WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy intends to buy its next two aircraft carriers in a single contract, but factors including delays on carriers now under construction are influencing discussions about when to begin the process.
The service bought aircraft carriers 80 and 81, the future Enterprise and Doris Miller, together in the first two-carrier contract since the Cold War. Leaders expected to see $4 billion in cost savings when the contract was signed in 2019.
Jay Stefany, the acting assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told Defense News the existing two-carrier contract is achieving the cost savings expected, though Enterprise has taken a schedule hit due to the pandemic and labor and supply chain problems. That’s playing into the discussion about when to begin a contract for CVNs 82 and 83.
“It is our plan to buy [82 and 83] together — plan; again, not approved yet — but plan to do it together because that provides the most effective way to buy and to build two aircraft carriers. The question on the table and in the [fiscal 2025 budget] discussions is when to start the first one,” he said, noting that the second aircraft carrier would then follow four and a half years behind.
CVN 82 could begin in FY 28, 29 or 30. The decision will be known when the Navy releases its FY25 budget request in the spring.
The Navy is weighing three key factors: keeping a steady workload at shipbuilder HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding, such that no one is laid off but also there isn’t too much work; affordability in the Navy budget based on the timing of other acquisition needs; and the total inventory of aircraft carriers the Navy is trying to maintain.
On the workload issue, Stefany said Enterprise “is progressing well, but not necessarily as well as we planned.”
Due to delays getting lead-ship Gerald R. Ford out of the yard, the Covid-19 pandemic, overall labor and supply issues, and specific challenges Newport News has faced while also building Virginia- and Columbia-class submarines, Enterprise is about a year behind schedule, he explained.
To avoid Enterprise’s delays spilling over to Doris Miller — which is only a few months behind schedule — “we’re doing some unique things in the dry dock to allow us to start 81,” Stefany said. “Usually you would finish 80 in the dry dock, get her out, and then start 81 in the dry dock.”
Instead, he said, the Navy and Newport News Shipbuilding modified the plan to allow some Doris Miller work to begin in the dry dock, pause while Enterprise is eventually floated out, and then continue work in the dry dock.
Stefany said he didn’t think the issues that caused delays on Enterprise would be a threat to future CVNs 82 and 83 — it’s just a matter of clearing out the workload at the yard before adding new work in the new two-carrier contract.
He said he doesn’t expect the supplier problems that began during the pandemic to continue into the 82/83 contract. Similarly, a significant number of older, experienced workers retired at the start of the pandemic, leaving the yard to hire a lot of brand-new workers with little or no experience. While that’s slowed progress on Enterprise, Stefany said these workers would be proficient by the time they started on 82 and 83.
What could still be an issue, though, is balancing new aircraft carrier construction at Newport News Shipbuilding with aircraft carrier refueling, Columbia and Virginia construction and Virginia repair work, all of which compete for people and materials.
As for the size of the carrier fleet, Stefany said the Navy already decided to extend the service life of Nimitz for another deployment cycle, a change from previous plans to decommission the first-in-class carrier in 2025.
The Navy is now looking at the second ship of the class, the Dwight D. Eisenhower. If Eisenhower is extended, there’s less need to start 82 and 83 as early. Stefany said the Navy may not have a final decision on Eisenhower in time to inform the FY25 budget request and what it reveals about the 82/83 contract.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.