China is getting its own fleet of aircraft carriers. The belligerent communist nation has begun operating a modified Russian carrier on the open seas, developing procedures and know-how it will then apply to a fleet of Chinese designed carriers that will launch over the next decade.
China will become just the third nation to use the powerful naval weapons yet have the second largest carrier fleet once its build-out is finished.
The U.S. Navy is not sitting idly by.
The Navy announced on Friday that it awarded Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. a $4 billion contract to start building the second Ford class next generation super-carrier. Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall issued a decision memo for the Navy to start with the detailed design and construction of CVN-79, the USS John F. Kennedy, and also make the necessary down payment on the third carrier of the $42.8 billion program.
The Ford class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will help the U.S. Navy to maintain its dominance of the seas. The new ship uses the basic Nimitz-class hull form but features a new nuclear reactor design, stealthier features to help reduce radar profile, electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear, and reduced crewing requirements.
All these features permit it to generate about 25% more aircraft sorties per day and providing more electrical power for supporting ship systems. Though not disclosed, its likely the new carriers will feature some of the most advanced information warfare systems in the U.S. Military.
Another feature the Navy isn't openly discussing but will be a reality is drone warfare. Having just completed carrier trials of the advanced X-47B stealth drone, its a certainty that the new ships will become home to America's growing drone fleet. Over the twenty plus years the carrier will be in service its likely it may do more drone work than manned flight, a key to combating Chinese military ambition.
All the advanced technology will allow the ship to run with several hundred fewer sailors than a Nimitz-class ship, which will significantly reduce life-cycle operating and support costs.
The second carrier of the 10 vessel order will cost about $11.498 billion, keeping it within a cap set by the Congress, though the independent cost-assessment office of the Pentagon has estimated that the ship will exceed the budget cap by at least $370 million. Congress would likely approve such an overrun - carriers are uncontroversial defense expenditures and enjoy wide support on both sides of the aisle.
An order for the fourth ship in the series is expected to be placed in 2018, with the next ships commissioned every few years after.