Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Are Aircraft Carriers Obsolete?

Are aircraft carriers becoming obsolete?

That is an interesting and complex question.

In the current issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Captain Jerry Hendrix, USN and Lt. Col J. Noel Williams, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) argue that the aircraft carrier is in its twilight, faced with being eclipsed by long-range missiles and sensors (“this battle of signatures and long-range strike”) that threaten to ‘outrange’ the carrier and its aircraft in the same way that the carrier’s aircraft outranged the battleship’s guns. The authors look particularly towards China as a challenger to the US Navy’s control of the sea, and warn of a metaphorical ‘21st-Century Pearl Harbor,” meaning a situation in which the Navy is caught a technological step behind, a specter that has in one form or another haunted that Navy arguably since the CSS Virginia wrecked two wooden Union warships at Hampton Roads in 1862.


The USS Abraham Lincoln and her escorts

Hendrix and Williams float several propositions for the navy’s future, which they argue would help maintain control of the sea in the face of rising costs and potential technological upsets:

  • Smaller, 45,000-ton aircraft carriers at a cost of $2 billion each, compared to a $14 billion supercarrier (about $20 billion with aircraft). These smaller aircraft carriers would serve as a forward-deployed force that can be maintained less expensively than the supercarriers, with the ‘remaining supercarrier inventory’ available for a ‘surge capability.’ The authors imagine carriers similar in size to the Navy’s amphibious assault ships, 45,000-ton ships that have flight decks for helicopters and ‘jump jet’ (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing, or V/STOL) Harrier fighters, which can take off and land vertically or in a short distance. In fact, Hendrix’s ideal sounds an awful lot like the forthcoming USS America, an amphibious assault ship designed around airborne assaults and that trades the usual well deck for launching landing craft for a big increase in aircraft capacity.

  • The proponents argue that with two squadrons of the future F-35B fighter-bomber aboard, a ship like the USS America could deliver an appreciable fraction of a supercarrier’s firepower for a much more reasonable investment in money, manpower, and risk. As the US Marine Corps intends to purchase the same aircraft, Marine squadrons could be used from carriers when not needed on land. In fact, their proposal depends so heavily on the F-35B and its ability to take off and land on smaller flight decks that without the future aircraft, their proposed ships would be nearly useless.

  • More reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including the proposed UCLASS, which can operate from smaller ships than fixed-wing fighters can.

  • Cancelling the Littoral Combat Ship program and devoting the resources to sixty small amphibious assault ships of 10,000-tons displacement to serve as ‘utility infielders’ in baseball metaphor, supposedly “providing a tremendous platform for engagement missions and humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief response at one end and amphibious operations and sea control at the other.”

  • Maintaining a light/heavy balance of forces, with smaller inexpensive ships deployed around the world, and a “heavy surge force” held in reserve, ready to deploy to trouble spots.

The proposition as a whole has some merit—supercarriers do represent an immense cost and potential loss packed into a single target. Still most of the authors’ proposals would carry more weight if they were actually new, but with the possible exception of the 10,000-ton multirole ships, they’re not. The Navy has been here before. Smaller aircraft carriers have been proposed a number of times in the last few decades—most notably the Sea Control Ship of the 1970s, championed by the late former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. All of these foundered on the reefs of institutional prejudices and operational expectations—the Navy didn’t really want them and couldn’t fit the concept into its plans well enough to satisfy Congress.

The first major shoal in the waters of institutional prejudice is that the Navy has for the last six decades usually detested the idea of small ships, a category which in terms of surface ships came to include virtually everything smaller than a 5,000-ton guided-missile destroyer. The Navy complained that smaller ships were too limited in their abilities, couldn’t be upgraded with new weapons, required too many men and too much money, and so on, and generally argued that the money would be better spent on a smaller number of big ships. The same is true of aircraft carriers—if you want one at all, the Navy would argue, then you should get a big one.

Part of this attitude stems from genuine apprehension at the thought of sending men to sea in ships that were unequal to circumstances (witness the furor over the fragile and lightly-armed Littoral Combat Ship), which is why the Navy has never really embraced the idea of the high/low or big/cheap split, where a core of high-quality ships was supported by larger numbers of smaller, more expendable units. The archetypical example was the Victorian-era Royal Navy, which had two main battle forces, the Channel Fleet and Mediterranean Fleet, that comprised most of the fleet’s most powerful ships, supported by swarms of less-expensive cruisers and gunboats on overseas stations. The US Navy flirted with the ‘high/low’ concept during the 1970s, but even the ‘low end’ ships were fairly large and complex. This high/low scheme is, of course, the exact model proposed by Hendrix and Williams, and raises the possibility that the lightweight forward-deployed forces could find themselves outgunned and alone in the event that a major regional conflict erupts.

The second institutional prejudice is the issue of the aircraft carrier itself. Ever since the Second World War, the Navy has been dominated by the carrier clique, men wedded to the idea of the aircraft carrier as the ultimate Big Stick. By the 1960s, this attitude had been taken to such an extreme that virtually every other kind of ship in the fleet was reduced to supporting the aircraft carrier—cruisers became single-purpose air-defense ships that shot down enemy airplanes or cruise missiles, and destroyers and frigates became single-purpose ships that sank enemy submarines. Either type was basically a defensive auxiliary to the aircraft carrier, and were ill-equipped for operating out of their intended roles, or even for the task of simply fighting other surface ships—the Navy didn’t even have a purpose-built antiship missile until the late 1970s, when the RGM84 Harpoon entered service.

In the particular case of aircraft carriers, bigger being better was embraced virtually as a universal constant, since the US Navy’s supercarriers were essentially designed around their aircraft. As built, they embodied certain engineering assumptions about the aircraft in service at the time, and other assumptions about aircraft expected to enter service in the next decade or so. By comparison, the rest of the ship was there to move the flight deck around. If you want to operated supersonic jet fighters, you need a carrier of a certain size, dictated by concerns for hangar space, length of flight deck for takeoff and landing, and so on. The Navy’s fleet of amphibious assault have a similar problem — the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft won’t fit on most of the ships built during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The reason for this bigger-is-better train of thought was simple—the US Navy spent half a century preparing to fight a war that never came to pass, only to be faced with a series of missions that it had never really contemplated. During the expected World War III, aircraft carriers would have had the unenviable tasks of sweeping the seas of Soviet ships and aircraft, and of hammering their way into the Warsaw Pact’s defended airspace. This required aircraft at least as good as their land-based counterparts, and a carrier with the capacity to launch major airstrikes. Both were major challenges. Since the war with the Soviets was the only thing on the radar (sometimes nearly literally so), the whole system of carriers, aircraft, training, tactical doctrine, weapons design, and contingency planning was focused on fighting the Soviets in certain areas under certain assumed conditions, and to the exclusion of everything else. The F-14, for example, was designed primarily to kill Soviet bombers with super-long-range Phoenix missiles weighing half a ton each, thereby hopefully preventing the bombers from getting close enough to the carriers to launch their own missiles. The result was a very large fighter plane engineered for a specific role.

The Navy’s original goal in designing its carrier fleet was to operate aircraft from a carrier that were equivalent to their land-based counterparts—for example, the F-4 Phantom II (one of the first combat aircraft to be extensively operated by both the Navy and the Air Force) or the F-14 Tomcat. Carrier-borne aircraft had previously been considered inferior to land-based aircraft because of the compromises in design necessary to fit them onto a carrier—weight and size were limited by the hanger size and deck length of the carrier. For example, the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the Navy’s mainstay during the early years of the Pacific War, was slower, shorter-ranged, and less well-armed than the Army Air Corps’ contemporary land-based Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. This general trend persisted into the 1950s as jet technology matured, with the Navy’s stubby little F9F Cougar lagging behind the Air Force’s hotshot Century-series (F-100, F-101, F-105, etc) fighters, but later advances leveled the playing field between carrier and land-based aircraft.

As combat aircraft evolved and got bigger in the pressure-cooker environment of the Cold War they needed larger aircraft carriers; the first ‘supercarrier,’ USS Forrestal, launched in 1951, displaced 59,650 tons standard (81,101 tons full load), had an overall length of 1,067 feet and a beam at the flight deck of 238 feet. She drew 37 feet of water and had a crew of 5,540 personnel. The Forrestal was an immense ship for her day, over twice the displacement and 25% longer than the Essex-class carriers built during the Second World War, and which made up the bulk of the Navy’s carrier fleet during the 1950s and 1960s. The never-built USS United States of 1948 would have been larger still, but was cancelled after the end of the Second World War.


The Navy’s newest operational aircraft carrier, Nimitz-class USS George H.W. Bush, has a nominal displacement of 102,000 tons, a length of 1,092 feet, and a beam at the flight deck of 252 feet. She draws 41 feet of water and has a crew of 5,680 personnel. The forthcoming USS Gerald R. Ford class will be at least as large.


In hindsight, it is perhaps surprising that the supercarriers haven’t grown more than they have, to keep pace with aircraft sizes—the Nimitz is bigger than the Forrestal, but not by that much; much of the increased displacement comes from her nuclear power plant. Rather, it is a credit to the naval architects’ foresight in estimating future needs, and to the aircraft engineers’ skill in fitting new aircraft into old ships, once a practicable maximum size of an aircraft carrier had been reached. The Forrestal served until 1993, deploying with several successive generations of aircraft, including the massive F-14, the largest carrier-borne fighter ever built, which was twice the size and four times the weight of the F9F Cougar that was entering service along with the Forrestal in the 1950s.


The F-14 Tomcat in the foreground aboard the USS America in the 1980s; the aircraft in the background are an A-7 Corsair II and an A-6 Intruder

Older, smaller carriers often couldn’t accommodate newer aircraft and had to be scrapped, or were limited to older, sometimes obsolete aircraft. The US Navy scrapped its herd of Second World War-vintage Essex-class carriers during the late 1960s largely because they couldn’t accommodate the then brand-new F-4 Phantom II. The Forrestal remained in service until 1993 because she had been designed to accommodate the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, a jet-propelled nuclear-capable bomber (from the era of nuclear weapons the size and weight of a dump truck) that was bigger and heavier even than the later Tomcat, and so could handle even that enormous aircraft. The Forrestal even managed the largest aircraft take-off and landing ever, a USMC KC-130 tanker aircraft, in 1963)

Other navies faced the same problem. The French Navy’s Foch and Clemenceau, for example, were stuck with the Vought F-8 Crusader for a fighter until the late 1990s, decades after it had been retired from front-line service in the US Navy. The Royal Navy essentially gave up on conventional aircraft flown from carriers altogether when HMS Ark Royal was retired in 1979 and replaced with three “through-deck cruisers” (HMS Invincible, Ark Royal, and Illustrious) that couldn’t operate conventional fixed-wing aircraft, and which had initially been conceived as a mere escort to the never-built CVA-01 supercarrier. The Wilson and Callaghan governments’ stance on defense spending was so tight-fisted during the UK’s economic troubles of the 1970s that the Admiralty forbade the ships be described as ‘aircraft carriers,’ for fear of the ferocious opposition to defense spending in Parliament.

Other nations with carriers left over from the 1940s and 50s—for example, Argentina’s 25 de Mayo, Brazil’s Minas Gerais, or India’s two small ex-Royal Navy flattops, Viraat and Vikrant—were limited to helicopters, propeller-driven antisubmarine planes such as the Fairey Gannet or Breguet Alize, and obsolete fighter or attack jets like the A-4 Skyhawk. Even these small and limited carriers consumed an enormous share of a small navy’s resources, for all that the carrier may well have been a sort of tokenism, much as having even a single dreadnought was a considered to be a mark of status fifty years earlier.

Thus the argument for supercarriers. In short, if the operational priorities were high-intensity combat against Soviet land-based fighters and bombers, then dinky little World War II leftovers flying Gannets, Skyhawks, and helicopters were obviously nonstarters, and so for several decades the prejudice against small carriers made good sense. Small carriers were useful for protecting convoys against submarines—and indeed, helicopters remain the submarine’s greatest nemesis-- but were too limited to be useful for offensive operations.

The US Navy itself toyed with the concept of purpose-built smaller carriers in the early 1970s, as part of a general interest in lower-tech, less expensive weapons and methods that all four armed services entertained in the waning years of the Vietnam War, in the season of embarrassment resulting from the belief that the comparatively crude Soviet weapons had outperformed the costly, high-tech products of the American military-industrial complex. The Soviet Unions’ then-new Kiev-class ‘heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers’ were a further spur, in that they combined a flight deck with heavy antiship missiles and a formidable air-defense armament, making US carriers look lumbering and defenseless. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations at the time, advocated a high/low mixture of inexpensive, single-purpose ships together with high-value multirole ships; some of the proposals generated under this initiative eventually saw daylight as the Perry-class frigates and the Virginia-class nuclear-powered guided-missile cruisers. The former were designed as new-generation convoy escorts, optimized for antisubmarine warfare, and the latter were conceived as carrier escorts, their nuclear power plants enabling them to keep up with the carriers themselves.

The most significant of these small-carrier experiments was the Sea Control Ship, conceived as a conceptual evolution of the ‘low end’ escort carriers of the Second World War, and as a means of bringing the number of flight decks back up after the mass retirement of the Essex class. The SCS—nobody dared call it a carrier, much as HMS Invincible was officially a cruiser— would in wartime have been a convoy escort and submarine killer, devoted to roles for which a supercarrier would have been overkill, or too rare; in other words, jobs that the aging, too-small Essexes would once have done. In peacetime, the SCS would have been used for showing the flag and gunboat diplomacy.


A 1974 conceptual drawing for the Sea Control Ship

The SCS design described a ship a tenth the size and an eighth the cost of a Nimitz-class carrier, or roughly the size of a contemporary guided-missile cruiser, and carrying an air wing of antisubmarine helicopters and a handful of V/STOL fighters. An alternative, smaller design would have been built on a converted Spruance-class destroyer hull. The USS Guam, a helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship, was used for extensive trials for the concept on a 1974 Atlantic deployment, supporting a detachment of three first-generation Marine Corps Harriers and seventeen antisubmarine helicopters. The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a 1940s-vintage Midway-class carrier too small and too old for front-line use, carried Harriers and antisubmarine helicopters in a 1976-1977 test program intended to evaluate how V/STOL aircraft could be integrated into normal carrier operations.

The SCS idea as a whole showed promise, but eventually foundered on the rocks of Congressional politics in 1977, after Admiral Zumwalt’s retirement took the program’s strongest supporter off the chessboard. The Spanish Navy bought the design and built a 16,000-ton ship to a modified plan, the Principe de Asturias, which has done good service since 1988.

Save that Hendrix and Williams’ proposed smaller carriers are bigger and include humanitarian missions alongside low-intensity operations and showing the flag, their proposal sounds like a larger regurgitation of the Sea Control Ship.


A comparison of size, with the Spanish Navy's Principe de Asturias (17,188 tons) in foreground, USS Wasp (40,500 tons) second, USS Forrestal (81,000 tons), and HMS Invincible (25,000 tons)

Almost forty years after the SCS concept sank, the world is in a very different state of affairs. The Cold War ended twenty years ago and the Soviet Union no longer exists. There are no prospects for a high-intensity conflict on that scale in the foreseeable future. Most of the Navy’s combat or combat support operations involve low intensity conflicts, sometimes even very-low intensity conflicts such as the Somali pirates. These type of operations usually just don’t need an aircraft carrier. If they are available, the Navy also uses amphibious assault ships, capable of operating vertical-takeoff Harrier fighters and helicopters, as surrogate aircraft carriers for crisis areas such as the Libyan intervention, or for humanitarian operations.

Though there isn’t any occasion these days to use them to their full capabilities, the US Navy sticks to its fleet of eleven supercarriers largely because they’re what it knows best, and also because there is currently no reason good enough to justify departing from them. Supercarriers are by this point a proven thing, and despite all the drawbacks of size, cost, and (arguably) inflexibility, they represent a tremendous amount of force that can be moved around the world with considerable speed and almost total impunity. Two or three supercarriers and their escorts can outgun most of the world’s smaller countries, and are capable of shutting down a small country within days, such as the NATO air power did in Serbia in 1999. That’s not a capability to be given up or whittled down without good reason.

The argument about the development of anti-carrier weapons such as the Chinese military’s new DF-21D antiship ballistic missile certainly holds water. It would be foolish to expect possibly hostile nations not to put considerable effort into ways to destroy aircraft carriers. One or two hits from a missile that size could disable or sink a supercarrier, but as with any attack, the problem is getting the hit. Supercarriers are not passive targets, and they do not operate alone. In the long run, though, it’s just another step in the offense-versus-defense development process. The USSR sought to counter aircraft carriers with antiship missiles and the US Navy responded with better missile defenses, including the Aegis system. The same process is going on now—many of the US Navy’s surface ships have been or will be fitted with the antiballistic-capable SM-3 missile, originally as part of a national scheme of ballistic missile defense, but easily adaptable to carrier defense. More broadly, ballistic missile launches are by their nature impossible to hide, and the US has plenty of spy satellites and other detection systems. Any carrier threatened by a ballistic missile attack would have advanced from the time of the attacking missile’s launch.

The supercarrier has reigned supreme for so long that several other countries are bending great efforts towards obtaining them. The UK has two supercarriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, under construction, nearly thirty years after the Ark Royal was retired. France is considering a second carrier, an improvement over the underpowered Charles DeGaulle, and both India and China are exploring the possibilities.

Now granted, there have been technological changes over the last thirty years that would make a smaller aircraft carrier more feasible. For one thing, there are now more ways to exercise long-distance power than to use conventional fixed-wing aircraft. The initial salvos of cruise missiles from the submarine USS Florida in March 2011, as part of the US Navy’s involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya, devastated the Gaddafi regime’s military and essentially shut down the country’s air defense network within a couple of hours. Twenty years ago, no ship besides an aircraft carrier could have done the job, but a repurposed ballistic missile submarine crammed to the brim with Tomahawk missiles accomplished it in a matter of hours. The short-lived idea of the ‘arsenal ship’ discussed in the years after the first war with Iraq was an even simpler concept—a large ship, similar to a freighter, carrying hundreds of cruise missiles. This concept was proposed in 1994, but funding has never been appropriated for a full study or design.

Vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft have also matured as a technology, and second, the great and unexpected strides that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have made in the last ten years. Neither of these technologies existed as anything other than crude prototypes when the first Nimitz-class carrier was launched in the late 1960s. The most significant weakness to the SCS concept was the lack of a good V/STOL fighter, the early model Harriers not being designed as fighters. The Rockwell XFV-12, a purportedly supersonic V/STOL fighter designed as a complement to the SCS, proved wholly impracticable and was abandoned after millions of dollars had been spent to produce an aircraft that simply could not fly.

The Hawker-Siddley Harrier was an oddball little plane introduced in the early 1970s, initially as a land-based attack plane used by the Royal Air Force and the US Marine Corps, but it only made a big impact ten years later, when the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers acquitted themselves well against the Argentine military’s land-based Mirage and Skyhawk aircraft during the 1982 Falklands War. Suddenly every navy that operated a carrier had a passable fighter and attack plane that could operate from a small deck, and many countries such as Spain and Italy were launching new small carriers designed with the Harrier in mind. Sure, the Harrier wasn’t nearly as fast or long-ranged or high-performance as a MiG-29 or an F-14, but it was better than most of the older-generation aircraft operated by, say, Libya or Pakistan.

Nearly thirty years after the Falklands War, however, the Harrier remains the only combat-proven V/STOL aircraft in the world. The Harrier’s Soviet counterpart, the Yak-38, never saw combat and was never produced in large numbers. The US Navy and Marine Corps (and many other nations) intend to purchase the V/STOL version (the F-35B) of the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II (formerly known as the Joint Strike Fighter) when it becomes available.


At $150 million each, the F-35B promises to be a great improvement over the Harrier, with performance comparable to a conventional modern jet fighter, better range, weapons payload and speed, and stealth characteristics. The F-35’s development has been a long, painfully slow, and heavily politicized one. The F-35 has been in development since 1996, first flew in 2006, and fewer than twenty aircraft have been produced to date. Over the objections of the Department of Defense, Congressional Republicans led by members from Ohio and Indiana have repeatedly tried to earmark funds (up to $450 million) for manufacturing a second engine, to be produced by General Electric and Rolls Royce in those states, in addition to the approved Pratt & Whitney engine. The F-35 is also the most expensive defense project in the United States’ history, with over a trillion dollars spent or projected to be spent on an aircraft that still hasn’t completed all of its tests. Each aircraft also costs three times as much as a late-model Harrier ($35 million in 1997 dollars during USMC procurement, or about $48 million in 2011 dollars). As costs skyrocketed, the number of planes proposed for purchase has been steadily reduced (the US Marine Corps still wants more than 400 of them). If the Pentagon’s other procurement programs are anything to measure by, the F-35 is highly unlikely to meet it’s planned in-service schedule of 2016-2018. Secretary of Defense Gates has threatened to cancel the F-35 program unless it starts meeting its goals without continued financial drain.

Without aircraft, a carrier is useless, and the performance of the available aircraft dictates the carrier’s abilities. For example, the Navy’s carrier force was significantly weakened when the A-6 Intruder attack aircraft were retired due to age in the late 1990s. Although they were replaced with an equal number of F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bombers, the Hornet has half the range and two-thirds the weapons payload of the Intruder. This not only limits the carrier’s offensive power (in terms of number of missiles or bombs that can be launched at a target) but both forces the carrier to operate closer to shore, more likely within range of enemy attack. Aircraft range also limits how far inland the carrier can reach-- from a carrier in the Persian Gulf, an Intruder could hit Baghdad, but a Hornet can’t. The Intruder’s replacement, a carrier-based stealth bomber named the A-12 Avenger II, was a financial boondoggle and engineering failure that died in development.

On the other hand, improvements in guided weapons have made it possible to effect damage on the enemy using far fewer aircraft sorties than were previously necessary.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are the newest addition to military aviation; the RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-1 Predator, and MQ-9 Reaper drones have been one of the most conspicuous success stories in military technology of the last twenty years, springing off the drawing boards to become a mature and indispensable tool within only a few years. After 2004, they became one of the most useful weapons the US military had. UAVs were used in 118 air attacks in Pakistan alone during 2010, in addition to doing yeoman service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya. Successive generations of UAVs have become longer-ranged and more useful (or in the case of the Marines, small enough to be flung into the air by hand), with better sensors, loiter times, and weapons payloads; the General Atomics-manufactured MQ-1 Reaper is a major improvement on the Predator, carrying fifteen times as much ordnance as the Predator, while the Navy’s Global Hawk has a range of 15,000-miles and an endurance of 36 hours, enough to get from California to Hawaii and back. Compared to a manned aircraft, UAVs are slow and limited, but they are inexpensive ($10.5 million for a Reaper), capable of loitering for long periods of time, hard to see, avoid, and kill, and if fitted with missiles, can more or less immediately attack any target they can see. If more firepower is needed, they can be used to bring other aircraft or artillery fire onto the target. Many of the UAV’s jobs until recently required manned aircraft patrolling the area, with increased costs and risks, and which required a land base or an aircraft carrier. UAVs, by contrast, can be launched from the back of a truck or from the helicopter deck of a frigate, and could as easily be launched from a smaller carrier as from a large one. Helicopter-type UAVs are also joining the arsenal, in addition to the fixed-wing Global Hawk and Reaper. A small carrier remaining on-station in the Gulf of Aden with a hangar full of UAVs could maintain surveillance over an area encompassing Yemen, the Red Sea, and Somalia.

Captain Hendrix proposes that three smaller (40,000-ton) aircraft carriers could be built for the cost of a single Nimitz or Ford-type supercarrier. This assertion is best taken with a grain of salt. Given the US Navy’s ship design and construction contractors’ apparent inability to get any project completed without years of delays and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, (e.g. the USS San Antonio, completed three years late, $840 million over budget, and still grossly unfit for service) the argument that any smaller ship is going to be cheaper is on very shaky ground to begin with. As a more direct analogy, the Littoral Combat Ship was originally supposed to cost $200 million, 1/5 as much as a Flight IIa Arleigh Burke class destroyer. As of early 2011, however, the going rate for a Littoral Combat Ship is $450 million, or nearly half as much as a Burke for a ship that was supposed to be smaller, simpler, and less expensive. So much for the ‘low’ end of the balance.

Setting aside the cost-effectiveness proposition, however, there are numerous advantages to having a greater number of smaller aircraft carriers available:

  • Availability is, in fact, the key. The US Navy has shrunk from a circa-1990 peak of nearly 600 warships, including fifteen carrier groups and four groups built around the reactivated Iowa-class battleships, to a total of 286 ships in 2011, including eleven carriers. Granted, the 1990 peak reflected the Reagan administration’s arbitrary and fiscally profligate ‘600-ship navy’ goal, as opposed to actual need, and included a large number of warships retained past their truly useful lifespans, at considerable cost in manpower and maintenance. Granted also, such a large fleet simply wasn’t necessary after the Soviet Union collapsed. Still, the US Navy has commitments spanning the globe, and a much smaller fleet with which to meet these commitments. A Burke-class destroyer is considerably more powerful than one of the 1980s-era Spruance class, with a far greater radius of effect thanks to her cruise missiles, but it still can only be in one place at one time. The same is true of supercarriers, only more so. The carrier off the coast of Libya cannot be of use in the Persian Gulf.

  • If the resources equivalent to a supercarrier are spent on three smaller ships, three crisis areas can be covered instead of one. This metaphorically allows us to spend small change on a cup of coffee, rather than having to hand over a $50 bill.

  • Given that of the eleven operational supercarriers, two or three are generally out of service at any given time for maintenance or other work, a fleet of smaller, more numerous carriers would in theory have more ships available for service at a given time.

  • Smaller carriers could be maintained using smaller shipyards, without need for facilities that can accommodate supercarriers. This point may be moot, however, given the considerable infrastructure the US Navy has built up for supercarrier maintenance over the last half-century.

  • Smaller, ‘routine’ missions (though no mission is truly routine when human life is at risk) are more likely to occur than the need for a major air assault. For the last ten years of the ‘war on terror,’ with the exception of the invasion of Iraq, the usual role of naval airpower has been to conduct small attack missions on specific targets, rather than the sort of blitz that savaged Iraq in 1991 or that turned out the lights across Serbia in 1999. Given appropriate aircraft, smaller aircraft could handle routine missions more cheaply and with less need to weigh carefully the small number of supercarriers against the number of missions.

  • Many missions do require air support, but aren’t big enough to justify a supercarrier—for example, a limited intervention such as in Libya.

  • Assuming three small carriers collectively possessed the same combat power of a single supercarrier, the sinking of one ship would leave the other two operational.

  • Improvements in communications and networking among ships make it possible for ships to operate more closely.

  • Smaller ships would theoretically be quicker to construct and bring into service, though in view of the current state of naval procurement this is highly unlikely.

  • Supercarriers very rarely operate at maximum capacity; in fact, the most recent full-capacity combat operations were during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and smaller ships could handle the quotidian operations at less cost.

  • The logistics of supporting smaller carriers would be simpler; current supercarriers are limited to certain bases and harbors by their size and draft, and cannot pass through the Panama Canal. Dredging of the Suez Canal since 1975 has made it possible for supercarriers to pass through the canal rather than sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.

There are also several important arguments against smaller aircraft carriers.

· The small carrier’s actual usefulness would depend on suitable aircraft being available, and in this case it means the small carrier is married to the F-35B. Granted, the Harrier is available now, but the F-35 is unlikely to be available in suitable numbers for as long as ten years, and may be cancelled outright like the A-12 Avenger II was. It is generally a very bad idea to develop one’s ships or operational doctrine around an airplane, vehicle, or other weapon that hasn’t entered service yet—for example, consider the jolt to the Marine Corps when the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was cancelled, essentially junking over a decade of research, testing, and planning. If a new small carrier is forced to rely on Harriers, it will lack the punch that Hendrix expects. For that matter, even Hendrix’ example of the USS America is still under construction, due to commission in 2012 but probably several years from entering service.

· For Libya-sized operations, or issues such as the Somali pirates, an available amphibious assault ship could be used as a surrogate carrier (as in the authors’ own example), filling the small carrier’s proposed niche with an existing ship and rendering the need moot.

· Operating costs can outweigh the construction cost of a ship in cost-effectiveness evaluations. An amphibious ship of the Tarawa or Wasp classes—the America’s predecessors—is second only to a supercarrier in manning, running, and maintenance costs.

· The 10,000-ton multirole ships they envision instead of the Littoral Combat Ship—the size of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer-- would likely be too small to be of much use, facing serious tensions between cargo and troop space, power plant, offensive and defense weapons, and other design requirements. In other words, the same tensions that resulted in the LCS being such a bastardized compromise of design. Even the South Korean navy’s small Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship is 50% larger than Hendrix and Williams’ proposal.

· In the event of a major regional conflict, such as a hypothetical war involving North Korea or Iran, a smaller carrier with thirty aircraft would be seriously out of its depth. Granted, an F-35 would be more than a match for most of the Soviet-era relics operated by North Korea, but maintaining high operation tempos (keeping many aircraft in the air and maintaining that status for a long period of time), requires lots of aircraft, lots of man-hours, and lots of deck and hangar space, since for every aircraft airborne there will usually be one or two on deck rearming and refueling.

· Any threat formidable enough to ‘outrange’ and threaten a supercarrier, as Hendrix and Williams discussed, would by definition also outrange and threaten a smaller carrier. The only advantage to a smaller carrier would be that a cheaper ship with fewer crew would be at risk.

· Given current budgeting and manpower limitations, any construction of smaller carriers would almost certainly have to come at the expense of something else, such as the retirement of a supercarrier. The USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered supercarrier, is scheduled to decommission within the next several years, but as two more supercarriers (USS Gerald R. Ford and USS John F. Kennedy) already in the construction pipeline, any such trade-off is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

· If the number of aircraft carriers is significantly increased, there may not be enough escort ships to go round. Aircraft carriers have a limited self-defense capacity, and defend on their aircraft and other ships to protect them. At present, a Carrier Strike Group theoretically consists of a carrier, one or two Aegis-equipped cruisers, two destroyers, and two frigates. In practice, however, escort ships are frequently detached for other missions, simply because there aren’t enough ships to go round. The US Navy’s fleet of surface escorts currently consists of 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers (the five oldest were retired circa 2003, as they had Mark 26 twin-arm missile launchers instead of the Vertical Launch System) and 60 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers of various models. There are also 28 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, which are essentially “worn-out and maxed-out” in the words of Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, and which are scheduled for retirement. From the Navy’s perspective, this is few enough surface ships as it is (110 all told) for the missions already on the table, and one of the reasons of the hue and cry over the Littoral Combat Ship is that the Navy needs them to free up bigger ships for other roles.

· Lastly, the design and construction of smaller carriers would unfortunately be subject to the same delays and overruns as any other defense (particularly warship construction) project. A ship initially proposed as a ‘small and cheap’ 40,000-ton carrier would be very unlikely to remain either small or cheap, and if the past is any guide (e.g. the Littoral Combat Ship, the prototypes of which cost 3-4 times the original budget) it would soon balloon to the point where it would have all the drawbacks of a supercarrier but none of the advantages. In that situation, the Navy might as well follow its historic practice and spend the money on a supercarrier. If that happens, the ship could also face the same budget axe that killed the Air Force’s F-22, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and a number of Army projects over the last few years. The ship could also turn out to be as much an unfit-for-deployment white elephant as the LCS USS Independence, whose aluminum hull is disintegrating, or the USS San Antonio, who almost shut down the Suez Canal in 2009 with a narrowly-averted collision and grounding caused by the failure of her steering equipment.

It is a sad thing indeed that one of the most damning arguments against an idea like this is that the defense industry can’t seem to produce anything that is small, inexpensive, and easy to implement, and can’t produce anything on-time, on-spec, and on-budget. Secretary of the Navy Winter and Secretary of Defense Gates have had essentially to go to war with their own contractors in order to try to get the system on track, including canceling the entire Littoral Combat Ship program in 2007.

In conclusion, Hendrix and Williams’ proposition as a whole has some merit—supercarriers do represent an immense cost and potential loss packed into a single target. Smaller carriers do have many arguments in their favor, as well as many arguments against them. The Navy currently faces the dilemma of not having enough ships to go round, a stretched-thin budget, and a procurement and shipbuilding system that is grossly incapable of providing the ships the Navy needs.

In the current climate, with a stretched-thin Navy and an even more stretched budget, however, the issue of introducing an entire new type of warship is a hard one to greet with open arms.


Henry Hendrix said...

Excellent analysis and critic of the article. Just the type of conversation we were hoping to start.
Henry Hendrix
Capt, USN

Tom said...

Thank you sir! Your kind words mean a great deal.