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Carrier Alternative Weekly

February 18, 2010
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An artist's conception of the X-47B long-range unmanned aerial vehicle on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Imagine That!

Last week we posted on the Navy future plans for deploying Unmanned Combat Air Systems from its large carrier decks. Looks like this is going to be a reality, at least in Cyber Space. Here is details from Navy News:

 Personnel from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program team and industry partner Northrop Grumman Corporation are underway with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) to test the integration of existing ship systems with new systems that will support the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D).

This effort will reduce program risk and is one of many steps toward the X-47B’s first carrier arrested landing or “trap.”

The X-47B will be the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard an aircraft carrier. With a 62ft wingspan and length of 38ft, the X-47B is about 87 percent the size of the F/A-18C aircraft currently operating aboard Navy aircraft carriers.

It is just as well the tests be for “imaginary aircraft” now. With the rising costs of large deck carriers, now on average $12 billion each,such virtual planes (above) may soon be all we can afford!

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Akin Addresses the Gap

Speaking of the number of planes, here is Colin Clark of DoD Buzz concerning a letter to Sec. Gates from  Rep. Todd Akin, calling for more fighters:

The Navy has pretty much stuck with a figure of 243 aircraft or, as some lawmakers have it, 48 planes a year. OSD’s old PAE shop performed an analysis last year that concluded there was in fact no fighter gap, if you took into account capabilities beyond those planes based only on US carriers, but that study was never publicly released. Gates also told the committee that the Pentagon looked at cost savings in terms of a multi-​​year buy and found them lacking.
Akin rejected those arguments in his letter to Gates. He notes that the Future Years Defense Plan posits a 39 percent increase — from 89 to 124 — in the F/​A-​​18 E/​F/​G buy over an earlier estimate compiled by Ash Carter, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. This greater quantity, Akin argues, would far exceed the 6.5 percent savings estimated by DoD for the smaller buy. “Adding 35 aircraft and an additional year of procurement could easily push the savings close to $500 million,” Akin writes.

The numbers how important, as how can you continue to build large decks only to not fill them with adequate planes? It is ludicrous.

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Sea Gripen Might Help

Another answer to the “Fighter Gap” might be to build less costly airframes. Saab of Sweden offers just such an alternative (which we reported on earlier) in the Sea Gripen. Story by Saurabh Joshi of StratPost:

Saab has been studying the idea of designing a carrier-borne variant since the mid-’90s but the company only decided to launch the Sea Gripen program in the wake of its existing campaigns for the air forces of India and Brazil and the moves by the two countries to build a serious carrier capability, even though at that time there was no formal request from either country. Saab is planning to pitch the aircraft to countries with smaller-sized carriers and says they expect more nations to show interest in the Sea Gripen, because existing naval fighters are either of an older generation or large-sized, forcing them to buy or build large ships as well.

Though a land fighter, the Gripen possess all the essentials for launching from a short runway:

“We do not have to start from scratch. We do not have to redesign the aerodynamics – we do not have to redesign the flight control system or the avionics. We already have a rugged, rough and strong airframe built for ‘carrier-like’ landings,”

So refreshing to hear of an aircraft program not beset with endless delays, taking decades to enter service, and less capable than promised except more expensive! This has been the norm for Western aircraft programs of late. Good to see the Swedes break the mold!

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History as a Guide

On occasion I have made the statement that because airpower is so effective in the Age of precision weapons you can do more with less. Concerning large deck aircraft carriers, they increasingly are a wasted expense since they concentrate so much force in a few ships. Proof of this stems from recent campaigns in the Middle East involving carrier airpower, according to this 2007 article from Carl Conetta at Project for Defense Alternatives:

Three or four aircraft carriers were directly engaged in Afghan operations at any one time during October-December 2001. During the first phase of the 2003 Iraq war, four or five were engaged. During the 1999 Kosovo war, one.
In none of these wars were the engaged carriers employed to their fullest, however. For instance, during the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom, naval fighters flew an average of 0.8 sorties per day. They are capable of flying two, at least – and the Navy claims they can do more, in a pinch. Looking to the future: The target attack capability of each air wing will increase significantly with the addition of smaller, longer-range, and more accurate PGMs. In 2005 Senate testimony, then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, asserted that the number of targets that a carrier air wing could attack per day would increase from 700 to more than 1,000 by 2010 – having already risen substantially from 200 in 1997.

As we have pointed out in recent weeks, the Navy has reduced the number and size of airwings loaded on its carriers in the past 2 decades. This is a logical acknowledgment of the abilities of manned fighter bombers armed with PGMs. What is not logical is to continue to build only large decks to deploy fewer airplanes, especially with shrinking force structures in an age of many threats, there is only so much money to go around. No matter how some try to justify it, it makes no sense to spend so much ($12 billion each for the new Ford class) only to get so little in return.

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No Eulogy for Naval Air

We have not come to destroy carrier airpower but to save it. It is the admirals which are destroying naval airpower in the US Navy today, by limiting it to few and steadily shrinking quantities of less capable Big Decks. It would be so nice to see the amazing abilities of the modern precision bomber, the excellent F/A-18 Super Hornet, spread among a fleet of 20 or so light carriers, with airwings of 12-18 each dispersed around the world, against America’s foes.

Instead, they claim such cost, fuel, and crew efficient vessels as “less capable”. They insist only on ships of vast size and expense, capable of large aircraft compliments, which as we see above they are increasingly incapable of filling. Instead of more capability, it is diminished in a few increasingly unaffordable large decks, that are a burden on stretched shipbuilding funds. They waste crews, they waste hulls, and they waste the amazing abilities of modern precision guided weapons. They are also wasting time since in the next war at sea it will likely be the guided missile which will decide the fate of naval airpower for them. I only wish we could give the concept one more chance before an inglorious death by suicide.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. CBD permalink
    February 19, 2010 11:18 pm

    Chris,
    There is the possibility of building new Harriers. Italian and Spanish improvements on the AV-8B+ (Harrier II+) to accommodate new systems (AMRAAM, some AShMs) indicate the possibility of a Harrier III that fills in for the STOVL role without becoming hopelessly outdated. The USMC has been slow to work on improvements and upgrades since 2000 as they waited for the F-35B (always ‘just around the corner’), just as other medium and heavy lift projects were delayed in the USMC while the Osprey made its winding course through development and fixes.

    We used to test tech on old ships and then integrate several advancements into new classes, upgrading bits of tech over time as the capacity became available and introducing new classes when lots of new tech overcame the capacity of the old/upgraded vessels. We should continue in that tradition although recent programs have gone for the ‘big leap forward’ and have fallen on their faces (due to 10-20% of the tech being immature)…this means that the 80-90% of new, functional systems work, but the new class of plane/ship/tank has failed. There’s no reason to not integrate the improvements as upgrades to what we have. The spin-offs of other upgrades (AESA, laser precision guidance) have brought massive improvements to existing ‘ancient’ aircraft (F-16s, F-15s and F-18s), making them competitive in modern combat.

    FCS tech is being spun-out and has the capability to vastly improve the Bradley and Abrams. The SSGN conversion/rebuild has lead to improvements in the Block III Virginia-class SSNs in hull tech and missile handling/launch systems. DDG-1000 tech will likely lead to a Block III Burke-class destroyer that far surpasses the abilities of the IIa series. Eventually, new classes will come out of all of these improvements and upgrades, but there’s no reason to wait.

    Let’s integrate improvements into the Harrier from the F-35B program, helmet-mounted displays, integrated sensors, fly-by-wire and upgraded weapons handling. F-35B may not be ready, but lots of its components are. Let’s use them.

  2. Chris Stefan permalink
    February 19, 2010 10:27 am

    Sigh, the whole airpower picture for the USAF, USMC, and USN is looking pretty grim. At least there is the option to buy more F15s, F16s, and F18s for now if you really need to, I suppose if they don’t wait too long there is also the option to restart the F22 production line as well. The Marines and other Harrier users are kind of in a spot though as there is no real replacement for the AV-8 other than the F35B.

    At the very least export sales to our more reliable allies of the F22 should be allowed even if it is a de-tuned version. Between Australia and Japan they could very well buy as many F22s as the USAF did. It would be very nice to have a fair number of friendly modern fighters the US taxpayer didn’t have to pay for sitting in the Western Pacific. It would also keep the production line warm in case the F35 program implodes. If the incremental cost of the F35 ends up being similar to the F22 I’d rather have F22s with upgrades to the radar, avionics, and engines based on what was learned in the F35 program. Like the F15 I’m sure the F22 could be evolved into a nice attack/strike platform.

    As an aside it is too bad the F22 wasn’t Navalized from day one. I wonder if that would have changed the procurement picture any. Similarly the F35 should have just had a B and C version, though trying to build a VSTOL, a CTOL, and a CATOBAR version on a semi-common platform seems to be forcing undesirable compromises on all versions and driving the costs up.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    February 18, 2010 9:18 am

    Gripens aren’t that much less expensive than Super Hornets. A navalized version built to USN specs would likely not show any useful cost savings and may end up being more expensive.

    I do somewhat agree with your other point. The USN has overemphasized absolute sortie rate numbers. These numbers are heavily tied to the range at which its aircraft operate. Sortied into Iraq and Afghanistan are very long, often requiring multiple AARs, so the rates will suffer.

    Instead, the USN should be emphasizing “sorties to a defined distance” as a primary metric (where the distance is operationally useful). Sorties @ 300nm may make sense in some situations, but sorties @ 800-1000nm may be more important these days.

    This may encourage longer-ranged aircraft, and perhaps Cold War-sized air wings.

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  1. Military And Intelligence News Briefs — February 20, 2010 « Read NEWS

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