Special Report: Aircraft carriers, championed by Trump, are vulnerable to attack

By Scot Paltrow

WASHINGTON, March 9 (Reuters) - Last week, President Donald J. Trump chose the deck of the newest U.S. aircraft carrier, the $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, for a speech extolling his planned boost in military spending.

Trump vowed that the newest generation of "Ford Class" carriers - the most expensive warships ever built - will remain the centerpiece of projecting American power abroad.

"We're going to soon have more coming," Trump told an enthusiastic audience of sailors, declaring the new carriers so big and solidly built that they were immune to attack.

Trump vowed to expand the number of carriers the United States fields from 10 to 12. And he promised to bring down the cost of building three "super-carriers," which has ballooned by a third over the last decade from $27 to $36 billion.

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20 PHOTOS
The best US military photos from 2016
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The best US military photos from 2016

An Air Force F-22 Raptor flies over the Arabian Sea to support Operation Inherent Resolve, January 27, 2016.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Greathouse scans the area during a perimeter patrol in Taqaddum, Iraq, March 21, 2016. Greathouse is a team leader assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response, for US Central Command.

(Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rick Hurtado)

Navy Seaman Fabian Soltero looks through shipboard binoculars aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, March 25, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor L. Jackson)

USS Bulkeley receives fuel and cargo from dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Medgar Evers during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, February 25, 2016. The guided-missile destroyer was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations, and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Lieberknec)

Navy Seaman Brice Scraper, top, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Miller verify the serial number of a training missile on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea, October 5, 2016. The Reagan was supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Brianna Caballero maneuvers a harbor patrol boat to load it onto a trailer for maintenance on Naval Support Activity Bahrain, January 6, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Gary Granger Jr.)

Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Army photo by John Pennell)

Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Pasquale Sena)

Sailors move a T-45C Goshawk aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, February 5, 2016. The Eisenhower was preparing for inspections and conducting carrier qualifications.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Carney breaks away from the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn after a replenishment at sea in the Mediterranean Sea, August 14, 2016. The Carney was patrolling in the US 6th Fleet area of responsibility to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Weston Jones)

A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft prepares for takeoff from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Pacific Ocean, August 26, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael T. Eckelbecker)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristen Neufeld performs maintenance on a Mark 38-25 mm machine gun aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson at its home port in San Diego, August 18, 2016.

(Navy photo by Seaman Theo Shively)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Evans repairs an antenna system during a replenishment at sea involving the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, and the Military Sealift Command combat support ship USNS Arctic in the Persian Gulf, September 2, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard)

Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Ross move ropes during a sea-and-anchor detail near Aksav, Turkey, January 7, 2016. The Ross was conducting a routine patrol in the US 6th Fleet area of operations to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Trevor Ellam signals to the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Laramie from aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stout during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, October 14, 2016. Ellam is a boatswain’s mate. The Stout was supporting security efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge)

Marines depart a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the amphibious-assault ship USS Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean, October 22, 2016. The Makin Island was supporting the Navy’s maritime strategy in the US 3rd Fleet area of responsibility. The helicopter is assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163.

(Navy photo by Seaman Devin M. Langer)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Fulks motions to crew members on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Philippine Sea, February 24, 2016. The Stennis provides a ready force to support security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Seaman Cole C. Pielop)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen patrols the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 10, 2016. The Lassen was supporting Operation Martillo with the US Coast Guard and partner nations within the US 4th Fleet area of responsibility.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr.)

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The Gerald R. Ford alone is $2.5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, military officials say. The second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is running five years late.

Trump's expansion plans come as evidence mounts that potential enemies have built new anti-ship weapons able to destroy much of the United States' expensive fleet of carriers. And as they have been for decades, carriers remain vulnerable to submarines.

In a combat exercise off the coast of Florida in 2015, a small French nuclear submarine, the Saphir, snuck through multiple rings of defenses and "sank" the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and half of its escort ships. In other naval exercises, even old-fashioned diesel-electric submarines have beaten carriers.

All told, since the early 1980s, U.S. and British carriers have been sunk at least 14 times in so-called "free play" war games meant to simulate real battle, according to think tanks, foreign navies and press accounts. The exact total is unknown because the Navy classifies exercise reports.

Today, the United States is the only country to base its naval strategy on aircraft carriers. The U.S. fleet of 10 active carriers is 10 times as big as those deployed by its primary military rivals, Russia and China, who field one active carrier each.

Roger Thompson, a defense analyst and professor at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, says the array of powerful anti-ship weapons developed in recent years by potential U.S. enemies, including China, Russia and Iran, increase carriers' vulnerability.

The new weapons include land-based ballistic missiles, such as China's Dong Feng-21 anti-ship missile, which has a claimed range of 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) and moves at 10 times the speed of sound. Certain Russian and Chinese submarines can fire salvoes of precision-guided cruise missiles from afar, potentially overwhelming carrier-fleet anti-missile defense.

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Soldiers and their military working dogs
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Soldiers and their military working dogs
An American soldier pets 5-year-old Eggy, an explosives sniffing dog in Seprwan Ghar forward fire base Panjwai district of Kandahar province June 26, 2011. The pair of handler and dog work in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province, long a Taliban stronghold. Both animals and handlers face the same dangers as the soldiers they work to protect. Picture taken June 26, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY ANIMALS)
Croatian Dog handler Sinisa Erkman plays with 5-year-old Eggy, an explosives sniffing dog in Seprwan Ghar forward fire base Panjwai district of Kandahar province, June 26, 2011. The pair work in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province, long a Taliban stronghold. Both animals and handlers face the same dangers as the soldiers they work to protect. Picture taken June 26, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY ANIMALS)
A veteran embraces his service dog during Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Croatian Dog handler Sinisa Erkman plays with 5-year-old Eggy, an explosives sniffing dog in Seprwan Ghar forward fire base Panjwai district of Kandahar province, June 26, 2011. The pair work in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province, long a Taliban stronghold. Both animals and handlers face the same dangers as the soldiers they work to protect. Picture taken June 26, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY ANIMALS)
A U.S. Army soldier with the 10th Special Forces Group and his military working dog jump off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment during water training over the Gulf of Mexico as part of exercise Emerald Warrior 2011 in this U.S. military handout image from March 1, 2011. The New York Times and other United States media have reported that a military canine accompanied Navy SEAL Team Six commandos into a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in a raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. REUTERS/Manuel J. Martinez/U.S. Air Force/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS MILITARY CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
This photograph taken August 15, 2011 shows US Army Specialist Justin Coletti of US Forces Afghanistan K-9 combat tracker team resting with Dasty, a Belgian Malinois at an airfield of Forward Operating Base Pasab following a five-hour overnight air assault mission with Bravo Company, 2-87 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Maiwand district, Kandahar province. Dasty who has a rank of a Sergeant, is a military working dog trained to patrol and locate a target individual and is currently deployed in southern Afghanistan saving lives of coalition forces in its war against Taliban insurgents. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
BALA MURGHAB, BADGHIS PROVINCE - JUNE 29: Sgt John Barton of the 4th Brigade of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division pets his platoon's pet dog Ray-Ray as he awakens from sleeping outside at combat outpost Impala June 29, 2010 in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan. Many US troops in Afghanistan sleep in the outdoors in the summer due to the stifling overnight heat. The 82nd Airborne along with NATO Italian troops have been working for nearly a year in this combative zone in the far northwest of the country near the Turkmenistan border, attempting to pacify and extend the Afghanistan central government rule to this rural and fiercely independent area rife with Taliban insurgents. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
BALA MURGHAB, BADGHIS PROVINCE - JUNE 29: Sgt. John Barton of the 4th Brigade of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division pets his platoon's pet dog Ray-Ray as he awakens from sleeping outside at combat outpost Impala June 29, 2010 in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan. Many US troops in Afghanistan sleep in the outdoors in the summer due to the stifling overnight heat. The 82nd Airborne along with NATO Italian troops have been working for nearly a year in this combative zone in the far northwest of the country near the Turkmenistan border, attempting to pacify and extend the Afghanistan central government rule to this rural and fiercely independent area rife with Taliban insurgents. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
400553 04: Lance Cpl. Joshua A. Moose and his military working dog Hertha, show the strong bond between them during a break in training February 1, 2002 at the Marine Depot in San Diego, California. (Photo by Christopher A. Raper/U.S. Marine Corp./Getty Images)
A Colombian Army Special Forces soldier rappels with a dog during a military exercise during the visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon at a military base in Tolemaida, Colombia, on October 10, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Guillermo LEGARIA (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 3: Lance Corporal Marianne Hay, 24 from Aberdeenshire, a soldier in the Royal Army Veterinary Corp and her arms and explosives dog Leanna attached to the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment rest as they wait to leave for strike operation Southern Beast on August 3, 2008 at their base at the Kandahar Air Field (KAF) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The British Army soldiers from the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment spearheaded a strike operation in the Maywand District of the Kandahar Province, setting the conditions for a permanent ISAF presence to support the Afghan National Government in their fight against the Taliban. Striking within one of Afghanistan's major opium producing areas the Paratroopers were looking for weapons, drugs, and individuals related to the Taliban. During the operation about seventy kilograms of opium was seized and some weapons were recovered. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
NANJING, CHINA - JANUARY 28: (CHINA OUT) A police dog and its trainer practise skipping at a police dog training base on January 28, 2006, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China. 2006 is the Chinese year of dog (Photo by VCG via Getty Images)
Soldiers of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) salute as they perform with their dogs before a dog training competition, in Heihe, Heilongjiang province, August 16, 2016. Picture taken August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.
An Israeli soldier kisses a dog at a staging area near the border with Gaza August 3, 2014. Israel on Sunday declared dead soldier Hadar Goldin, feared abducted by Hamas Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip and said it would continue to fight even after the army completes destroying cross-border tunnels used by Palestinian fighters to attack its territory. Hamas' armed wing said on Saturday it had no clear indication on Goldin's whereabouts and that he may have been killed during an ambush in the southern Gaza Strip in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola (ISRAEL - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY CONFLICT ANIMALS)
A U.S. soldier gives his guard dog water at the Kandahar Air Base, December 8, 2013. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel traveled to the base to thank the troops for their dedication and for being deployed during the holiday season. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY ANIMALS)
Military working dog Quin the seven-year-old cocker spaniel sneaks a cheeky kiss from his handler Lance Corporal Stu Downer, 1 Military Working Dogs, 30, from Kent as he takes a break from training on Salisbury Plain as 7th Armoured Brigade prepare to deploy to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 19.
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Russia, China, Iran and other countries also have so-called super-cavitating torpedoes. These form an air bubble in front of them, enabling them to travel at hundreds of miles per hour. The torpedoes cannot be guided, but if aimed straight at a ship they are difficult to avoid.

A 2015 Rand Corporation report, "Chinese Threats to U.S. Surface Ships," found that if hostilities broke out, "the risks to U.S. carriers are substantial and rising."

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, a carrier is just a target," says defense analyst Pierre Sprey, who worked for the U.S. Secretary of Defense's office from 1966 to 1986 and is a longtime critic of U.S. weapons procurement.

DEFENDING CARRIERS

Navy leaders stand by the carrier. In an interview late last year, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, lauded carriers' versatility. Swift says they remain "very viable," sufficiently impregnable to be sent into the thick of combat zones.

Swift said he would order carriers into close battle "in a heartbeat." Nevertheless, citing the new anti-ship weapons, Swift says the carrier "is not as viable as it was 15 years ago."

Trump has said he will make good on his campaign promise to increase the Navy's fleet to 350 ships. The Navy currently has 277 deployable ships. The cost of a single new, Ford-class carrier – $10.5 billion without cost overruns – would consume nearly 20 percent of Trump's proposed $54 billion increase in next year's defense budget.

Some critics, including former senior Defense Department personnel, say Washington has put too much of the country's defense budget into a handful of expensive, vulnerable carriers.

At a naval symposium in 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called into question making such big investments in a few increasingly sinkable ships. Gates said "a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially $15 billion to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk."

The Navy, with the backing of Congress, went ahead nevertheless. The program has strong Congressional backing. In the 1990s, when defense spending was cut after the end of the Cold War, Congress enacted a law requiring the Navy to maintain an 11-carrier fleet.

Congress has given the Navy a temporary exemption to have 10 active carriers while one is overhauled. When the Ford is commissioned, it will bring the U.S. carrier fleet to 11.

Trump did not specify in his speech how he would bring the carrier fleet to 12. But he said the Ford-class carriers would be invulnerable to attack because they represent the best in American know-how.

"There is no competition to this ship," declared Trump, who called the Gerald R. Ford American craftsmanship "at its biggest, at its best, at its finest."

FAILING SYSTEMS

Trump did not mention that the ship's builder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, launched the Ford more than three years ago, but the Navy has yet to commission it and put it into service because of severe flaws. Many of its new high tech systems failed to work, including such basic ones as the "arresting gear" that catches and stops landing jets.

The Navy says the ship will be commissioned sometime this year. But the criticism has continued.

In a written statement in July, John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted the cost overruns and cited a list of crucial malfunctioning systems that remained unfixed. "The Ford-class program is a case study in why our acquisition system must be reformed," McCain wrote.

Ray Mabus, who in January stepped down as secretary of the Navy, said in an interview that the Gerald R. Ford "is a poster child for how not to build a ship." He added: "Everything that could have been done wrong was done wrong."

Mabus said that because of commitments made before he became Navy secretary, the Ford was loaded with high-tech equipment that had not even been designed yet. He also faulted awarding the shipbuilder a "cost plus" contract, under which it gets a fixed profit regardless of how much it costs to build the vessel. "There was no incentive to hold down costs," Mabus said.

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Russia's middle school military lessons
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Russia's middle school military lessons
A boy does physical exercises during military training undergone by students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community at a boot camp of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko 
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community undergo military training at a boot camp set up by the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 1, 2016. Picture taken November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A girl stands near a model showing the organization of a gas mask during military training undergone by students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community at a boot camp of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 1, 2016. Picture taken November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Children get their meals during military training undergone by students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community at a boot camp of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 1, 2016. Picture taken November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community undergo military training at a boot camp set up by the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School are seen through a flag during a ceremony marking the Day of Conscript, in Stavropol, Russia, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A girl stands near a model showing the organization of a gas mask during military training undergone by students of the General Yermolov Cadet School and members of a Cossack community at a boot camp of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) military patriotic club in the village of Sengileyevskoye in Stavropol region, Russia, November 1, 2016. Picture taken November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A fifth-grade student of the General Yermolov Cadet School takes part in his first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko 
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School, instructed by a tenth-grader, take on gas masks during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko 
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School, instructed by a tenth-grader, take on gas masks during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get prepared before their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School, instructed by tenth-graders and schoolmasters, take part in their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School take part in their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get prepared before their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School, instructed by tenth-graders and schoolmasters, march during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School, instructed by a tenth-grader, learn how to throw a dummy grenade during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School wear gas masks during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko 
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get prepared before their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get prepared before their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School have a meal during their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Fifth-grade students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get prepared before their first military tactical exercise on the ground, which includes radiation resistance classes, forest survival studies and other activities, in Stavropol, Russia, September 10, 2016. Picture taken September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School board an airplane for a parachute jump at an airdrome in the village of Novomaryevskaya outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School wait to board an airplane for a parachute jump at an airdrome in the village of Novomaryevskaya outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A student of the General Yermolov Cadet School is pictured after jumping with parachute from an airplane, as the moon is seen in the sky, in the village of Novomaryevskaya outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko 
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School are seen after jumping with parachute from an airplane in the village of Novomaryevskaya outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A student of the General Yermolov Cadet School walks through a field after a parachute landing in the village of Novomaryevskaya outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Students of the General Yermolov Cadet School get ready for a field training outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, June 13, 2015. Students aged from 10 to 17 took part in this exercise. The General Yermolov Cadet School in Stavropol is a state-run institution that teaches military and patriotic classes for in addition to a normal syllabus. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
A student of the General Yermolov Cadet School carries his Kalashnikov automatic rifle as he attends a field training outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, June 13, 2015. Students aged from 10 to 17 took part in this exercise. The General Yermolov Cadet School in Stavropol is a state-run institution that teaches military and patriotic classes for in addition to a normal syllabus. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
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Others criticize carriers as strategically flawed. Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and Defense Department official, is now director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carriers, he said in an email exchange, give Washington's rivals a cheap opportunity to score big. For the cost of a single carrier, he calculates, a rival can deploy 1,227 anti-carrier missiles.

"The enemy can build a lot more missiles than we can carriers for equivalent investments," Hendrix said, "and hence overwhelm our defensive capabilities."

The most commonly proposed alternative to carriers is building a much larger number of smaller, nimbler vessels, including submarines and surface ships. Submarines don't require escorts and can hit distant targets on land. And carriers have not been tested in battle against an enemy able to fight back since World War II – more than 70 years ago.

The Navy and some outside defense experts say that despite increased threats, carriers remain fully viable and perform an essential service. They laud carriers' mobility and swiftness, enabling the United States to project air power to places otherwise unreachable.

Carrier proponent Bryan McGrath, the deputy director of the Hudson Institute's Center for American Seapower in Washington, said carriers are less vulnerable than stationary, land-based air bases.

"A carrier is a big floating airport, and not only a floating airport, but it moves at 40 knots," says McGrath, a former captain of a guided missile destroyer. "How much more vulnerable are airfields on land that don't move?"

But Sprey, the former Defense Department official and longtime Pentagon procurement critic, says carriers waste funds that could be used to build more cost-effective weapons systems.

"Every Ford-class carrier we build detracts from U.S. defense," Sprey said.

LIMITED PROTECTION

Both strong supporters of carriers as well as opponents agreed that there is a serious flaw in the current configuration of U.S. carriers: their complement of strike aircraft. Almost all are short-range jets, the F-18 Hornet, whose range could render the planes useless in some conflicts.

The Chinese, in particular, have established sea zones bristling with anti-ship weapons meant to make it impossible for enemy flotillas to enter.

Top U.S Navy commanders, including Pacific commander Swift and Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, the Navy "Air Boss" in charge of carriers, say carriers could safely enter such zones long enough to carry out a mission. But many outside analysts say a U.S. president would be hesitant to risk such an expensive ship and the lives of up to 5,500 crew members.

In order to be relatively safe, a carrier would have to stand off by 1,300 nautical miles, or 2,300 kilometers – out of range of the Dong Feng missiles. And the F-18s have a range of only 400 nautical miles (equal to 460 statute miles or 740 kilometers) to a target with enough fuel to return.

Experts on both sides of the debate say that if the carriers have to stand off, the Hornets would have to be refueled in midair an impractical number of times while flying to and from their targets. It thus would be all but impossible for carriers to send air power into war zones.

The F-18s are to be replaced by 2020 with new F-35C Lightning IIs, but these have only a marginally better range of 650 nautical miles.

The Hudson Institute's McGrath, who champions carriers, says the short-range jets impair the mission.

"What they (the Navy) haven't done yet is to design and fund a strike aircraft that can fly 1,000 miles, drop its bombs and come home," McGrath said.

The cost of carriers in terms of strategy and money is multiplied because carriers do not travel alone. For protection, they move with large escorts, making every "carrier strike group" a virtual armada.

Each carrier usually has an escort of at least five warships, a mixture of destroyers and cruisers, at least one submarine and a combined ammunition-supply ship and helicopters designed to detect subs. When close enough to shore, carriers are also protected by new, land-based P-8 Poseidon jets, designed to detect and destroy subs.

OLD THREATS

For carrier commanders, the most feared weapon is a 150-year-old one. A single, submarine-launched torpedo could send a carrier to the bottom.

Most modern torpedoes aren't targeted to hit ships. Instead they are programmed to explode underneath. This creates an air bubble that lifts the ship into the air and drops it, breaking the hull.

For decades, critics have faulted the Navy for failing to develop effective defenses against modern torpedoes. A 2016 report by the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation said the Navy has recently made significant progress, but the systems still have crucial deficiencies.

Experts also say that carriers are at risk from updated versions of one of the oldest naval vessels still in use: the diesel-electric submarine. These were the subs used in both World Wars.

Diesel-electric subs have the advantage of being small – and while on electric power, silent, and in general quieter and harder to detect than nuclear subs.

Diesel-electric subs are also far cheaper to build than nuclear ones. Allies and rivals have been building large numbers of them. Worldwide, more than 230 diesel-electric subs are in use. China has 83 in use, while Russia has 19.

Hendrix, the former Defense Department official, says the carriers' vulnerabilities make the fleet a profligate use of money, vessels and aircraft.

"We have paid billions of dollars to build ships that are largely defensive in their orientation, thus taking away from the offensive power of the fleet," Hendrix says. "In the end, we spend a lot of money on defense to send 44 strike aircraft off the front end of a carrier."

(Editing by David Rohde. Reporting by Scot Paltrow.)

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