Washington's budget impasse may succeed where potential adversaries and members of Congress have failed in knocking a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier from fleet rotation.

The Navy maintains 11 carriers now, rotating cruises to cover global missions while scheduling home-port calls for maintenance, downtime or longer overhaul periods, such as midlife refueling that can sideline one of the ships for years. Typically, three carriers are needed to maintain “presence” in any global spot, with one carrier on station and the other two coming and going from home port.

Fleet rotation has been a challenge for the service. Constraints brought by a lack of fresh appropriations for fiscal 2013, which started Oct. 1, 2012, as well as looming “sequestration” cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 would significantly delay the midlife refueling and maintenance on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and jeopardize funding for the new CVN-79 carrier, Navy officials say. Relief could come with congressional approval to move money within the service's budget for those projects.

In the absence of funding, the U.S. could very well lose a carrier from the operating fleet for some time, depending on how long it takes to iron out the country's finances.

Carriers have always been a target for budget-cutters. Seen by some as a relic of the Cold War era, the new Gerald R. Ford-class models—CVN-78 and beyond—carry a large price tag. The Congressional Research Service notes that Navy's last budget request, a year ago, estimated the CVN-78's procurement cost at $12.3 billion in then-year dollars and CVN-79's at $11.4 billion.

As recent Pentagon reports point out, shepherding a new carrier program through procurement hurdles requires more than simple ship construction. Several systems must be integrated aboard, and problems with any could affect the effort as a whole.

In addition to the Ford-class costs, the Navy budget is strained by midlife refueling of nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers like the Lincoln, which has generally run about $3 billion. The Navy is in the process of deactivating the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which has eight reactors—the most yet to be decommissioned—compared to one for a submarine and two for cruisers. The deactivation will take three years to complete and cost about $900 million, the Navy estimates.

The complexity of building a new carrier can be equally daunting. While Navy officials and executives at the Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the prime contractor, have been touting successes of the Ford class, others at the Pentagon have raised questions about program development. Newport News says it has completed about 90% of the ship and recently topped it off with a 555-metric-ton island.

Program officials praise the Ford class's technological developments, such as electromagnetic aircraft launching system (Emals), advanced arresting gear and dual-band radar. But, while the latest annual report by the Pentagon's director of operational testing and evaluation (DOT&E) notes the importance of these advancements, calling them “pacing items for successful delivery of the ship,” it also points out issues with each.

And then there are the known and unforeseen challenges with integrating Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on the new flattop. “Navy Fleet Force's JSF 'day-in-the-life' analysis identified a significant number of aircraft-ship interface deficiencies that must be accomplished by the Navy in post-delivery ship modification,” says the DOT&E. These include JSF battle-damage assessment, Link-16 data-link imagery transfers and potential information or cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Gerald R. Ford class
General Characteristics
Builder Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding
Propulsion Two nuclear reactors, four shafts
Length 1,092 ft.
Beam 134 ft.
Flight Deck Width 256 ft.
Displacement approximately 100,000 long tons, full load
Speed 30+ kt. (34.5+ mph)
Crew 4,539 (ship, air wing and staff)
Armament Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, Close-in Weapon System
Aircraft 75+
Ships PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)PCU John F. Kennedy (CVN-79)
Source: U.S. Navy