Aircraft Carriers: Lessons of the Past
If you return to the lessons of the last great naval war in World War 2, you will find it was not the large aircraft carrier which decided that conflict but specifically naval airpower. Certainly the bigger decks were essential enablers of this victory, but many other platforms played important roles as well. Light aircraft carriers were built quickly on fast cruiser hulls that proved important adjuncts until war’s end, to the harder to build and much larger Essex class. Over 100 tiny “Jeep” escort carriers were constructed on cheap liberty ship hulls, operating in all theaters, fighting submarines, and supporting amphibious invasions. Who could imagine these same off-the-shelf-warships with their more or less 2 dozen planes each, would some day stand up to the capital ships of the IJN, at the Battle of Samar, including the fearsome battleship Yamato, and prevail!
There were other facets of naval air including the long range PBY patrol seaplanes that first discovered the Japanese Invasion Force bearing down on Midway in 1942. The Air Force deployed its own maritime patrol plane with the powerful Liberator bomber to combat the U-boats, while also blasting Hitler’s Germany to rubble. Later in the war, airships made a comeback protecting the vital convoys on the Atlantic Run.
Today we think the admirals and some politicians have elevated the status of large carrier platforms in importance above its primary reason for existence, the naval fighter/bomber. This is why you hear in the US of a naval “fighter gap”, and in Britain their new large deck carriers will enter service before the new Joint Strike Fighter is ready. India has the opposite problem. After entering in a deal with Russia to buy a modernized Cold War carrier she has Mig 29K naval planes ready but the ship itself seems as far off into commissioning as it ever has. In the hearts of minds of their advocates the giant ships have taken the place of battleships as sacred vessels, but at least with the old dreadnoughts you never heard them going to sea without their guns! Eric Palmer of F-16.net, writing in his own blog, looks at this bizarre discrepancy:
Without some kind of worthwhile tactical fighter to fly off of the carrier deck for the next 30 years, the USN is going to look awful silly if things go bad for the gold plated flying wonders they hope end up in carrier fighter squadrons.
For example if the Super Hornet production is cut off and the F-35C goes bad, the USN will be down to populating the carrier air wing with 2 fighter squadrons as opposed to 4. In ten years you will need an Ouija board to get in touch with legacy Hornets at the rate we are using them.
In US service, where the carrier once sailed with numerous varieties of fighters: heavy, medium, and light attack jets, reconnaissance, early warning, anti-submarine warfare, and helicopter search and rescue planes, now only a handful do the work of many jets. This is fine considering the reliability of modern jets, notably the F/A-18 Hornet and its derivative the Super Hornet. Unlike many current weapons programs, the newer Hornet has come in on time, within its budget, and affordable. Still, the single plane seems downright mediocre compared to the current generation of nuclear flattops, the most sophisticated, the largest, most powerful, and at a starting price of $8 billion each by far the most expensive warship ever devised. The best the SP could boast of, is it is the youngest fighter in service!
The Navy does itself a disservice by packing so much firepower in so few hulls. New Wars often points out the amazing capabilities of modern jets, which require greatly less servicing, can perform larger number of sorties (as Raymond Galrahn Pritchett reveals to us), and thanks to the power and accuracy of smart bombs like JDAM, finally realizes the long sought after goal of true precision bombing.
If any lessons from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan applies to modern naval airpower, is the carrier pilots need to get out of their giant floating “green zones” and place them where they are accessible to the “population of the sea”. Already the US is looking to base UAVs around the globe on land bases where their proven abilities in the Middle East can act as force multipliers, and in many instances, carrier alternatives. We see then the folly of keeping so many planes tied to these fearsome symbols of our power, especially considering the less exquisite but very effective alternatives available.