Carrier Alternative Weekly
We open today with one of the most succinct comments on questioning the need for a large carrier fleet, which I have ever heard. From Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Navy League on Monday:
Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?
On Sacred Territory
Gates tread on holy ground when criticizing the continued need for a few giant Big Decks in an age that calls for many ships of varied sizes and abilities. It does become harder to justify them when our primary antagonists are speedboat navies such as Iran, or land powers like China who have yet to deploy a single carrier to match our 11. To keep things in perspective, here are the essential points from the Secretary on why the Navy needs to rethink its carrier centric policy in this new era:
- No other nation on earth has a single ship to match one of our 11 nuclear-powered giants.
- Because we must plan for the future, spending exorbitant funds on dated technology is a recipe for disaster.
- Potential adversaries will take advantage of our overwhelming superiority in one area, to strike us where we are vulnerable.
- Even Third World countries like Iran can take advantage of new weapons “ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats” to threaten our most powerful warships.
- Our advantage in precision weaponry is eroding, putting the carriers at further risk.
- With up to $20 billion invested in building and equipping a single carrier, we risk a great deal by ignoring these new threats.
- While the need to project power will endure, do we still need 11 aircraft carriers when no other nation deploys similar vessels?
- Do we need so much investment in a single platform when a single missile might destroy or disable this irreplaceable asset?
- With so many threats, and so few funds available, we can no longer afford continued spending on multi-billion-dollar platforms, especially if they may be at risk and not needed for most of the roles the Navy performs in this new century.
A Carrier Question
Should aircraft carriers be built to support naval operations, or is the Navy geared to support carrier operations? I will let you ponder that while reading the following post by Donald A. Moskowitz from Stories in the News:
An article in the Navy Times entitled “Strike group mission expands far beyond simple escort” has me concerned.
The aircraft carrier strike group is composed of a carrier and air wing, a submarine, and five or six escort destroyers and cruisers. The escorts protect the carrier by interdicting enemy units attacking the group.
Unfortunately, at times the carrier has only one escort because the other ships are dispersed hundreds or even thousands of miles from the carrier to carry out “patrol missions, exercises and port calls”. An example of this policy occurred in 2008 when the Carrier Theodore Roosevelt visited South Africa while some of its escorts were in the Mediterranean and another escort went to France for a D-Day event.
What is your final answer? I get what the writer is saying here, and he’s certainly correct we have far too few ships. To me the dispersing of the carrier escorts isn’t a disturbing trend, but the sign of the times and advancements in warfare. Soon, this will be the norm, with the carrier having very little to do, their essential but very expensive air support mission replaced by cheaper but equally effective alternatives such as guided missiles, and very persistent long range unmanned aerial vehicles. By this time, every warship will be an aircraft carrier of sorts.
Are Carriers Obsolete?
Fred Reed at Mens News Daily comes out with both barrels blazing on the Navy’s archaic and unaffordable building strategy:
The carrier battle group, the heart of the Navy, is a hugely expensive way to get relatively few combat aircraft to a remote place. It is a relic of World War II, for which it was well suited. Since it was then fighting similar battle groups, the strengths and weaknesses were more or less matched.
But the Navy has not fought a war for sixty years, certainly not one it needed to win, and it shows. Today’s battle groups, CVBGs as we say, are almost indistinguishable from those of 1945, except for the upgrading of weapons. Instead of five-inch-thirty-eights, we have Standard missiles. Instead of F4F Hellcats, the F-18 Hornet. Yet the carrier is still the Mother Ship, protected by screens of cruisers and destroyers, with interceptors flying CAP. The problem is that the enemy has changed.
And lists some aircraft carrier alternatives:
But these are enemies of the carrier, not alternatives right? They can hardly match the carrier in presence and sortie rates and bomb loads, all the metrics the Navy uses to justify multi-billion older warships and their equally pricey aircraft and escorts, right? I’ll let Fred explain further:
Now note that cruise missiles have ranges in the hundreds of miles. Think: Persian Gulf. A cruise missile can be boxed and mounted on a truck, a fast launch, or a tramp steamer. The Chinese ballistic missile has a range of 1200 miles, enough to keep carriers out of aircraft range of Taiwan. I wonder whether the Chinese have thought of that?
In short the day of surface navies seems to be coming to a close, at least as strategically decisive forces. So does the day of the manned fighter as Predator-style “drones” improve.
While drones and missiles aren’t as capable as manned aircraft, they aren’t even very cheap, the ability to launch the new weapons from almost any platform makes them far more practical. You could spread capability among the entire fleet, instead of just a few very large targets, in a stroke ending the Navy’s presence deficit with a simple change in strategy. Will the admirals ever get this profound change in war at sea? Will Congress or industry let them, or will it be some future enemy who will seize the mantle of seapower from us?
Top Gun Redux
Strategypage details the return of the Navy’s famed Top Gun training for its pilots:
The U.S. Navy has refurbished a surplus U.S. Air Force National Guard F-16 flight simulator to help keep its F-16 pilots in shape for using F-16s to train navy pilots (in F-18s) how to best deal with Chinese, and other potential enemy, pilots. The navy uses F-16s because these aircraft are best able to replicate the performance of likely high end enemy fighters. That’s because Russia and China have used the F-16 as the model for most of their latest fighters (the Russian MiG-29 and Chinese J-10). The navy bought 26 of a special model (F-16N) of the aircraft in the late 1980s.
Here’s a little more info on the planes:
The navy also uses F-5s to simulate lower performance enemy fighters.
I always thought this ironic, especially in the 1970s when the air services were justifying huge and costly jets like the F-14, the largest USN fighter ever and the F-15 to fight our enemy the Soviets. Then, they were forced “dumb down” their training using low tech aircraft to teach the superjets how to fight? I see little logic in this, but plenty of reasons why we are still flying ancient planes to war and only can afford a handful of new planes annually.
The Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone
It’s pretty bad that you have to build ships you don’t need just so you don’t lose the ability to build ships you don’t need, or can afford. This seems to be the rut we have got ourselves into with nuclear-powered ships. Lance Bacon reveals how “Carrier builders don’t buy SecDef’s plan“:
The Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition brought more than 130 members from its 400 constituent companies to Capitol Hill Thursday to urge continued support for the aircraft carrier program…
We could not find anyone who agreed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ 2009 plan that would shift from four- to five-year intervals. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in congressional testimony earlier this year said the move would put carrier procurement on “a more fiscally sustainable path.” This would defer the fiscal ‘12 procurement of CVN 79 by one year and the fiscal ‘16 procurement of CVN 80 by two years — and could create a domino effect as deployments and refueling schedules are adjusted to accommodate.
The industry leaders Scoop Deck talked to balked at the idea that this would save money. On the contrary, they said the subsequent loss of expertise would likely lead to higher costs.
Around and around they go. Funny, between 1920 and 1940 the USN enjoyed a battleship holiday, at the end of which we got the marvelous Iowa class battleships, often considered the finest American dreadnoughts ever. I think it would be safe enough to enjoy a similar break from building supercarriers, since we are the only nation who has any, being more powerful than 13 other fleets combined.
Remember the old theory that we had to have large carriers so they can carry the proper high performance aircraft to protect large carriers? An expensive rut we have got ourselves into.
The Aircraft Carrier Trident Replacement
Nick M at Counting Cats in Zanzibar has a few interesting proposals for Britain’s planned Trident sub replacement. It involves the Storm Shadow cruise missile and, well, I’ll let you read the rest:
Trident is not the only pachyderm in the parlour… There are also the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers. Now, BAE Systems (again!) are playing coy on whether these will be STOVL or CATOBAR. I say go CATOBAR and buy F-35C not the STOVL F-35B. The F-35B is a masterpiece of design as you’d expect from Lock-Mart but it’s pointless. Its biggest customer is expected to be the USMC and quite frankly a supersonic, stealth strike fighter is of almost supernatural relevance to the grunts on the ground. The F-35 is just not a CAS platform. The F-35B is also limited as to internal weapons carriage and can’t internally tote guess what? Storm Shadow. CATOBAR carriers carrying the F-35C with potentially nuclear-tipped Storm Shadows (two per plane) is the stuff to give this planet’s tyrants and despots the willies.
Hmmm…Your nuclear deterrent on one or two 63,000 ton flattops? One of the reasons for deploying missiles on subs in the 50s and 60s was the vulnerability of large ships and the short range of naval airpower to strike most targets on land, recalling back then it was all the navy had to launch the A-bomb. This sounds more like a step back.
Makes Me feel Good About Myself
Via Kings of War, comes an interesting theory of the real reasons why China wants a carrier. Calling Dr. Phil?
Well, suppose you’re in the inferior group as judged by a commonly accepted yardstick. You’ve got some options: suck it up, at cost to self-esteem; compete with the big boys; or reimagine the ways in which you are a state, and in so doing change the rules of the game. You can’t physically change the rather large group that is ‘China’ – because it’s got a pretty strong hold on the imagination of all concerned. But you can shape what it means to be China. You don’t have to play by the existing rules that suit the hegemonic, or dominant group. And indeed there’s both scope and merit in defining yourself differently from others – especially if one conceives of prestige and self-esteem, not power and security, as the overarching rationale for behaviour.
The Varyag was China’s attempt to play by the big boys rules. It’s a status symbol that says, ‘we’ve arrived’.
So, it’s all for the sake of appearances. Haven’t the world navies been here before?
We often insist the large deck aircraft carrier is more of a prestige weapon than an essential requirement for modern navies, much like the all-gun Dreadnoughts were a century ago.
H/T to Greg Grant.
Where are the aircraft?
The old saying goes, anytime there is a crisis in the world the first thing the President asks is “Where are the carriers”. In today’s world, I think the problem is a bit more complicated than that, but for the most part the saying still goes. Increasingly trouble purchasing adequate planes in sufficient numbers makes us wonder whether the supercarrier will have any teeth to make a difference when it does arrive. Here is Todd Akin at the St Louis Beacon discussing “Aircraft carriers in need of aircraft“:
It has been said that when word of a crisis breaks out, the first question that comes to mind is, “Where’s the nearest carrier?” The aircraft carrier, 90,000 tons of sovereign U.S. territory, able to project power across the globe at a moment’s notice, is perhaps America’s most enduring symbol of peace through strength. Its credibility as a striking force, however, is contingent on one small detail: Aircraft to go with it.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard a great deal about the myriad delays and cost overruns of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Recently, the secretary of the Air Force informed the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the per-unit cost of the Joint Strike Fighter has grown by more than 50 percent from the original baseline cost estimate. Furthermore, substantial delays in aircraft tests have forced the Department of Defense to reduce the rate at which it plans to introduce the JSF into the service’s inventory.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Navy’s existing fleet of F/A-18s continues to fatigue under an arduous operational tempo, one that is aging our fighter fleet beyond the original design limitation of the aircraft. The necessary retirement of our older F/A-18s combined with the simultaneous delay of the JSF portends a scenario where, for a period of time, we may potentially lack the requisite number of aircraft to support ongoing operations; a scenario often referred to as the “Strike Fighter Gap.” In more practical terms, one might refer to this as aircraft carriers without aircraft.
The price paid for trying to keep last century building practices alive in a new era of warfare. The fact is, there are three reasons that even superpowers can no longer sustain the construction of large decks:
- They are too expensive
- They are vulnerable to cheaper, off the shelf weapons and emerging technologies.
- They may not be needed at all soon thanks to increasingly smart missiles and UAVs.