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Amazing Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

March 16, 2009

Sea Control Ships

principe_de_asturiasIn the early 1970′s, the brilliant young Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. had some interesting concepts to stem the downward slide of the US Navy, with the impending block obsolescence of hulls constructed in World War 2. Many of his proposals, including the excellent Perry frigates still with us today, could save the Post-Cold War Navy from  a similar fate. From Global Security we learn:

One type of ship ADM Zumwalt proposed was the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a small, austere aircraft carrier…

ADM Zumwalt later wrote in 1976: “Her price was to be 100 million 1973 dollars, about one-eighth the cost of a nuclear carrier. Her principal peacetime purpose was to show the flag in dangerous waters, especially the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific … so that the big carriers … could withdraw … and deploy out of reach of an enemy first strike, thus putting themselves in a favorable position to respond to such a strike–and therefore to deter it. … In a wartime situation the positions … would be reversed: the big, powerful ones would fight their way into the most dangerous waters, destroying opposition beyond cruise missile range with their planes, and the sea control ships would serve in mid-ocean.” The large carriers have “far too much offensive capability to waste on convoy duty.”

The 8 proposed SCS were never built, even after the small carrier concept was validated in the 1982 Falklands War, where Harrier jump jets operated in severe South Atlantic conditions that would have grounded conventional naval aircraft. The reasonings for cancellation were surprising:

The Sea Control Ship was quite controversial. The idea of an austere warship deeply troubled some, like ADM Rickover and the nuclear power community, who feared it was an alternative to nuclear powered large aircraft carriers. Others, like the naval aviation community, believed this ship might replace the large-deck carrier regardless of propulsion plant. Still others, like civilian naval analysts Norman Friedman and Norman Polmar, questioned the ship’s mission.

In 1973 dollars, the SCS was about 10% the cost of a Nimitz class nuclear-powered supercarrier, which means you could deploy 10 small aircraft carriers for the price of a single supercarrier. Ten percent today would amount to $500 billion more or less. It is understandable then why this ship was canceled, considering the bulk of post-Cold War operations have been against non-naval powers or in benign threat environments such as within the ongoing piracy operations off Somalia. Such austere and reasonably priced carriers would indeed be a threat to the larger carriers, especially in the current economic crisis, lack of a major peer threat at sea, and as the Navy struggles to maintain anywhere near 300 ships in commission.

Note-The Spanish carrier Príncipe de Asturias  pictured above was largely based on the Sea Control ship concept. She can carry a maximum of 30 fixed and rotary aircraft on her 16,000 ton hull, at a top speed of 26 knots. Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet pictured here, also built by Spain, is even smaller at 10,000 tons. She can load a maximum of 12 Harriers in a pinch.dn-sd-03-08801-1

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Dracae permalink
    April 10, 2012 11:58 am

    I think the truth lies in the middle, don’t replace 1 big carriers with 10 smaller ones, but with something like 6 of them and a bunch of suply ships.

    Makes me wonder about AEW though, can E2′s take of from the small ships? If not.. helicopter, Ospreys?

  2. Chuck permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:36 pm

    I read a most interesting article today by Norman Friedman, “UCAVs: Considering the Next Step,” published in “The Year in Defense 2009″ by Faircount Media (available on pp. 92-93 of http://issuu.com/faircountmedia/docs/yid09r – I can’t figure out the direct link). This deals in particular with the future role of UCAVs in the context of carrier strike groups. Perhaps all the issues are familiar to regular readers of this blog, but this is the first time I’ve read them and I found them quite fascinating. The perspective given there is that there remain some significant technical issues with replacing manned carrier planes with UCAVS, but the main issues have to do with cost and effectiveness, and there are quite a number of arguments on either side – which are dealt with, I think, in a balanced way. A thought-provoking article.

  3. Matt permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:13 pm

    “Nuclear power does little benefit for the crew. Recently USS Nimitz returned from an 8 month tour, because we have so few exquisite warships to take her place on the line. In wartime, a massive ship with plenty of staying power can be sunk just as easily as a small Sea Control Ship, but not so easily replaced.”

    Yes, it sucks to be at sea for 8 months (I’ve done extended cruises). But the fact is she was able to stay out there for 8 months perfectly illustrates the utility of a CVN over an SCS.

    To match the air wing capability of a CVN would require several SCS on-station at any one time. And because they would have such limited endurance (~2 weeks if similar to a legacy CV) you’d constantly be heading back to port to refuel. Operationally, the options would be to either gap the station while the SCS is in port or build a huge rotation base of SCSs to handle the one’s going to from on-station. And oh by the way, we can’t always guarantee we’ll have a safe port in theater if/when the balloon goes up. So you’d need an even bigger pool of tankers and escorts for those tankers.

    (So we’re looking for an expendable aircraft carrier now? Maybe you should be pitching your concept to the IJN in 1945 — vice the USN in 2010!)

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 2, 2010 1:26 pm

    “The key advantage that nuclear power gives is range and staying power.”

    Nuclear power does little benefit for the crew. Recently USS Nimitz returned from an 8 month tour, because we have so few exquisite warships to take her place on the line. In wartime, a massive ship with plenty of staying power can be sunk just as easily as a small Sea Control Ship, but not so easily replaced.

  5. Matt permalink
    April 2, 2010 7:44 am

    “All great ideas for carrier alternatives, Smitty, but the Navy has charts and graphs to prove you and I are wrong, though the decreasing number of warships in commission and the woeful maintenance on many in service speaks otherwise.”

    Heck Mike — why rely on data and analysis when you have dogmatic naval maxims? :>

  6. Matt permalink
    April 2, 2010 7:43 am

    “In 1973 dollars, the SCS was about 10% the cost of a Nimitz class nuclear-powered supercarrier, which means you could deploy 10 small aircraft carriers for the price of a single supercarrier.”

    That’s a pretty simplistic way to look at it.

    The key advantage that nuclear power gives is range and staying power. Consider the Pacific, where we routinely maintain 1 carrier on-station continuously. To do the same with an SCS would require a large pool of SCSs — each with its own escort of CG/DDG, etc. In addition, there’d be a significant logistical tail of tankers — which would also require escorts in wartime.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 24, 2009 11:23 am

    Again, the navy and Congress sees such lighter alternatives as a threat to large carriers. I have no problems with having some Big Decks, but how we justify them for use in littoral waters and against benign threats, environments where a CVL WOULD be most useful, is a horrible waste of resources, and likely dangerous to ship and crew.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    March 24, 2009 8:03 am

    Mike,

    The Navy studies are based on the need to maximize concentrated airpower in a major war. For this, they are correct. Large carriers are better.

    However, the future will likely be many, small-scale operations, with the occasional major conflict.

    Some thinking points to distributed ops even in a major war with China, to overcome their A2/AD network.

    In either case, having a smaller UCAV/AEW carrier might make sense.

    IMHO, it would be in addition to large carriers, not instead of them.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 23, 2009 7:15 pm

    All great ideas for carrier alternatives, Smitty, but the Navy has charts and graphs to prove you and I are wrong, though the decreasing number of warships in commission and the woeful maintenance on many in service speaks otherwise.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    March 23, 2009 10:42 am

    I would like to see a smaller, non-nuclear class of carrier in US service to supplement the Nimitz/Ford class. The LHD/LHA isn’t it, IMHO. These have too much of an amphibious bias in their design (as they should).

    If we really are going to operate in a more distributed fashion, having a small carrier at the center of a two or three ship task force would be a huge force-multiplier. Carriers can extend the eyes of a task force out hundreds of miles.

    The big problem is, what do you fly off of these small ships? Harriers are getting old. F-35B is an obvious candidate, but will it ever see service (and at what cost)?

    What do you do about critical the AEW mission? Helos like the Brits? I’m not crazy about this. Develop a new AEW aircraft based on the V-22? That would work better, but also be very expensive. I wonder how small of a ship could handle a CATOBAR E-2D? 40,000 tons? Less? Having two catapults might let a small carrier fly Super Hornets and Growlers too.

    Developing a small, STOVL UCAV may also make some sense (perhaps something roughly X-45A sized). But again, new development is costly.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 19, 2009 6:57 am

    Thank you! And I noticed just entering service!

    http://asiadefence.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/japan-commissions-helicopter-carrier-hyuga/

  12. elgatoso permalink
    March 18, 2009 8:26 pm

    Another one
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyuga_class_aircraft_carrier

Trackbacks

  1. Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 4 « New Wars
  2. End of the Surface Fleet as We know It « New Wars

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