One old aircraft carrier goes to scrap, but behind this symbolic moment is very real debate over whether flattops are obsolete and the cost of the future Navy

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The aircraft carrier USS Ranger was scheduled to be towed from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard today. Its destination: a shipbreaking facility in Texas where it will be scrapped. Because the Ranger won’t fit through the Panama Canal, it must be towed 16,000 miles around the tip of South America.

According to the Kitsap Sun, this leaves two carriers in mothballs at the Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility: USS Independence and USS Kitty Hawk. The latter will be held in reserve until the USS Gerald R. Ford enters service.

Ranger served from 1957 to 1993. While preservationists are downcast that they couldn’t turn the big ship into a museum somewhere, this moment can also take us inside today’s naval and defense industry debate over the future of carriers and the cost of ship replacement.

When Ranger was at its peak, aircraft carriers were the undisputed capital ships they had been since supplanting battleships in World War II. Into the 21st century, they were America’s way of projecting power and backing down potential adversaries worldwide, as well as the naval backbone of any U.S. involvement in war.

Now many strategists are wondering if the carrier’s days are done. For example, China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is dubbed the “carrier killer,” at least by American analysts. It has the potential to penetrate many defenses of a carrier and its escorts (the task force or strike group) and sink or grievously damage a flattop. At the least, such missiles disrupt America’s close-in war fighting strategy, part of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy.

Even if the carrier isn’t obsolete — and this fierce debate is far from settled — the Navy faces a huge challenge in replacing its ships in an era of austerity.

The Gerald R. Ford was supposed to cost $10 billion, but it will likely end up at $13 billion (it is the first of its class, so this doesn’t include R&D). USS Ranger cost about $1.6 billion in today’s dollars. To be sure, the Ford is more capable — but it faces viable counter-strategies and weapons not encountered by Cold War flattops. Ten billion is a lot to lose in a moment off Taiwan, not to mention the lives.

And the Ford class will be needed to replace the 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers as they age out in coming decades.

Another problem the Navy faces is replacing the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, many of which are based at Bangor submarine base on Hood Canal. The sea service has estimated it will need as much as a third more for shipbuilding from 2020 through 2035. This may be over-optimistic.

Meanwhile, these two huge programs leave little for important other ships, such as destroyers. No wonder U.S. ship levels keep falling.

It’s true that America spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined. But the Navy also protects the global commons and supply chains. Procurement needs reform. But even that won’t pay the bill if austerity and tax cuts/avoidance continue.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

The New York Fed stripped

Of its power over banks

Bet Jamie’s Yellen