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Aircraft Carriers:The ‘Bigger is Better’ Myth Pt 3

September 2, 2009
The USN's fleet of versatile "Harrier Carriers" (LHA/LHD) are by themselves more powerful than all the aircraft carriers in all the world navies combined, and extremely potent power projection tools

The USN's fleet of versatile "Harrier Carriers" (LHA/LHD) are by themselves more powerful than all the aircraft carriers in all the world navies combined, and extremely potent power projection tools.

Aircraft carriers are an enormous national investment, and while there is clearly no threat today to aircraft carriers anywhere on the scale of what carriers faced by the Soviets in the cold war, there are trends in maritime surveillance, precision weapon range, and saturation techniques of low cost unmanned systems that suggest the future of aircraft carriers is uncertain…While I am fairly confident seapower will be just as relevant to the United States in the 22nd century as it is today, I am not convinced the big nuclear aircraft carrier will be the relevant platform of that era…

Building a single platform for what amounts to 75% of a total fiscal year shipbuilding budget is a hard pill to swallow…

Raymond “Galrahn” Pritchett at the Information Dissemination website.

As I mentioned yesterday, by posting these quotes from Mr. Pritchett, I don’t mean to suggest he’s now with the anti-giant carrier crowd, but if you read the entire article he continues to sound the clarion for those in the naval air community to stand up for the giant flattop’s while there is still time. In the opinion of yours truly, this would be before fiscal sanity returns to the Navy budget as it already has to the Army and Air Force.

We see with the larger deck aircraft carrier, its usefulness is unquestioned in modern war, but the high price of deploying and sustaining such vessels bears some scrutiny. When your only alternative, according to large deck advocates, are ships able to field up to 90 planes capable of 200 sorties a day or more, that siphons away “75%” of your annual budget, you ignore the advances in technology and numerous other air, land, and sea strike alternatives, especially the less costly but extremely flexible small carriers which are important power projection tools in their own right. Such economical craft even in small numbers are considered an asset to a great many rising navies.

Minimizing the abilities of small carriers, the advocates ignore the fact such vessels have been tested in combat, with their V/STOL aircraft performing beyond all expectations. During the Falklands Conflict in 1982, the tiny British Flattops had 20 subsonic Harriers jets total (later reinforced with 18 more plus 3 replacements), yet took on a regional power armed with supersonic fighters (over 200 combat jets of all types), Exocet Missiles, also with a small carrier, modern destroyers, an old but large cruiser, plus a few modern submarines.

The argument often goes that “sure they won, but they didn’t win right. With large, multipurpose supercarriers they could have deployed assorted aircraft, suffered no losses, and probably never had to fight in the first place. Only with large decks could the British have defeated the Argentines properly, the American Way“.

Overlooked in this common argument is the fact that they won without large decks, in spite of the odds, with a balanced fleet seeking to deploy numerous capabilities. They did this without shrinking their general purpose operating forces which proved so essential in protecting the landing troops. Also, a blockade by nuclear submarines helped ensure the Task Force operated unhindered by enemy sea forces. Viewing the state of the Royal Navy today however, we see her preparing for expeditionary warfare against land powers while becoming woefully unprepared for the sea control mission. Attempting to construct an USN-lite fleet centered around large decks has given the British Fleet a force smaller than it has been in centuries. Perhaps ever.

So what a navy gives up to deploy large decks is never factored in when considering its attributes, i.e. a smaller fleet geared for a specific type of conventional war at the expense of equally important but unconventional functions of smaller craft. The state of the Royal Navy is where America is headed in a decade or so. While hoping to reach the modest number of a 313 ship Navy, she will be fortunate if she doesn’t lose numbers as defense dollars tighten post-Iraq. America is not prepared for global conflict and is under a great strain with its current peacetime at sea deployment. The carrier centric fleet is too costly to fight asymmetrical threats such as piracy, but too few and vulnerable for a full scale missile war.

These days the statement often comes up that Britain is unable to fight another Falklands War, considering the Navy has shrunk to less than half its Cold War era size. One could also pose the same question that the mighty US Navy would be unable to repeat the victories at Guadalcanal, where its ships and crews withstood horrible attrition but still came out victorious. Such an outcome is all the more amazing considering her battlefeet was on the bottom at Pearl Harbor, and her naval air support was often limited to one aircraft carrier. Until new construction joined the fleet in significant numbers a few years later, the smaller vessels held the line, though such craft as well as surface warfare are counted unnecessary in significant numbers by the dominate naval air community today.

Faced with new threats, new technology, and shrinking ships numbers with no end in sight, I hope the champions of the carrier centric fleet might reconsider. Instead of a handful of force projections ships, which can only be in a few places at once, which tie down the bulk of our ships under their need for escorts, we would have many such little fleets, Influence Squadrons spread around the globe.  Ideally these would consist of hundreds of high speed vessels, corvettes, submarines, and auxiliary warships, backed by a “silver bullet” of no more than 5 large carriers plus 10 light carrier based on our proven amphibious assault ships. Then of course, the TLAM ships, plus helicopters, and increasingly UCAV’s will further enhance our global presence, while taking advantage of the marvelous precision firepower we have yet to fully exploit.

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50 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael permalink
    September 18, 2009 6:43 pm

    Question is, do we want that knowledge to go the way of the all-gun battleship, etc? Assuming- for the sake of argument- that we’re better off stopping the construction of CVNs and building light carriers instead.

    One of the previous commentators said that commercial shipbuilding steels are identical to military these days: Does this mean that the infrastructure for building military-grade large hulls would survive the end of CVN building? If not, can we afford to rebuild that infrastructure in the event that we start needing ships of that size again? Given the comments another person made about the intrinsic military benefits of large hulls, that doesn’t seem an unreasonable question.

    And that’s just the part I know enough about to ask at least semi-intelligent questions. How specialized are the power plants for CVN-sized hulls compared to submarines and cruisers? How much time, money and blood went into developing our current knowledge of catapults? What other systems am I overlooking altogether?

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 8:45 pm

    Micheal, i imagine such knowledge would go the way of the all-gun battleship and the horse cavalry. Some experiences pass away, always some other way of killing takes it place.

  3. Michael permalink
    September 17, 2009 6:57 pm

    Non-rhetorical question: If the Navy stopped building CVNs, how much of the knowledge and infrastructure needed to build and operate them will disappear? Is there some other way of preserving those things that produces useful results? I ask because that’s one excuse I’ve heard for continuing the construction of specialized ship types, but comments above about the difference between commercial and military steels suggests the possibility that it may not be as valid as it used to be.

    Thank you.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 9, 2009 8:36 am

    Tarl said “Hasn’t the Navy studied “big carriers vs. small carriers” every decade since 1945″

    I can’t imagine any of these studies take into consideration the enhanced performance of individual aircraft thanks to precision munitions like JDAM, which means you don’t need giant airwings to take out a target. Also, if only giant decks have the ability to deploy naval air to sea, then the whole concept is obsolete because no one but the USA could afford it! I don’t believe this is the case, and neither do numerous other small navies who seem quite satisfied with small carriers. But with TLAM and UAVs, flat deck carriers aren’t the only way of projecting power ashore these days.

  5. Joe permalink
    September 9, 2009 1:18 am

    Tarl,

    Odd as it may seem to read, I don’t disagree with your take on the utility of large vs small carriers. All things being equal, give me a Nimitz before an Invincible any day of the week. I’ve simply had that one point that I offer up outside the “go big” versus “go small” debate on carriers. No need to retype that argument.

    Where I would, however, say smaller decks can be argued for is in the instance of Great Britain. I say that simply because the MoD is playing whack-a-mole with the defense budget and won’t even maintain the defense structure they presently have. If they could field a force of smaller, more economical carriers and have funds left over to beef up the overall fleet, that would seem to be a logical course of action for them. Otherwise, I fear that the fleet come 2017-ish, outside of the QE carriers, will be quite threadbare.

    However, some would say our Navy suffers from a version of the same budgetary swine flu. No malice intended in my question, but if you wanted to maintain the carrier fleet we have (with anticipated retirements), plus the build schedule for the new Ford class, and increase the fleet size…all of this at the same time…how would you accomplish this w/o increasing the procurement budget as well?

  6. Tarl permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:04 pm

    I think Mike has credibly shown that carriers (big and small) have to be wary of more threats coming at them from more directions than they did in the past. This is due to the prodigious quantity of anti-ship missiles that exist in the world today.

    Agreed. But if you think you’re going to have ASCMs coming at you from 360 degrees, what kind of carrier do you need to defend against such threats? You’ll want to maintain at least four E-2D orbits, plus two fighters per E-2D orbit to have an even remotely credible defense, right? Plus your carrier should ideally carry an airborne ASW component of some sort. That’s starting to sound like a pretty big carrier…

    While I may not choose to fight an all cruise-missile war, the value of having subs fire a withering barrage of them prior to your carriers arriving can be a prudent investment in the continued life of those carriers.

    Absolutely. I don’t say the carrier can do it all – but if you’re going to have a carrier at all, a big one makes more sense than a small one.

    Hasn’t the Navy studied “big carriers vs. small carriers” every decade since 1945 and always come up with the same answer (bigger is better)? Let’s give them a little credit – it is not just chest thumping, or institutional inertia, or the desire to “gold plate” that leads them to that answer.

  7. Joe permalink
    September 8, 2009 5:35 pm

    Tarl,

    I’m (trying anyway) to make a very specific point that exists outside the fact whether or not you have 12 Nimitz- or 12 Invincible-class carriers at your disposal.

    I think Mike has credibly shown that carriers (big and small) have to be wary of more threats coming at them from more directions than they did in the past. This is due to the prodigious quantity of anti-ship missiles that exist in the world today. As the saying might go, “We might not ever fight Russia or China, but we sure as heck might have to deal with their weapons systems in the hands of “X” one day”.

    But I’m not knocking carriers. They can deliver more firepower than any conventional asset in the water. While I may not choose to fight an all cruise-missile war, the value of having subs fire a withering barrage of them prior to your carriers arriving can be a prudent investment in the continued life of those carriers. Think of it as another layer of attack providing an extra layer of defense to the carriers.

    After all, an enemy well-heeled enough in today’s world to own several hundred fighters likely also owns a credible deterrent to your carriers getting too close to their shoreline.

  8. Tarl permalink
    September 8, 2009 12:10 pm

    Yeah, why use actual combat lessons when our fears and imaginations are so much better at force planning.

    Mainly because the combat lesson of the Falklands is not what you think it is. Bad combat lessons are worse than no combat lessons.

    Such thinking Tarl, has given us a gold plated military prepared to fight a peer power that no longer exists.

    My point, which I think is valid, is that a couple of VTOL-type carriers will be unprepared to fight even a third-rate power (like Argentina in 1982) that has a few hundred combat jets, unless the “victory conditions” are unusually favorable to the naval power. Against a peer competitor, small carriers are even less viable.

    Building a large-carrier only centric fleet when no one else has them is a recipe for disaster and bankruptcy if a fleet wants to be prepared for all exigencies, and its no way to fight a COIN conflict against smugglers and pirates.

    The fleet we build now is the fleet we have for the next 50 years. Are you absolutely sure we’ll only have to fight smugglers and pirates for the next 50 years? Sure would hate to be wrong about that. Keep in mind that an excellent way to create incentives for a challenger to build a blue-water navy would be to get rid of our blue water navy.

    Why, in your “what-if” planning, do you solely focus on the match-up between naval airpower and land-based airpower?

    Mainly because the (misleading) contention here is that small carriers can hold there own against land-based air. If you plan to conduct littoral operations against a regional power, you are going to face their land-based airpower. Sure, you’ll have to deal with other problems, too, but if you come within range of a few hundred jets with only a handful of Harriers to protect you, your life is going to get pretty exciting pretty quickly.

    My bet is on the new decider in sea warfare, the Tomahawks and their kin,

    I thought the goal was to avoid bankruptcy? The surest way to go bankrupt is to try and fight a war primarily with very expensive cruise missiles rather than relatively inexpensive precision munitions like JDAM.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 7, 2009 8:34 pm

    tangosix-This is the price you pay when everything becomes gold plated. Find something that works and spend your money there. Not try to do everything, nothing well. My bet is on the new decider in sea warfare, the Tomahawks and their kin, rather than many battleship types.

  10. September 7, 2009 5:37 pm

    Hello Mike Burleson,

    you said earlier:

    “Still, now that RN ships and subs are armed with TLAM, mainland attacks are a possibility and they didn’t have to sell off still essential warships, or start a building program that soaks up decades of funding to achieve this….”

    The money the Royal Navy has spent on Tomahawk cruise missiles vastly exceeds the money they received by selling off nine frigates,see here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/jun/29/military.davidleigh

    The cost of buying just 64 Tomahawks and other systems neccessary for firing them was similar to the price of a new Type 23 frigate:

    “The MOD purchased 64 of the TLAM Block IV missiles from the United States in a £70M deal signed four years ago. In addition, £25M has been spent to provide the submarine and ashore command and control systems necessary to exploit its new capabilities.”

    For the cost of a Type 23 frigate see here:

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080313/text/80313w0031.htm#08031380001201

    Before a recent decision to delay the Queen Elizabeth class carriers increased costs,the two ships,including development, were expected to cost about $7,000 Million (yes,that is for both).
    That compares well to the $22,000 Million cost of developing and manufacturing two Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers.
    The cost of the 6 Type 45 destroyers was $10,500 Million.
    Those destroyers are the reason the Royal Navy is in financial difficulty,not the aircraft carriers.

    tangosix.

  11. Joe permalink
    September 7, 2009 1:21 pm

    Tarl,

    Why, in your “what-if” planning, do you solely focus on the match-up between naval airpower and land-based airpower?

    There are other assets in a navy that could come into play, for example, such as submarines. A force of subs could, in the dark of night, lob several dozen cruise missiles into your land-based power and wreck havoc on their offensive and defensive systems.

    Then, regardless if you’re talking Invincible- or Nimitz-class carriers, their effectiveness and survivability have just been maximized (to the degree a war scenario offers, anyway).

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 7, 2009 5:41 am

    Tarl said “, a naval power would be very unwise indeed to use the Falklands example as the basis for force planning.”

    Yeah, why use actual combat lessons when our fears and imaginations are so much better at force planning. Such thinking Tarl, has given us a gold plated military prepared to fight a peer power that no longer exists. But historically many combat leaders got their start fighting small wars. Come to think of it, the US Navy was born out of such a conflict in the Barbary Wars. Building a large-carrier only centric fleet when no one else has them is a recipe for disaster and bankruptcy if a fleet wants to be prepared for all exigencies, and its no way to fight a COIN conflict against smugglers and pirates.

  13. Tarl permalink
    September 4, 2009 4:39 pm

    Tarl, your arguments against the small carriers are based on “what if”. But still the Harriers and small carriers were effective beyond all expectations. Here is a unique capability many of the world navies now take advantage, in which you can perform the naval air mission without being a superpower.

    Asking “what if?” is the basis of sound force planning. How likely is it that a naval power tangling with a country like Argentina in the future will do so such that the naval power can engage their opponent at the extreme range of their airpower and achieve meaningful victory? Not very. When will your war aim be within range of your carrier aircraft and nearly out of range of his land-based air? Hardly ever. Thus, a naval power would be very unwise indeed to use the Falklands example as the basis for force planning.

    Come up against 200 combat jets with a handful of Harriers or even JSFs and you will most likely get spanked.

  14. Anonymous permalink
    September 4, 2009 2:55 pm

    “Its based on the hull of the Bay Class LSD which cost £100 million built to commercial standards. I’m hoping that with weapons and a modest sensor suite, built to commercial standards it would come in at around £250 – £300 million.”

    It reminds me of a more useful Cavour; it is a true cruiser in so many ways.

    I like CB90 boats and 57mm guns.

    For added cruiser-ness you might like to consider a Mk 71 US mount……..:)

    Super.

  15. Anonymous permalink
    September 4, 2009 2:32 pm

    “Its based on the hull of the Bay Class LSD which cost £100 million built to commercial standards. I’m hoping that with weapons and a modest sensor suite, built to commercial standards it would come in at around £250 – £300 million.”

    Yes it is lovely. I am fan of CB90 and 57mm.

    With maintenance cycles 5 Merlins would mean one would always be available (in theory!)

    Reminded me of the Cavour (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_aircraft_carrier_Cavour_%28550%29)

    For the full cruiser experience you need to substitute the 6inch, sorry 155mm, for one of these http://www.navweaps.com/Weapons/WNUS_8-55_mk71.htm.

  16. William permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:31 pm

    “This is super. It reminds me of DK Brown’s aviation frigate; a hull to carry 4 ASW Merlins. And also some Spurance based aviation ship designs.”

    Its based on the hull of the Bay Class LSD which cost £100 million built to commercial standards. I’m hoping that with weapons and a modest sensor suite, built to commercial standards it would come in at around £250 – £300 million.

  17. Anonymous permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:20 pm

    Yes I acknowledge the cram-more-into-a-bigger-hull-syndrome. There is its closer relative that has since died out, VLS-doesn’t-look-a-weapon-syndrome that used to inflict US legislators. :)

    In summary I am with you all the way about getting more hulls into the water. And I agree there is a lack of imagination in how naval ops are conducted; imagination doesn’t mean money, in fact it means in most cases saving money. (Look what a complete cock-up the RN made of policing Iraqi waters….)

    I proposed on another forum that USMC NGS requirements could be satisfied again by using containerised guns sitting on a container ships. The USN would have gained sea control so why not use large based commercial hulls.

    “I like this design from the warships1 blog as an aviation cruiser for “colonial” operations/anti-piracy and ASW.”

    This is super. It reminds me of DK Brown’s aviation frigate; a hull to carry 4 ASW Merlins. And also some Spurance based aviation ship designs.

    Today I don’t think there is much real difference between commercial and naval standards. In times past the steel grades for naval vessels was just a better standard. Thanks to modern production techniques modern commercial steels are almost identical.

  18. William permalink
    September 4, 2009 12:54 pm

    I like this design from the warships1 blog as an aviation cruiser for “colonial” operations/anti-piracy and ASW.

    I’d build it to commercial standards and use smaller VLS cells to save money. I’d also stretch it by about 20 metres and raise the back so that the flight deck is all one height, probably bringing it to about 20,000 tons and 200m in length, increasing the number of aircraft it can carry.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 4, 2009 12:26 pm

    “for a surface naval vessel only 40% of its total cost is hull.”

    Thats a good point. My main grief against the larger ships is the mindset it instills into the Navy that such vessels will not have to fight. Then there is the temptation to cram as much capability into the larger hull, so you have the further mindset that you don’t need as many, so they start making excuses why we don’t need a larger fleet. So with your all Hi-end fleet, or all-battleship navy, you start looking for threats worthy of such an intimidating power. So now your theories of how ships should be designed is driving your strategy, instead of the threat taking the lead on how ships should be built. Then piracy comes along and you make excuses or you send your hi end super destroyers built to fight a peer power to combat these simplest of all threats, a titanic waste of resources.

    The USN currently has an all-battleship navy if you count the individual capabilities of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and Marine Harrier carriers, all of which have tremendous power projection abilities with missiles and aircraft. Such a top heavy force is a sure death spiral for a globalized fleet.

    45,000 tons is the smallest displacement I could think of for a fixed wing aircraft carrier, meant to support Super Hornets and the future F-35C. For a V/STOL carrier 20,000 more or less seems about right, but around 10,000 for a short ranged ships like Giuseppe Garibaldi is not without merit.

  20. Anonymous permalink
    September 4, 2009 8:35 am

    The Americas will displace 45k tons; hardly small if compared with say one of my favourites the Giuseppe Garibaldi at 13,850 tons. And only a “third” smaller than our inbuild CVF at 60k tons. Though if I were in charge an America or Charles De Gaulle sized vessel is what I would build, but we would have 3 and not 2…….

    The issue of AEW for Harrier Carriers is something to mind that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. Our Sea King AEW has certain capabilities lacking in the E2, especially over land. But then again the E2 has certain capabilities the Sea King lacks. The E2 is a better platform. I have joked that this is the aircraft that our carriers should have been built around not JSF!!!!

    I appreciate and understand your philosophy of more hulls in the water is better as I share it. The air force zealots may point to air power being supreme. Air power may have strategic reach, but it certainly doesn’t have endurance. A simple ship has far greater utility than an aircraft can ever have. Those who understand seapower appreciate that the fundamental it is built on is being there, being present, being visible.

    We are we are at cross purposes about size is perhaps to our differing understanding of ship building. As I have said before for a surface naval vessel only 40% of its total cost is hull. Larger ships are better for all sorts of reasons. The best way I can summarise my approach to the problem is take a 20k tons ship (the technology the comms, radar, etc.) and build in a 40K ton hull. Keep the high costs areas down and spend much more on the steel. Emma Maersk cost about $200 million US and is the same length approximately at the Enterprise, does 27kts, and only needs a crew of 13. Just think if you could pour a destroyer’s electronics into her, £100 million of so of steel for watertight zones, fligth deck etc. Back in 1989 USS Wasp cost just over £800million. The costs of naval vessels when compare to commercial vessels doesn’t add up when discussing hull. In many ways commercial vessels surpass military vessels. I don’t think the need for sepcialist steels holds now that commercial grades are produced to the same quality as previous generation military grades. Damage control with widely spaced magazines, proper water tight zones, and the use of sprinkler systems isn’t an issue. If each frame of a vessel Emma Maersk was a watertight zone she would be superior (or equal) of the large US carriers in terms of survivability.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 9:41 pm

    I don’t think so, but a slightly larger Invincible comes to mind, about 20,000 tons light. That would be about the size of HMS Ocean.

    For a conventional fixed wing carrier, i proposed an improved and hopefully cheaper version of the USS America class LHA. Geared toward the aviation role, it is almost there now.

  22. Anonymous permalink
    September 3, 2009 7:12 pm

    Have you ever written up your ideal carrier spec’?

    I would be genuinely interested.

    At the moment I favour this,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_aircraft_carrier_Cavour_%28550%29

    But it could do with a few thousand extra tons to take it up to what I consider the near ideal 30k for a small conventional carrier.

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 4:35 pm

    “Two modern 30,ooo tonnes Harrier carriers with full air wings (lets say 28 per hull) and the Falklands would have been less closely run.”

    Or the half dozen destroyers and frigates lost to pay for these giants and the whole thing might have been called off early. There are always compromises in building a modern navy, and I think the RN had a near-perfect balance here considering their operating budget at the time.

  24. Anonymous permalink
    September 3, 2009 4:16 pm

    As much as I like your opinion of the RN’s performance “down south” I think you are seeing far too rosier picture. Yes the FAA were on form and the Harrier plus Sidewinder deadly, but there were far too few aircraft. Admittedly this was due partly to the fact their weren’t many SHARs in service (read built.) But even if there were more airframes there wouldn’t have been the space. Two modern 30,ooo tonnes Harrier carriers with full air wings (lets say 28 per hull) and the Falklands would have been less closely run.

  25. Joe permalink
    September 3, 2009 4:12 pm

    Tarl,

    Going back to 1982…Another thing is if the “British did have to sail into the teeth of the Argentine Air Force in order to win” the Falkland’s War, that likely puts them within range of the ample supply of surface-launched Exocet missiles the Argentines had. They began the war with only 5 air-launched versions.

    In 1982, given the Brits had no CIWS on any of their vessels, they would have been asking for trouble if prompted/tempted to move a carrier in too close to the Argentine mainland. A lot of airborne fighters with no friendly place to land is the image that comes to mind.

    What the Brits did prove to themselves is that just as every car doesn’t have to be a Bentley in order to get you from Points A to B, neither does every carrier have to be Kitty Hawk- or Nimitz-class in size in order to perform a vital role. It does, however, seem they are forgetting that lesson as they commit to the build of the QE class carriers.

  26. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 2:20 pm

    Tarl, your arguments against the small carriers are based on “what if”. But still the Harriers and small carriers were effective beyond all expectations. Here is a unique capability many of the world navies now take advantage, in which you can perform the naval air mission without being a superpower. That’s quite an accomplishment IMHO.

  27. B.Smitty permalink
    September 3, 2009 9:14 am

    Galrahn,

    I’m still concerned about the China vs Taiwan scenario. IMHO, it would be very dangerous for USN surface assets to operate within range of Chinese land-based airpower.

    OTOH, I see a potential need for less expensive carriers to help fill the so-called “presence deficit”. I say “potential need”, because it’s still unclear to me exactly what style of presence we are missing.

    If we are just talking about counter-piracy, GFS and other very low end missions, then no, small carriers probably don’t make much sense. We can get by with cheap, converted commercial vessels, low-end amphibious ships, and/or the planned fleet.

    If, on the other hand, we require more numerous, deployable task forces with “real” combat power to sustain a greater presence around the world, then perhaps adding a less expensive carrier as the centerpiece makes sense.

  28. Tarl permalink
    September 3, 2009 9:12 am

    During the Falklands Conflict in 1982, the tiny British Flattops had 20 subsonic Harriers jets total (later reinforced with 18 more plus 3 replacements), yet took on a regional power armed with supersonic fighters (over 200 combat jets of all types), Exocet Missiles, also with a small carrier, modern destroyers, an old but large cruiser, plus a few modern submarines.

    The British were fighting an opponent who also was at a range disadvantage. The British did not have to sail into the teeth of the Argentine Air Force in order to win. If the Brits had needed to land on the mainland to win, it would have been a different story, and the limitations of the small carriers would have been more obvious.

  29. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 8:25 am

    Hudson said “Neither can Argentina. ”

    My point was they couldn’t perform a similar type operation today. The threats haven’t gone away but the Royal Navy is increasingly vanishing.

  30. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 8:18 am

    Galrahn-I fully understand you have little respect for my opinion or qualifications. The fact is, the so-called “experts” have for decades given us a fleet that costs more and performs less. They have few answers for increasing the size of the fleet, and what they do propose will only give us modest growth still about half the Cold War high of 600 ships. So as the fleet drops, the experts explain it away but they can’t explain why we are forced to use our most powerful warships to contain the most minor threats of piracy, something that big ships don’t do very well, as your Corbett would insist.

    Even today I read the leadership is worried about a shrinking US naval presence, and he has no answers. There are alternatives which are staring them in the face, but when you start with a premise that “there is no substitute for manned naval air”, then you end up with the same premise everytime, a smaller, more costly, less able fleet. If someone doesn’t speak out for the alternatives which the USN has consistently rejected in its quest for business as usual, it will die and we will be partly responsible.

    Time to throw out the book Raymond. You can’t build a real fighting fleet on the experience of 6 straight decades of peacetime sailing where the USN, only for a brief period faced a near-peer threat. I get my facts from studying the past wars, where the little ships helped paved the way to victory, supported by the Big Ships too, but no single weapon had a monopoly. Certainly the battleships didn’t win the war all by themselves, and in this missile age, where “every ship is an aircraft carrier” our enemies will choose the cheaper alternative to match and defeat us if we allow this.

    Finally, concerning the little carriers of the Falklands, they won a war with their little subsonic Harriers, proving you don’t have to place an unbearable burden on your nation or defense budget, or scrap other essential ships to build a real and effective fighting fleet. That’s something no amount of analysis will ever take away from them.

    It’s all about choices which all the facts and figures will never give you.

  31. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 6:59 am

    Anonymous-I’d say it made the case (at least back then) for the CVS AND the CVN. What is sinking the CVN is not its usefulness but its cost, an increasing burden on our stretched thin Navy budget.

  32. Anonymous permalink
    September 2, 2009 5:37 pm

    “I think the Brits were lucky, but also made their own luck and stopped the French from supplying more Exocets to the Argies. Also, Reagan sent the Brits 500 AIM-9s, I believe. The Argie pilots were brave men and pressed the attack as best they could. They were undone by the dumb fuzes on their dumb bombs, which penetrated the hulls of the British ships without exploding. .”

    That about sums it up. When reading comments on sites like this you know those who understand the nature of conflict. They recognise that war is as much as about planning, equipment, and training as it is about accidents, luck, and happenstance.

    The carrier war in the South Atlantic was fought against both the Argentines and superiors both at sea and safely ensconced in less than lovely Northwood. Oh! And the weather.

    Whether it can be interpreted as case for CVS over CVN I don’t think so. More a case for VSTOL over CTOL. {Of course there is the question of AEW….}

  33. September 2, 2009 4:28 pm

    Mike,

    Where is the supporting research and supporting data to your argument? Where is the analysis? Sorry man, but the argument that the Falklands Campaign is the conclusive evidence that small VSTOL carriers are a better investment than big CATOBAR carriers, particularly given your rather shaky analysis of that campaign, isn’t convincing.

    The Navy will drop from 12 to 10 CVNs as a result of the QDR, a position I fully support. It balances necessary capability with resources and gives combatant commanders the on station presence and reserve necessary to meet global requirements for sustained strike power from the sea.

    If the US was facing multiple emerging superpowers over the next decade and wasn’t under fiscal constraints, I think there would be a case for high-low mix of carriers. World trends and events don’t suggest such an increased financial investment is necessary, particularly considering you are flat out wrong that small carriers offer a cost effective alternative. They do not, and all data and research from every think tank that has studied aircraft carriers the last decade notes this fact, you should look it up.

    I find your threat analysis disconnected from the world we live in. It is difficult to imagine where this mythical ‘global conflict’ threatening the United States that the Navy is somehow ‘unprepared for’ will come from. I’ll take my chances with the US Navy vs the China-India-Japan-France-UK-Germany-Russia-Brazil alliance of belligerent North American conquerors.

  34. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 4:08 pm

    Mike,

    The Marines use the Harriers for close air support, not primarily for fighter CAP, unless there just isn’t anything else around.

  35. Hudson permalink
    September 2, 2009 2:54 pm

    “These days the statement often comes up that Britain is unable to fight another Falklands War…”

    Neither can Argentina. They put a few frigates and destroyers to sea, contributed to the First Gulf War and international operations. They have no flattop, and sold off their amphibs, so could not mount an invasion force to retake the Malvenas. They could trouble the Brits with their four attack subs, but to what purpose? Ships cost just as much for the other guys too.

    They are flying updated versions of the same Mirages and Skyhawks and lowly Pucaras. They have only a few of the Super Entendards that carry the Exocet.

    I think the Brits were lucky, but also made their own luck and stopped the French from supplying more Exocets to the Argies. Also, Reagan sent the Brits 500 AIM-9s, I believe. The Argie pilots were brave men and pressed the attack as best they could. They were undone by the dumb fuzes on their dumb bombs, which penetrated the hulls of the British ships without exploding. They didn’t realize this problem until too late. If they had, they might have switched to napalm (assuming they had it), and created hell for the Brits at sea.

  36. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 2, 2009 2:26 pm

    Anonymous-Bombing the mainland was never the objective but liberating the Falklands was. No one would seriously expect the Brits to widen the war, and perhaps invite superpower support against them.

    Still, now that RN ships and subs are armed with TLAM, mainland attacks are a possibility and they didn’t have to sell off still essential warships, or start a building program that soaks up decades of funding to achieve this, but placed this revolutionary capability on existing ships. So here is another role you don’t necessarily need giant decks to carry out.

    Also I am jealous you have been on HMS Ocean without me! A while back I advocated an affordable Invincible replacement based on a strengthened Ocean hull. Likely it would have been in service already. It was the Brits who proved the light carrier and V/STOL concept in the Falklands, replacing the need for budget shrinking supercarriers that few countries can afford, but they have since backslid on their own lessons.

    Smitty, the Harriers were so good the US Marines have been flying them for 30+ years. With all the choices out there, I’d say they bring a revolutionary capabilty to air warfare. That is hardly “better than nothing”!

  37. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 1:51 pm

    Mike,

    We should plan for dominance and hope for luck because the enemy has a say.

    The Harriers were better than nothing, but not having air superiority cost the Brits dearly.

    Check this page out and count the number of unexploded bombs that hit various vessels,

    http://militaryhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_sea_war_in_the_falklands_

  38. Anonymous permalink
    September 2, 2009 1:30 pm

    “But I don’t believe in luck. The Brits were freakin good and so were their Harriers!

    Distiller said “Rules of engagement and policy constrained the British Forces.”

    Which is my point that the light carriers won despite the odds against them, political and technological. ”

    There wasn’t much spare capacity to take the offensive against the Argentine mainland. Force preservation was Woodward’s aim; taking the carrier battle group west of the islands wasn’t an option.

    Over San Carlos CAP was thin; it didn’t help with how Hermes kept her aircraft high (shooting down the Argies after their bomb run.)

    Though Invincible had a good war it did show that 10,000 or so extra tons of ship would have made life a little bit easier. (I am always surprised by how much bigger HMS Ocean feels on a similar displacement….)

  39. Mrs. Davis permalink
    September 2, 2009 1:01 pm

    Didn’t someone say luck was the intersection of opportunity and preparation?

  40. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 2, 2009 12:19 pm

    “The Brits won, but they “won lucky”.”

    They still they won! Certainly you could use “lucky” for other battles, Smitty, like Midway for example. But we still rule the waves nonetheless.

    But I don’t believe in luck. The Brits were freakin good and so were their Harriers!

    Distiller said “Rules of engagement and policy constrained the British Forces.”

    Which is my point that the light carriers won despite the odds against them, political and technological.

  41. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 12:18 pm

    Mark,

    I think that calculation would be exceedingly difficult to do right. You would have to factor in development of any new platforms, technologies and munitions, as well as life cycle costs of the various options and apply them against the total number of munitions you’d expect to drop over the live of the vessel.

    You also have to factor in the effectiveness of each option towards the overall effort. Arsenal ships may be able to deliver the goods against fixed targets, but what about flying CAS or ISR sorties that may or may not drop ordinance, and has to be as timely as possible? What about other missions aircraft can perform that arsenal ships can’t?

  42. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 2, 2009 12:17 pm

    Sven, you have a small point here. The frigates and destroyers of this time were certainly straying from the GP definition, heading toward what I would call a battleship function. Seeing as how these ships were used as general purpose in the Falklands, I don’t think my definition is factually incorrect since the RN used these ship in this role.

    However, today the USN uses their very large, expensive, high end Burke destroyers, and even the Tico cruisers in a general purpose role, but I would NEVER use this term to describe ships built for operations wholly with the battle fleet function in mind. I think the USN uses these ships in error, and hence we have too many of the battleship type, and next to none in the general purpose role.

  43. Distiller permalink
    September 2, 2009 12:09 pm

    Falkland? Rules of engagement and policy constrained the British Forces. Where were the attacks against the Argentinian mainland airbases? Where were the attacks on the Argentinien harbors? And so on. The way it was eventually done did not make best use of the offensive power of the British forces, since despite all it was a “nice” war. Not too much should be read into that campaign.

  44. Mark permalink
    September 2, 2009 11:36 am

    Has anyone done a calculation of cost/ton of bombs dropped for various scenarios? I mean, to compare carrier aviation to the arsenal ship idea. How many tons of bombs get dropped in a typical operations anyway?

  45. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 10:11 am

    Mike,

    The Brits won, but they “won lucky”. Had the Argies just tweaked their bomb fuzes to actually go off when hitting ships from low altitude, the Falklands conflict could very well have gone the other way.

    I don’t think we want to base our future fleet around “winning lucky”.

  46. September 2, 2009 9:33 am

    The Broadswords were ASW ships and barely able of quite short-ranged self-defence against anything else.

    The Sheffields were AAW ships for the CVs, which in turn were a kind of CVE with limited ability to keep Russian heavy bombers away.

    GP ships as for example the Niteroi were usually exported by NATO countries or used in small navies (Portuguese, for example) at that time; they had no real focus on AAW, ASW or ASuW.

  47. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 2, 2009 8:39 am

    Sven I’m not sure what your definition of general purpose is, but at least in that era I would include the destroyers and frigates as GP. What else would fit this description?

  48. September 2, 2009 8:19 am

    “They did this without shrinking their general purpose operating forces which proved so essential in protecting the landing troops.”

    It was actually no GP fleet.

    The surface combat fleet was all about ASW, the few landing ships were meant for small war Commonwealth interventions while the subsurface fleet was all about political nuclear deterrence.

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