Aircraft Carriers:The ‘Bigger is Better’ Myth Pt 1
If we assume 20% of the aircraft are not mission capable, and we should because that is how Murphy’s Law works on an aircraft carrier, we now have a CVL supporting 16 F-35Bs capable of conducting 32 sorties per day at a 2.0 sortie rate, and doing so without the services of carrier based E-2D or EA-18G. If a Nimitz class can support 120 sorties per day, we would need 4 CVLs to match the number of sorties a single CVN can support, and a CVN comes with E-2Ds and EA-18Gs built in. The Ford class, which is not only less expensive to operate than a Nimitz, but is specifically designed to support higher sortie generation rates, is probably going to average $8.5 billion over its lifetime (I am guessing, but using CBO numbers to guess). That means the Navy would have to build 30,000 ton CVLs at a cost under $2.2 billion each, which would be at a cost less than the 9,800 ton DDG-51 destroyer in the FY2010 budget, in order to be less expensive and equally capable in sortie generation as a Ford class.
I hate to break it to the CVL / Small Carrier crowd, but it is 100% MYTH and FUD when it is claimed that big deck nuclear aircraft carriers are somehow inferior to alternatives, including on the cost metric.
The author makes a good point that the Nimitz’s can do sorties like nobody’s business. What the article inadvertently also points out is we use these great monuments to American industrial might against some of the poorest countries on earth, reaching way back with Korea, to the Viet Cong, Saddam’s Iraq, the defunct Yugoslav nation, and that paragon of modernity (speaking sarcastically) Afghanistan. If we were forced to fight against a peer adversary, what would our tactics be, and would we be able to get even close enough to launch planes within the 200 mile limit mentioned in the article?
But our possible foes are not lying still, meekly waiting for our Big Ships to sail unhindered against their coasts. There are fashioning anti-access weapons able to drive us back out to sea, and potentially into our safe harbors. Submarines are equipped with supersonic missiles which give the defense only seconds to react, long range bombers also are equipped with such weapons, but even more ominous are the use of simple conventional ballistic missiles equipped with smart warheads, as detailed in this 2008 China Military Report:
China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on a variant of the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) as a component of its anti-access strategy. The missile has a range in excess of 1,500 km and, when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, is a key component of China’s anti-access strategy to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, from great distances.
Now, here’s what it means: carriers must stay at least 1000 miles off this enemy’s coast. Think how that affects strike planning, surveillance, rescue…any number of factors that go into naval aviation planning. And how do you defend against such a strike?
The very idea of sorties is so last century, with the Navy one of the last to deploy precision guided munitions, but also still clinging to the idea of giant carrier wings. The late great Transformation chief Admiral Andrew Cebrowski would beg to differ, who in 2004 stated:
“They don’t have to be designed around tactical fighter wings anymore. They can be designed as large open systems, multi-purpose, to be used for anything, to include an aircraft carrier of today, or a large deck amphib ship, or command and control ship.”
Eric Palmer of F-16.net explains this new revolution in airpower:
Todays carrier aircraft can hit more targets per flight-ops period in more kinds of weather than they could 20 years ago due to the advent of GPS assisted/kitted munitions (and now affordable multi-mode guidance kits for bombs). Today, a flight of four aircraft can hit more targets in one mission in near any weather, than a whole squadron of aircraft could in the era when dumb munitions were dominant. If 4 F-35 aircraft go out on a strike in the low observable mode where all munitions are carried internally, anywhere from 8 to 32 ground targets can be hit.
Sven Ortmann also puts the Navy’s idea of sorties into perspective:
The talk is all about sorties, very little about persistence over the area and no (if I didn’t miss it with my quick look) comparison of actual effect on target.
In short: A F-18 sortie that drops two bombs and loiters over target for an hour is treated as one sortie – just like a B-1B that drops ten bombs and loiters for hours over the area.
In other words, the number of sorties isn’t as important as its bombing effectiveness.
Such a marvelous and useful technology is going by unnoticed by the naval air community, that just cries for smaller, more flexible platforms to spread around the globe, easing strain on ships and men and guarding against our numerous foes. Instead, they still dream of the giant air battles, and think we will never fight enemies who will seek to sink our ships. Meanwhile the cost of fielding these ships of yesteryear, is bringing attrition to the fleet faster than any foe. A case in point would be the British Royal Navy, seeking their own large deck carrier arm, who ironically Raymond once gave some sound advice to with Cancel The CVF While the Fleet Still Floats:
The reduction of warships from 25 to 20 was first proposed in October, but no one took those reports seriously at the time. As reality sets in it raises the question, will the Royal Navy be able to save itself from this “black hole” by canceling the CVF and putting together a realistic strategic vision for the future of the Royal Navy, or will the Royal Navy end up with carrier and expeditionary ships without the frigates and destroyer escorts needed to use them outside of British waters?
No one is saying the aircraft carriers are not useful, but Navy studies would suggest that 15 would be the bare minimum to cover all our global commitments, with 20 or more being desirable. The reason is the need for global presence, not just firepower. You will not get such numbers if the ships themselves cost as much as your annual shipbuilding budget of $13 billion (according to the GAO the total acquisition cost of the CVN-78 is estimated at $13.9 billion). Today we have 11 ships available with only 10 in frontline service. Next year’s QDR probably will call for a fleet of only 9. While the Navy lives in denial and rejects any alternative to large decks, they are enabling their own death spiral.
The Navy should forget about its future carrier plans, and make do with half its fleet large deck carriers, depending more on the 10 Marine Amphibious Carriers, which are never used for the mission they were designed for anyway. These could be easily equipped with Ski Jumps, which will enhance the already impressive capabilities of the Harrier V/STOL they now carry. Next decade the world’s first supersonic jump jet the F-35B will enter service, further adding to the much ignored capabilities of this unique type of plane, allowing almost any ship with deck space to become an aircraft carrier in an pinch.
The alternatives shouldn’t stop there. We recently pointed out the virtues of depending more on our Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) launching ships, which can easily perform power projection and presence of its own in many scenarios, as the old Iowa class ships proved in the 1980s. Finally, we think the new UAVs now deploying into surface ships will change naval airpower as we know it, making it more cost efficient while maintaining capabilities.
We would like to see such new weapons spread around the fleet, even on common platforms from more numerous and effective small corvettes to auxiliary warships. Currently the justification for keeping a few large deck carriers in service, seems to be only as long we fight Third World powers that aren’t shooting back, or to sustain pet theories of warfare long past their prime. As long as modern weapons keep falling into the hands of such formerly scorned foes, we doubt such an ideal situation for the carrier advocates can last, and are extremely surprised it has continued for this long.