The Logic of Small Carriers
Taking Advantage of the Revolution
I will say it again: Because modern airpower is so effective, you can do much more with much less. The classic American F-15 currently has an unmatched kill ration of 100+ enemy planes to nothing. It is a fact that no American fighter has been shot down by another aircraft in at least 40 years. Concerning naval airpower, the British Royal Navy tallied up a kill ratio 21-0 in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. According to blogger Matthew Taylor “No RAF jet fighter has ever recorded an air-to-air kill.”
We can see the value, especially from the lessons of the Sea Harriers in the South Atlantic conflict, that a few planes might be all that is required for the deployment of manned naval air at sea in the near future. The US Navy’s carriers which she can’t purchase planes to fill in adequate numbers, is a lesson in the futility of large decks, when fewer planes can perform wonders. The air-to-air victories are just one part. The advent of precision guided munitions on naval air has revolutionized bombing, providing the pilots with the long sought goal of “one bomb, one hit”. It is an amazing capability allowing a single fighter bomber to do the work once required of whole airwings.
Sadly, the Navy wants expensive multi-mission warships to go with their expensive multi-mission aircraft, thus making the revolution in airpower at sea of no effect. It is a lesson in redundancy to only build smart platforms for smart weapons.
The V/STOL Alternative
Such amazing technology could be taken best advantage of with newer light carriers of 20,000 tons, armed with 6-8 F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter each. This V/STOL version appears to be the only really vital capability required from the strike plane, long delayed and ever increasing in price. The supposedly “low cost” fighter will probably cost as much as the vastly more capable F-22 Raptor fighter*. In no way can such a price be justified in the thousands wanted by the Pentagon. The high cost could be justified in a run of say, 500 F-35Bs, concerning the unique mission of vertical lift.
Large decks are very handy and capable, as we’ve seen in numerous low tech wars since 1991. They are however, enormously expensive to be used only in Brush Fire wars, amounting to $10 billion in the US Navy not counting its airwing and escort ships. This is especially true since cheaper, more efficient alternatives can do many of the functions of naval airpower. Already submarines and surface ships utilize the Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) in a power projection role. Dispersed and on call, the TLAM ships already provide a significant boost in the fighting power of the USA and British navies.
Some large deck proponents would balk at replacing large decks with smaller ones, especially considering the need for large numbers of planes in the frequent land wars. We can’t imagine after awhile that adequate land bases wouldn’t be available soon after the start of a land campaign. Still, if large decks are occasionally needed, we could keep a few of the newer Nimitz class in semi-reserve, like we once did with the old Iowa battleships, pulling them out occasionally for the rare but possible Big Wars. These vessel would not need their full airwing for such times, as they often sail without full decks anyway these days, but could ferry whatever is needed for the mission intended, such as fighters or even helicopters.
The Final Argument
Summing up, here is the logic for replacing very expensive large deck aircraft carriers and huge and expensive airwings with low cost small carriers and tiny airwings:
- Modern technology has allowed military aircraft, especially Western fighters the capability to do more with much less.
- The lack of any peer threat in the last 40 years, and the prevalence of plenty of high performance jets in America and her allies precludes any risk from reducing numbers at sea.
- High Western training standards, and modern weapons make even lower performing V/STOL planes like the Harrier and the F-35B more than a match for potential enemies.
- The High Cost of large decks actually reduces your strength, since you can only afford a handful of $10 billion ships, and rob from other vital naval functions to deploy that. In other words, when you try to deploy large airwings at sea, more becomes less.
*(Note)-According to UPI, the Obama Administration is spending $8.4 billion next year for 43 JSF. Thats comes to a whopping $195 million each in this initial production run.