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Aircraft Carriers:The ‘Bigger is Better’ Myth Pt 1

August 31, 2009
Apparently as a last ditch effort to salvage the vaunted large deck aircraft carrier in US Navy service, which is suffering from out-of-control costs, shrinking numbers, and threatened by modern weapons, Raymond Pritchett of the Information Dissemination website comes to the rescue. At the USNI blog he writes:

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.

Harrier V/STOL planes on USN assault carriers are a proven and powerful alternative to the increasingly unaffordable supercarrier.

Harrier V/STOL planes on USN assault carriers are a proven and powerful alternative to the increasingly unaffordable supercarrier.

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 future: UAVs and motherships. An RQ-8A Fire Scout prepares for the first autonomous landing aboard USS Nashville (LPD 13).

The future: UAVs and motherships. An RQ-8A Fire Scout prepares for the first autonomous landing aboard USS Nashville (LPD 13).

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.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 1, 2009 11:46 am

    Distiller said “But it will never beat the peace-time cost-optimised CVN on cost grounds on a fleet level.”

    I am just flabbergasted that we consider such vessels as “cost effective”, especially now they have breached the $10 billion mark, within even Galrahn uncertain about the way ahead. Think about one ship or submarine, with one missile or torpedo, taking out this you have invested the bulk of your ship building budget in. Where are the savings but on the bottom of the sea, or at best under repair for a year.

    But the Marine Harrier carriers can provide the close air support we say only only the giant ships are capable of doing, since this is the bulk of operations they have faced since WW 2. What a waste as our fleet could be a balanced one with adequate numbers, defending us from multiple threats, instead of preparing for the unlikely Blue Water conflict, to the detriment of other essential sea control missions.

    And Joe thanks for the link. The STOVL jets are so versatile and capable, we should be using them to their fullest extent, saving the wear and tear on our handful of giant carriers, and with newer UCAVs coming into fleet service, perhaps replacing the large flattops altogether.

  2. September 1, 2009 11:09 am

    “Sven, apparently age and complication should be factored in. I would think the US aircraft are more complicated than say a Gripen or Mirage?”

    Well, one engine means much less maintenance than two. A Phantom II’s avionics suite was more elaborate than a Mirage III’s, and the cockpit equipment was doubled as well.
    Purchasing and operating costs were about twice as high for F-4E than for Mirage IIIE, which means that the Mirage IIIE was almost a twice as good aircraft as the F-4E. It was roughly equal in air combat (a bit more maneuverable, smaller target, more difficult to detect (size, J79 smoke plume), no limited-vision GIB, even more marginal medium range air combat capabilities) and had a decent range and good payload as well.

    The Gripen was designed with maintenance on reserve airfields by two NCOs and ten conscripts in mind. It has obviously MUCH less maintenance requirements than something like a F-22 with two engines, weapons bay and coating issues. Again, something that rarely gets the attention of laymen.

    My point was that maintenance reductions were mostly neutralized by higher complexity for most new combat aircraft.

  3. Heretic permalink
    September 1, 2009 10:50 am

    “During the eight week conflict 28 Sea Harriers flew 1,435 operational sorties shooting down 20 enemy aircraft plus three probables, while 14 Harriers flew a total of 126 sorties.”

    8 weeks x 7 days = 56 days
    1435 sorties / 56 days = 25.625 per day (average)
    28 planes / 25.625 sorties per day = 0.915 sorties per plane per day (average) over 8 weeks (rather than over 4 days)

    That doesn’t sound impressive at all … until you factor in that the RN was fighting in a south atlantic winter (short daylight hours) in sea states of 5+ as a matter of routine. The above averaging analysis is also “skewed” a bit by the fact that 809 Squadron didn’t enter the war until after the shooting started (meaning that not all 28 planes were available for flying from Day 1, but for simplicity of analysis are “counted” as if they were due to data made available so far).

  4. Distiller permalink
    September 1, 2009 2:37 am

    Operating a modern fast jet requires a huge support tail, and the special ability of a STOVL/VTOL is pretty much wasted if the tail is unable to provide support in the same STOVL/VTOL fashion. The last time such a concept was seriously tried on a force level was the German Do31, VJ101, VAK191 combo.
    So much for forward and austere STOVL basing.

    Starting with a tonnage for the light/medium carrier (30.000 in the above case) is the wrong way round. A limited, but full-spectrum airwing with aircraft with a SHornet footprint would require around 45 planes (+/-), resulting in a fully blue water capable 2cat angled-deck carrier suitable for simultaneous take-offs and landings of around 50.000 tons (+/-, more likely a little +). And I think that is a critical capability for a real carrier. But it will never beat the peace-time cost-optimised CVN on cost grounds on a fleet level.

    Going down to the above 30.000 tons produces a straight-deck carrier. And here one really has to ask what it would do, and what its position in the fleet and overall force would be. And I think the answer would be a simple UAV platform (mostly for ISR and ASW), an amphib 3D assault platform, and a limited STOVL fast jet base for colonial actions. Just a swimming airstrip, without fancy sensors (netcentric!), and built to commercial standards (e.g. based on a modified TEU carrier hull), but built by the dozen. Put a LASH platform at the stern and cranes on it, and it can also be used as an aux amphib transport.

  5. Joe permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:20 pm

    I found Major Hancock’s 1997 thesis. The link, if anyone is interested, is:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1997/Hancock.htm

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 31, 2009 9:11 pm

    Sven, apparently age and complication should be factored in. I would think the US aircraft are more complicated than say a Gripen or Mirage? But I only hear good things concerning the Hornet.

    Heretic-Here is what I came up with from Britain’s Small War.comDuring the eight week conflict 28 Sea Harriers flew 1,435 operational sorties shooting down 20 enemy aircraft plus three probables, while 14 Harriers flew a total of 126 sorties“. Without my calculator handy, that is roughly comparable to the Nimitz data provided by Galrahn, a little less.

    Scott said “In my own personal experience involving 1,300 hours of Harrier flight time which includes two deployments to the Mediterranean, a Western Pacific deployment, and Desert Shield/Desert Storm…”

    Wow thats great!

  7. Scott B. permalink
    August 31, 2009 6:29 pm

    Another quote from Major Hancock’s thesis might be in order:

    ———————————————————————–
    VSTOL Myths

    Despite all the propaganda put out by McDonnell Douglas, British Aerospace, and other enthusiastic Harrier supporters, USMC AV-8Bs do not operate out of 72 foot-square pads in jungle clearings, tennis courts, clearings in the forest, village parking lots, or “basketball court sized clearings near the front” other than at Bogue Field, North Carolina.

    Can the Harrier fly out of those “exotic” locations? Yes, but unless occasionally demonstrating a capability or staging a demonstration, we simply do not do it and we do not support it. For example, the only two-lane road that the vast majority of USMC Harrier pilots have ever flown off of or landed on is Lyman Road in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

    In my own personal experience involving 1,300 hours of Harrier flight time which includes two deployments to the Mediterranean, a Western Pacific deployment, and Desert Shield/Desert Storm, I have never landed on a road or austere VSTOL pad except at Camp Lejeune. I have operated the AV-8B from short, deteriorated runways that would be unusable for conventional jets.

    The main-base expeditionary runway used by land-based Harriers in Desert Storm was 7900 feet in length, hardly a village parking lot.

    The Harrier forward site at Tanajib, Saudi Arabia, had an 8,000 foot runway (6,000 feet of asphalt plus 1,000 feet of concrete at both ends). Except to prove the concept, USMC AV-8Bs do not operate off of grass strips either.

    If STOVL jets will take-off with full internal fuel and any significant payload, then a lot more than just a pad is needed.
    ———————————————————————–

  8. Scott B. permalink
    August 31, 2009 6:23 pm

    Heretic said : “Indeed, it would be reasonably simple to establish an austere Forward Operating Base onshore when attacking land targets at that range.”

    Forward basing jet aircrafts is actually a BIG CHALLENGE, especially (but not only) from a logistical standpoint.

    As noted by Major Ben D. Hancock (USMC) in his 1997 thesis :

    The Marine Corps has yet to prove that we can quickly establish forward sites in a hostile environment in actual combat conditions, much less in one to two days as stated in the U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 V/STOL Program publication.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:58 pm

    Heretic said : “This “unique” performance allowed the RN/RAF to increase their sortie rate in theater without being tied down to the sortie rate limitations of the carriers that had brought the planes into the area in the first place.”

    1) The FOB set up ashore by the British did NOT allow them to increase their sortie rate (see above).

    2) Forward basing tactical aircrafts is NOT meant to increase sortie rates anyway, but to cut response times and improve aircraft surge rates.

  10. Scott B. permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:47 pm

    Heretic said : “This is a significant difference since once the Brits landed on the islands, they quickly rolled out metal matting and set up forward operating bases for the Harriers to land and rearm/refuel at without needing to return to their carriers. “

    While the Brits originally intended to set up ashore a full Harrier FOB capable of supporting 12 aircrafts with fuel, weapons and standard turn-around facilities, the FOB that was eventually built could cope with only 4 aircrafts at a time and merely provide refuelling.

    This precluded the Harriers of No. 1 Sqn being based ashore, which instead remained based on the carriers.

  11. Heretic permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:38 pm

    Addendum:

    Carrier sortie rates are of “paramount” importance when fighting blue water battles … simply because there simply aren’t many other places to launch/recover at. Ironically, carrier sortie rates become *less* important when striking land targets as the number of airfields/landing spots ashore proliferate, simply because it becomes *possible* to launch/recover ashore in addition to aboard the carrier. Correspondingly, with a V/STOL fixed wing fighter/bomber the “importance” of the carrier is greatly diminished when attacking targets ashore because it is far more efficient to operate in cab rank on the ground from forward operating bases ashore than to continue to fly back and forth to the carrier all the time (adding flight hours and extra fuel consumption) when you don’t “have to” in order to cycle an aircraft.

    Ironically, the USN has seemingly vapor locked onto Blue Water supremacy (at the expense of everything else?) … and consequently is supremely interested in the sortie rate capacity of its carriers as opposed to the sortie rate potential of the aircraft embarked upon those carriers, regardless of where they’re based (or what they might be striking).

  12. Heretic permalink
    August 31, 2009 4:39 pm

    My point Mike was that the Nimitz “proof of sortie” exercise was formulated in such a way as to make the *carrier* the most important cog in the machine. It was all about how many sorties the carrier can generate on a “sustained” (ie. 4 days) basis. In order to achieve the (admittedly) impressive performance the ship reached, the scenario had to be skewed so as to achieve that level of performance.

    Mike, being a military historian, I’m thinking you might be able to turn up sortie rates (and readiness rates) for the Harriers in the Falklands War over the duration of the conflict. The important point here is to not focus exclusively on the sortie rates of the carriers that were being used, but rather on the sortie rates of the planes that they carried. This is a significant difference since once the Brits landed on the islands, they quickly rolled out metal matting and set up forward operating bases for the Harriers to land and rearm/refuel at without needing to return to their carriers. This “unique” performance allowed the RN/RAF to increase their sortie rate in theater without being tied down to the sortie rate limitations of the carriers that had brought the planes into the area in the first place.

    And as we all ought to know … actual shooting war performance over the course of months of action is somewhat more credible than that of an exercise that lasts for only a few days using a rigged scenario specifically designed to make the Big Deck look good on the few parameters it would *have to* excel at in order to justify its existence … namely shooting and trapping planes.

    My point being that sortie rates launched from a carrier deck doesn’t tell the whole story of what it means to be a V/STOL carrier … since with a V/STOL aircraft it’s perfectly possible to sortie from locations other than the deck of the carrier itself, unlike when launching/recovering navalized CTOL via CATOBAR.

  13. August 31, 2009 4:05 pm

    A Phantom II had a requirement of 30 maintenance man-hours per flight hour during the Vietnam War, but 50 in the 80’s.
    The Gripen was said to require only 12, but contrast that with the 15 needed for a Mirage III in the 60’s (the Israelis flew Mirage III even with 10 minute refuelling/re-arming time between missions in ’67).

    There’s no such development, Mike. Increased complexity has eaten up the advances in maintenance.

    Add tot his the addition of night combat capability that took away the night as a maintenance phase.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 31, 2009 3:55 pm

    Heretic, two factors come into play calling for a reduced need of big-wing carriers, which the Navy never takes into account in future carrier plans.
    One is precision guided weapons as I mentioned in the article, several curtailing the number of sorties required to destroy a target.
    Second is the ease of maintenance of 4 th generation aircraft compared to earlier 3rd gen planes. In some cases the newer jets requiring 10 man hours compared up to 50 on older craft

  15. Heretic permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:46 am

    I would argue that the biggest bar against building CVE(N) scale ships, at this time, is a lack of STOL capable AEW. The second problem would be STOL capable tankers (buddy or otherwise). Solve those particular problems, so that you can launch and recover within 300m of deck unassisted and the way will be clear for fully capable CVE(N?) carrying 32 fixed wing aircraft (4 STOL AEW, 4 STOL tankers/cargo, 24 V/STOL fighter/bomber) and 4 rotary wings/tiltrotors, for a total of 36 embarked V/STOL aircraft. When factoring in a mission readiness rate of 75% (to account for Murphy’s Law and be conservative) you wind up with 18 fixed wing V/STOL fighter/strike aircraft available to fly/fight from the deck with AEW and organic tanker support … which isn’t shabby when dealing with precision weapon systems.

    The most amusing thing about the Nimitz sortie study is that it used a short, 200nmi, radius of action. This is amusing considering the fact that range to target has an extremely detrimental effect on sortie rate (as should be obvious to anyone, since your assets take longer to transit to and from the target). It’s also doubly amusing since one of the prejudices against V/STOL fixed wing aircraft is their “short” legs when it comes to range/endurance … except that 200nmi is *well* within the radius of action (with plenty of loiter time) for the Sea Harrier FRS1 (let alone the FRS2 model) as well as the Harrier GR 7/9 models and AV-8B models. Indeed, it would be reasonably simple to establish an austere Forward Operating Base onshore when attacking land targets at that range, to allow a V/STOL strike package to shorten the distance to target to well below the 200nmi postulated by the Nimitz exercise … allowing the *planes* to achieve a higher sortie rate, even while simultaneously reducing the sortie rate generated by the *carrier* that brought them to the battle (assuming strikes against land based targets). Thus the counter-intuitive result of increasing attack power throughput by reducing the number of sorties that need to be generated from the carrier alone.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 31, 2009 9:22 am

    Sven said “It would take seven, not two or three Juan Carlos to have the same air wing as a CVN.”

    Can we ever get pass the giant airwings already? If this is the only way to bring naval air to sea then we are bankrupt. But I don’t believe it is. We need, and already have alternatives, as I insist in the post and over the next few days.

  17. August 31, 2009 9:14 am

    “OR

    Have austere 27,000 ton Juan Carlos LHD’s built overseas for 300 million euro ($500 million) each.”

    Not really. It would take seven, not two or three Juan Carlos to have the same air wing as a CVN.

    “The contract was valued at 1,411.6 million Euro for the construction of two ships (LHD-1 and LHD-2).” We can expect this to exceed € 1.5 billion.

    http://www.deagel.com/Carrier-and-Landing-Ships/LHD-Canberra_a000406002.aspx

    360 million € was only the price for one hull, without equipment.

    (Let’s assume the USN would accept the same equipment as the Spanish navy.)

    Let’s take away some development, infrastructure and tool costs and you’ll end up at about € 600 million per ship. That’s $ 889 million as of today – let’s round it to 900, for 600 was a rather low guess anyway.

    7×900 million $ = $ 6.3 billion, plus a fair share of the development cost (profit) and inflation – about $ 6.5 billion total.

    A $ 6.5 billion order to Spanish shipyards would create $ 0 return in taxes.
    A $ 6.5 billion order to U.S. shipyards would create a return of $ 2.6 billion to $ 3.9 billion – import is roughly twice as expensive as it seems.
    The reason: The U.S. does not participate in off-set trades (‘I buy your stuff and you buy mine’) because it’s a huge net arms exporter.

    In the end, we’ve got the same old story: Life and math are cruel to dreams.

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 31, 2009 9:13 am

    I know Sven! I borrowed the quote from the comments since I enjoyed the debate you had with the others the most.

  19. William permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:01 am

    “That means the Navy would have to build 30,000 ton CVLs at a cost under $2.2 billion each”

    OR

    Have austere 27,000 ton Juan Carlos LHD’s built overseas for 300 million euro ($500 million) each.

  20. August 31, 2009 8:41 am

    Hmm, a bit out of context. My post was about carriers IN GENERAL being inefficient for defence, while the quote itself was written to make clear that I’m not impressed by pro-CVN arguments in a study written for the USN.

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