Amazing Aircraft Carrier Alternatives
Sea Control Ships
In 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.