America’s Carrier Fleet Cited as Vulnerable
On a regular basis, I offer proposals for aircraft carrier alternatives, for platforms I think can do the naval air mission equally well if not better than large fixed wing decks. These alternatives are for the most part less costly, simpler to deploy, and carry the three principle weapons here, all available now, in varying degrees of maturity:
- V/STOL aircraft, since the 1970s.
- Tomahawk cruise missiles, since the 1980s.
- Unmanned combat air vehicles, since the 1990s.
In a profound article appearing in Proceedings Magazine, Commander John Patch questions The Carrier Invulnerability Myth and writes the principle debate should not be cost or whether they are even needed in an age of low tech warfare. The primary cause for rethinking our dependence on large decks should be their vulnerability to a host of threats. Before we get into the article, here are the top 3 foes of the carrier, in my own opinion, most of which have been with us for some time:
- Nuclear powered attack submarines since the 1950s
- Sub and supersonic cruise missiles since 1960s
- Anti-ship ballistic missiles by 2010?
Also not unthinkable, as stated in the post, are other less ominous but equally destructive possibilities such as a suicide bomber infiltrating the ethnically diverse carrier crew. It makes so much sense that terrorists thrive in the crowded population, and there are few vessels so well crowded as a 5000+ crew flattop.
From Commander Patch’s article, here is a list of “where” they might be vulnerable:
- Mass media, satellite communication, and the Internet can provide location and disposition of U.S. carriers when they are near shipping lanes or coastal waters; carrier presence is obvious well before the silhouette appears on the horizon.
- Carriers not supporting a conflict requiring continuous air wing operations will not be operating at higher speeds, especially at night.
- Fast, low profile, open-ocean craft are widely available.
- Armored hangar bay doors are useless when open, typical to lower conditions of readiness.
- Carrier crew size and diversity would likely allow unfettered access to clandestine infiltrators of almost any ethnicity.
- While nuclear power provides virtually unlimited steaming, carriers remain dependent on forward staging areas and supply ships for food, aviation fuel, and stores.
- The insatiable appetite for information afloat is satisfied by way of precious, uninterrupted bandwidth flowing through multiple nodes with varying vulnerabilities.
Why we harp mainly on cost and alternatives, unless an article by someone else like this comes along, is the fact that we know the admirals and their supporters won’t be convinced by potential threats. The cult of the carrier, like the older cult of the battleship, is deeply ingrained not only in the military mind but in the public’s, and they won’t be convinced these floating monuments to American shipbuilding expertise are at risk until they see the ships themselves with smoke billowing from their capacious decks, vanishing beneath the waves with untold multitudes of their crew. It is a sad state of affairs. Here is more pondering the unthinkable:
- A carrier operating with only a single escort on an OEF no-fly day, far separated from other strike group warships, is approached by a small team of highly trained, well-armed saboteurs in a low-profile, fast boat at night in international waters. They gain access via a lowered elevator when the ship is in low readiness conditions for a quick surprise attack with satchel charges in the hangar and flight decks to destroy most carrier air wing aircraft before the ship musters a response.
- An adversary state about to seize several small islands in the Persian Gulf directs a small team of special forces to commandeer a large container ship, which veers into the path of a CVN exiting the southern Suez Canal in a restricted waterway. The resultant collision and carrier grounding causes enough damage to limit the carrier to ten knots, preventing most fixed-wing flight operations indefinitely.
- An extremist group targeted by carrier air wing operations identifies the less protected fleet auxiliaries providing carrier strike group logistics in a forward theater and targets them simultaneously with waterborne improvised explosive devices. Critical fuel, food, and stores shortages severely limit air wing operations for a period of weeks.
Ultimately, as with the battleships, it will be cost that will sink the carriers. This reminds of those who still argued for the continued relevence of the all-gun superships, after Taranto, after Pearl Harbor, after the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, after Samar Island. Remarkably the cash-strapped Royal Navy even prepared new plans with the battleships as the core of the fleet as late as 1944, until this poor idea was vetoed by Prime Minister Churchill.