Report: Pentagon should scrap $40 billion aircraft carrier program

Story highlights

  • On the chopping block would be the littoral combat ship and more
  • The report is from the non-partisan Center for a New American Security

(CNN)With an aging air fleet and a shrinking Navy working overtime around the globe, US military officials say the world's most powerful fighting force is at an "inflection point" and needs a serious makeover if it wants to maintain that status now and into the future.

But to balance the immediate need for more planes and ships while also investing in future technology to keep the US ahead of rising rivals like China and Russia, the Pentagon needs to make some "hard decisions" and cut some of its most expensive weapons programs, according to a new report from the Center for a New American Security.
    The first move of a new presidential administration will not be to "cancel any of these programs but we've shown it is possible to make significant changes in short time," said Jerry Hendrix, one of the report's authors and a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank.
    "We want to stir the debate." he added.
    The proposal was first reported by The Washington Post.
    Most notably, the report calls for canceling the $40 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier program, halting construction of the littoral combat ship, and purchasing fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
    Those funds would be reallocated for the stealthy B-21 bomber, adding 16 additional submarines, and investing in emerging technologies like high-energy lasers, the CNAS report recommends.
    The Department of Defense outlined the groundwork of a spending plan in its $583 billion 2017 budget proposal submitted in February, but CNAS experts Hendrix, Paul Scharre and Elbridge Colby say their plan would help the Pentagon rebalance its investment priorities for the next decade.
    CNAS is an independent and bipartisan organization that provides research and analysis to "shape and elevate" the national security and foreign policy debate.
    Working under a hypothetical budget that implements a 2 percent increase over the DOD's 2017 budget, the report lays out a plan to grow the Navy to 345 ships from 272 over a 10-year period and provide 185 additional aircraft to the Air Force by investing in what Hendrix called, a "high-low mix" of technology. The DOD's 2017 budget request totaled less than a 1 percent increase over 2016 spending levels.
    The report's authors said purchasing a combination of high-tech systems along with cheaper, lower-tech options would allow the Pentagon to increase the size of its force and permit the US to invest in equipment to handle emerging threats.
    "There is a point where quantity does have a quality," Hendrix told CNN, adding that it is easier to maintain a presence around the world with higher numbers of ships and planes.
    For example, rather than buying two F-35s, the CNAS report suggests purchasing one F-35 and two older F-16s or F-18s.
    "It's about applying the right type of force to right combat situation," Hendrix told CNN. "You don't have to be all high end to manage national security issues."
    Despite cutting the Ford-class carrier program after only two of the four planned ships are complete, the three think-tank experts said their plan will ensure that the US still has 10 aircraft carriers by the end of the decade due to their 35-year lifespan, but that the carriers would take on new functions, acting as prepositioned operating bases around the world.
    Investing in the airwing gives aircraft carriers utility going forward, Hendrix said, noting that long-range strike aircraft would allow the carriers to sit out of range of Russian and Chinese anti-ship missiles.
    The money saved by cutting the additional carriers could also allow the Pentagon to counter China and Russia's anti-ship and anti-air defense systems by bolstering the US submarine fleet and developing unmanned systems and undersea technology.
    Asked for comment on the CNAS report, the Pentagon said only, "Our strategy is laid out in the President's Budget for Fiscal Year 2017."