 from a planned strength of 10. The problem is finding a way of getting there from here, as James Hasik explains:

Consider the investment during the Cold War. Between 1968 and 2009, Newport News built, and the Navy commissioned, ten Nimitz-class carriers—about one every four years. The Navy currently buys one every five years. Just about everyone at Huntington Ingalls Industries would be delighted to return to the faster building rate, but that’s still just an extra ship every twenty years. At that pace, the Navy would graduate back from 10 to 15 carriers, Fords or follow-ons, in about a century. That’s probably not what the governor had in mind.

To further illustrate the challenge of what Kasich is recommending, consider doubling the current rate of super-carrier construction. Whether the work is entrusted to another firm with its own learning curve, or to the incumbent with a bigger monopoly, is a significant strategic decision. Either way, super-carriers aren’t Liberty Ships, so they can only be built so fast. Thus, you’ll first need to build another dry dock the size of that monster in Hampton Roads. Then, expand the work force—even the current yard would experience a long lead time in hiring and training more staff, and without unduly disrupting construction of the Kennedy. The entire supply chain would experience a similar surge, almost of wartime proportions. Then, in spending more than another $2 billion annually on aircraft carriers—not crews or planes or escorts—the Navy would get back to 15 super-carriers in perhaps 22 to 27 years. That might be closer to what the governor had in mind, but it’s still not swift.

Or as I warned two years ago, “Do not shrink the Navy.”

Because expanding it is hard.