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