"Twelve billion dollars or more for one ship is simply too expensive," he said at a hearing to discuss the Navy's 2016 budget request.
Huntington Ingalls Industries is the sole U.S. builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and Virginia's largest industrial employer. Mike Petters, the company's CEO, recently told financial analysts that it plans to invest in its Newport News shipyard, both in infrastructure and construction processes, to boost the efficiency of its carrier-building operation.
Petters said even though HII is the only builder of aircraft carriers, it is still competing against the Navy budget to hold down costs.
McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, has been a consistent critic of the Ford-class program, which has suffered from delays and cost overruns but has since stabilized. His office did not return a call seeking more detail on what McCain meant by increased competition.
HII's Newport News Shipbuilding division is working on three Ford-class carriers. The first-in-class Gerald R. Ford has been launched, and is undergoing further outfitting testing before being delivered to the Navy next year. Sections of the next ship, to be named for John F. Kennedy, are already taking shape. The third ship, now in the planning stages, will be named Enterprise.
Procurement costs for all three ships have increased anywhere from 22.9 percent to 25.7 percent since fiscal year 2008, according to a March 3 report from the Congressional Research Service. However, the same report also noted that costs on Ford have stabilized, while costs on Kennedy and Enterprise have dropped slightly.
The Ford's cost is now pegged at $12.9 billion, although the Government Accountability Office has questioned whether the Navy can stay under that amount because of costs related to new technologies and required testing.
Testifying at Tuesday's hearing, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus acknowledged problems with the first-in-class ship.
"The way the Ford was built is not the way to build a ship," he said. "It was designed while it was being built. Too much technology was trying to be forced in, and that technology was not mature."
The Kennedy is expected to come in at about $11.5 billion. GAO has also questioned the feasibility of that goal, although Mabus said the Navy would come in under that. He was also optimistic on the program going forward.
"We've had stable costs for the last three years or more now," he said. "It goes down every day. There is still some risk in the testing of those brand new systems."
Despite these questions, McCain said he strongly supports a more robust Navy fleet and is urging his fellow Republicans to reverse automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect later this year.
Noting threats that range from North Korea to the Islamic State to Ukraine, McCain said "by any measure, today's fleet of 275 ships is too small to address these critical security challenges."
A Navy assessment calls for a 306-ship fleet. A bipartisan defense panel has set the need at 323 to 346 ships. Combat commanders worldwide say they require 450 ships. But if automatic budget cuts kick in for fiscal year 2016, the Navy says the fleet could shrink to 260 ships.
McCain co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday and called on Republicans to reverse the pending budget cuts. The other author was Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services committee.
Lessig can be reached at 757-247-7821.