David R. Henderson  

Maxim Lott on the Carrier Cost Overrun

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Maxim Lott has a short, excellent piece on the cost overrun for the almost-$13 billion (yikes!) aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford. Of course, I'm biased, because he quoted me and used the two best quotes I gave him.

Here's the excerpt quoting me:

"No matter how hi-tech or how glamorous, a carrier is vulnerable to a well-placed missile," said David Henderson, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Pfft -- Oops, there goes a $12 billion carrier."

He added that he wasn't surprised at the price tag.

"It should not be surprising," he said. "This is, after all, the government spending other people's money."


One quote that Maxim didn't use is that we don't really need that many carriers if the U.S. government stops intervening in all those countries. That would have countered the argument that Cordesmann makes.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
MikeDC writes:

Since any ship is vulnerable to a well-placed missile should we just abolish the Navy while we're at it?

hana writes:

Of course a Carrier does not exist on its own, it is part of a Carrier Battle Group. Undoubtedly new out of control expense wise carriers, require new out of control expense wise support ships.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

MikeDC, no naval ship should be stationed outside the territorial waters of the US. I HOPE we aren't planning to sink our own ships.

MingoV writes:

Our military's size and structure are based on the premise that we should be able to fight two minor wars and one conflict simultaneously. Obama pushed that limit: Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya. Congress is not stopping presidents from getting us into wars and conflicts. Therefore, instead of trying to rein in militaristic presidents so we can downsize the military, we may be more successful by downsizing the military and limiting a president's ability to drag us into wars.

JohnC writes:

I think you're underestimating (1) the ability of carriers to absorb damage and still operate (one missile hit ain't gonna diminish operational capacity significantly); and (2) just how really, really, really, really big the ocean is, and thus the difficulty in acquiring a targeting solution for a constantly moving, infinitesimally-small-by-comparison vessel thousands of miles away... particularly one protected by gobs of tech.

Torpedoes would be a much bigger threat than a missile.

JohnC writes:

If you want bureaucratic fumbling nonpareil, go with the military's decade-long pixilated misadventures in picking a camo-pattern. Toss in the really cool science (plus, the whole "triumph of the tinkering-entrepreneur" storyline), and it's a train wreck deserving of a "Mary Roach meets Tim Harford meets Bleeding Talent, with an dash of Mark Liebovitch's This Town" PopEcon book. (Suggested titles: Hide and Seek or Patterns of Waste.)

A6 writes:

Alas, economists and libertarians alike--groups to whom I am generally sympathetic--are fond of making cheap shots against military spending ...

... "cheap" shots because there is no way to know before the fact what the cost would be of suddenly not being a world-girdling superpower.

Would we suddenly be bombed into oblivion? No way to know, really. We may find out.

The notion that others would leave us alone if we left them alone, or something like that, doesn't even pass the laugh test--and internationally, as American power fades, fewer and fewer people are in the mood for laughing.

One of the consequences of not having a fully capable navy is piracy. After the British, for all intents and purposes, abolished theirs, we saw a resurgence of piracy off both African coasts.

Even in the 21st century, the world is full of bad actors who will take any advantage they think they can get away with.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

"...'cheap' shots because there is no way to know before the fact what the cost would be of suddenly not being a world-girdling superpower."

I would sure like to find out.

MingoV writes:

JohnC writes:

I think you're underestimating (1) the ability of carriers to absorb damage and still operate (one missile hit ain't gonna diminish operational capacity significantly)
If the missile carries a tactical nuclear weapon, the carrier and most of the carrier group would be destroyed.

JohnC writes:

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B Hauth writes:

Carrier groups are designed around the idea that they can destroy missiles with other missiles, such as ESSMs. However, a large number of long range missiles would penetrate those defenses. The idea there is that carrier groups can destroy things with that many missiles, but that's not applicable to a number of possibilities, such as a large number of long range truck based missiles.

Military ships are designed to survive several torpedo hits. Generally speaking missile hits are more damaging. However, a nuclear torpedo from a submarine could destroy a carrier group, and China could do that.

Land based aircraft have longer range than carrier based aircraft. A B52 has a combat radius of >4000 miles. There's also midair refueling. Using land based bombers would be more cost effective than carriers for bombing targets anywhere in the world. Fighters have shorter ranges. But of course destroyers had to shoot missiles at Afghanistan, and carriers had to launch fighters, so the Navy could say, "We're helping!"

ThomasH writes:

If he is not surprised, he thinks this is a typical government activity, "spending other people's money" then what's the point of an article about THIS particular outrage?

I'd guess that he does NOT think (I sure do not) that the Social Security Administration wastes this much money in the process of sending out SS checks, or even that the "dead weight" loss of taxing some folks' payrolls to give money to other folks as SS checks wastes is this great.

Consequently, he might reflect on why this kind of "spending other people's money" is worse than others. My answer would be that the party that claims to want to reduce "spending other people's money" has decided for strategic reasons to give the military a pass.

MikeDC writes:

@ Tom,
The overwhelming majority of US Navy ships are home ported in the US. Are you saying they should never leave US waters? Again, why bother with a navy at all then?

@ B Hauth,
Using land based bombers would be more cost effective than carriers for bombing targets anywhere in the world.

That doesn't at all follow from the facts you listed. It's very expensive to fly a long-range bomber all the way around the world and it takes a very long time. Then, they have to turn around and fly back to reload pretty quickly. That's why they are usually strategic weapons. They generally need to be used against targets you know are going to be there.

Basically, they're different tools for very different jobs.

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