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Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 4

May 20, 2010

Carrier Myth: Land Bases are Undependable

SIR – The ash cloud could not have come at a more appropriate time. With defence policy in the balance, the clear evidence that fixed airfields can deny aircraft basic mobility can only lead to one conclusion. Mobile airfields – that is to say, aircraft carriers – are essential for air power to be effective in all circumstances.
Eric Grove
Professor of Naval History
University of Salford

Seeing that volcanoes are not mobile, I was curious how much more effective naval airpower would be instead of land based air in such a circumstance as pointed out by Professor Grove. This is especially true since the sea-borne aircraft might keep itself out of range of such natural disasters, it would have been no more help to those in the path of the cloud than the planes in area, as we soon discovered.

One of the claims the Navy often uses for continued dependence on the shrinking number of large decks, is the possibility that land bases would be unavailable in wartime for various reasons. This is not an unlikely scenario as was pointed out above when the ash cloud covering Europe shut down numerous airports, stranding thousands of passengers for days. Also, with forward bases such as Okinawa constantly protested against because of the US presence there, many airports are now vulnerable politically, as we also remember with Turkey refusing American access during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

The idea then is prevalent that we must endure enormous drain on shrinking budgets, plus deploy giant warships which we are warned continuously are at risk from cheaper weapons, and the potential loss of life of thousands of crewman in such a situation. As we pointed out early in the week, you don’t even need to sink a carrier to disable it, and with so much depending on the 11 aircraft carriers in the fleet, only a handful of well-placed attacks would be sufficient in crippling a huge portion of our capability. A single attack was enough to end the reign of the battleship in US service in 1941.

Our presumed dependence only on 100,000 ton strike carriers with 80-90 warplanes loaded takes a lot for granted, that there will never be bases available. As we note the possibility, it is not inevitable. As we learned in World War 2, after being completely thrown out of the Pacific, the primary task of the carriers which survived was not to substitute for land bases, but to support amphibious landings so they there were more airbases to utilize in the destruction of Japan. The titanic struggles against Kamikaze’s for the islands of Iwo Jim and Okinawa, was not to get the carriers closer to Japan, but for bomber bases. Likewise did the British Royal Navy carriers in the Atlantic prove essential in supporting “unsinkable aircraft carriers” like Malta.

Bringing up another point, that aircraft carriers, with their tons of fuel, ammunition, and vulnerable flight decks, they are not so easily replaced when sunk, or repaired when damaged. In contrast, land airbases have proved extremely durable, as noted with the Axis devastation of Malta, the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal, or the German airfields later in the war, which finally had to be physically seized by the Army in the closing months of the war.

Again I concede the possibility that we could lose some or many airbases in major conflict, just not the inevitability. Also, if this possibility is so dire, why does the Navy only concentrate airpower on a handful of large decks, and these growing fewer overtime? It seems to ensure that the mobile airfields would outlive the fixed bases, you would use a great many carriers, dispersing them so some would survive, and be on the scene in a crisis. In this you can see the navy ignoring advances in technology such as precision airpower, which promises one-bomb one-hit, or the amazing reliability of modern jet planes.

Using such technology, then you could deploy fewer planes on smaller decks, without losing capability. By holding on to tradition and insisting on a few very large, expensive and vulnerable decks, the Navy is actually contributing to the carrier’s obsolescence. So nation’s which cannot afford Big Decks, that the admirals insist is the only way to deploy manned naval airpower effectively, are finding low cost alternatives, which are more practical, and not concentrated in obsolete hulls.

This is yet another reason the fear of losing airbases should be no hindrance to reducing the number of large decks. The Tomahawk missile, which also can claim the ability to ensure long-range strike from the sea, is already deployed on numerous smaller hulls, over 130 in the US Fleet alone, plus also on Royal Navy submarines. The missile, while not able to perform repeat sorties, is more practical for the reason, that in most cases a single sortie would be enough in the precision age, plus because the versatility allows much smaller and affordable submarines and surface ships to carry them. Though the guided missile has yet to match the versatility of manned jet bombers, its ability for dispersal, and the likelihood it will get through to the target, makes it far more sensible.

Finally, as someone pointed out in the comments, even the few carrier versus carrier battles of World War 2 were for the purpose of securing land bases. For instance, the Battle of Midway was hardly fought over ships but the Marine airstrip on the island, which Japan hoped to secure for the purpose of negating another base at Pearl Harbor. So you can see the carriers are crucial in capturing and supporting land bases, but in themselves cannot be a substitute. We always had and always will have some type of land base, including the requirement to defend and sustain them.

Aircraft carriers on the other hand, like the dreadnought battleship that preceded it, is not so indispensable.

Click for other posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2014 7:27 am

    simply you need fighters against fighters, fighter/ attack to attack tanks, how do you suppose we get them there?

  2. tewkewl permalink
    April 13, 2014 2:32 am

    wow. only peaceniks and fool make statements like the one in the quote. you have 11 carriers to project american power and support american policy abroad. not because you want to match your enemy’s threat. the idea that you match your enemy 1 for 1 is also completely laughable. your goal is the overwhelm the enemy with your capability. overmatch, not match. is it worth it? yes. because who the fuck wants to mess with a 1000 pound gorilla?

  3. Anonymous permalink
    May 13, 2013 5:56 am

    The cost of building a whole new line of carriers and decommissioning our present ones is impractical.

    The picture at the header is entirely silly. You don’t want to just counter. That’s a fools errand. You want to go the cheapest route possible – front the money in the beginning, and then have a relative-trickle of money for maintenance, operation, and training.
    Because the alternative is war.

    You never, never want to merely “match” your enemies. You want to make sure they never attack. War is costly. War in which you “match” your enemies means you’re sacrificing lives AND money for the sake of ignorance.

    North Korea starts acting up? Put a carrier offshore. They calm down.
    We don’t appear to need them because we already have them.
    The best war is the one you never have to fight. The best weapon is the one you never have to fire. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

    Smaller nuclear carriers hold promise for the future. Getting rid of our present ones, however, is silly.

  4. Michael permalink
    November 25, 2012 12:50 pm

    I served for years onboard a conventional aircraft carrier. (USS Midway CV-41) The true secret of a carrier battlegroup isn’t really the carrier itself but the hoard of smaller ships needed to protect it! A carrier alone is at great risk without picket ships spread out in a shield sometimes 250 miles or more wide. That is where the USN is now failing. I would be OK with half of the current carrier fleet as long as the number of smaller ships and subs could be increased per battle group. This country needs less carriers and a lot more conventional subs and surface ships of the Cruiser class (No longer built) with advanced ASW, SAM and cruise missles. I would also like to see these ships built with real gun mounts again. 6 inch would be nice. It makes me ill to see the way the navy is falling apart.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:42 pm

    life cycle costs for CVN Greater than $85 billion.

    How much longer will the nitwits continue to put our eggs in one big basket. The CVN’s are pretty good for pirate intradiction and stopping drug running… unless the columbians turn to subs.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    September 1, 2011 7:51 pm

    Aircraft carriers are not used to counter anything. They are used to project American power. One of the reasons it appears we don’t need them, is because we have them. We don’t want to live in a world where the worlds most powerful militaries are evenly matched. That’s how folks get tempted to use them.

  7. TeXan permalink
    March 22, 2011 3:50 am

    Most of us know that the modern aircraft carrier is virtually unsinkable. For example if an enemy attack consisted of say 100 anti ship missiles ( much cheaper option than possiblely losing a $100 million airplane) or maybe 250 missiles I think that only one or two would pass to intercept the aircraft carrier with the modern technology we possess.

    These would cause minimal damage to a modern ship.

  8. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:27 pm

    Carriers have a capability land bases do not, that was demonstrated during WWII. They can concentrate, suddenly appearing within range, in numbers sufficient to radically change the balance of power, and within a few day they can wipe out the local opposition.

    And they can do it over and over in different locations.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 20, 2010 6:04 pm

    Hudson wrote “It could be that the carrier will pass from the scene because of its vulnerability to swarms of increasingly deadly and relatively inexpensively sub- and super-sonic missiles, not to mention super quiet subs. If that is the cause, then all surface ships will be similarly affected”

    Something similar was said when aircraft were sinking surface warships, off Taranto, off Crete, later in the Pacific. Then, when attrition wore down the carriers, surface combatants learned how to survive. They sailed when aircraft couldn’t operate, usually at night, or away from land bases as much as possible.

    So we can get two primary lessons from the world wars on how to survive the coming missile war at sea: they must get stealthier and they must disperse. To still be effective in dispersal you will need a great many platforms. To become stealthier, they will have to be smaller or become a submarine.

    This is why I constantly harp on my small ship mantra, just so we have something to survive the coming missile war. The Influence Squadrons will be very effective here because you can deploy a great many compared to the number of aircraft carriers. The small ships will pave the way for the Big Ships, which is how we won the world wars. Capt. Hendricks didn’t go into detail much about how the IF’s would operate in a major conventional conflict, but I think forward deployed they will be the Navy’s salvation, keeping the larger Blue Water ships out of harm’s way by bearing the brunt of an initial attack. They will survive because they present very many targets for the enemy to deal with.

    Now the saying is, that carriers defend the fleet with fighters and AEW, but in practice, it was the small ships that defended the carrier, hence their name “escorts”. I think for the fleet to operate otherwise, that they can discard essential small warships and not pay for it when the ball drops, is inviting disaster. So we need these little shock absorbers in the fleet, and they will not only survive but thrive.

  10. MatR permalink
    May 20, 2010 5:23 pm

    Maybe electric lasers? They can run from capacitors and use current from the CVN’s own reactor. Or from the systems of an all-electric ship. Gives you repeat firing without needing to stack chemical fuel ‘shots’. It would be pretty cool :o)

    Mind you, given radar horizon issues, you may only gain a few extra kilometers reach with a laser against a sea-skimmer, if the laser is based on a ship (due to a mixture of reaction times and actual line-of-sight) You might need a laser on a helo or F-18 for longer range CVN protection.

  11. Hudson permalink
    May 20, 2010 1:34 pm

    It could be that the carrier will pass from the scene because of its vulernability to swarms of increasingly deadly and relatively inexpensively sub- and super-sonic missiles, not to mention super quiet subs. If that is the cause, then all surface ships will be similarly affected, down to lowly patrol vessels with fewer resources to defend themselves than the Big Decks.

    I would mention two things in favor of the carriers, large and small.

    One, whoever attacks them can expect military-political reprisals, especially from us, with our many weapons platforms.

    Two, defense generally catches up with offense after a spell. The antidote to the cruise missile might be the chemical laser, which already exists in land form and may become capable of batting down swarms of missiles like so many mosquitos. High altitude radar may catch up with the subs as well.

    The “unsinkable” carrier is an interesting idea, although it is my understanding that concrete burns at higher temperatures and there would still be the problem of protecting vulnerable areas of the ship such as the bridge and the aircraft themselves.

  12. May 20, 2010 12:15 pm

    This plays into the area where the Harrier was designed to go. The Swedes will tell you they have a fighter that could move to a bit of straight roadway out of the ash cloud and keep operating. It’s also exactly where pycrete fitted. Make an ‘unsinkable carrier’ out of an ice mix and station it where its needed. Off Somalia? Also, part of the success of U.S. operations later in the Pacific war came because Japan had lost its experienced pilots. Japanese raids launched over the sea often missed finding the U.S. ships and couldn’t find their way home – gone. Good solution sets need a swarm of options, even ‘junky’ options might find their way in the fog of the ash-cloud.

  13. B.Smitty permalink
    May 20, 2010 12:04 pm

    I still cling to my idea of junking the LHA/LHD concept in favor of a real CV (doubling as an LPH) in the ESG. It feels like the incremental cost of turning an LHA/D into a CV/LPH wouldn’t be that high.

    Doing so might require another ship in the ESG, to make up for some lost amphibious capacity. We could either buy more LPD-17s, or try and find a cheaper option (i.e. Enforcer, Mistral, Juan Carlos).

    To pay for both of these changes, we would reduce the steady state number of CVNs to 6-8.

    This would then give us ~10 CVs and 6-8 CVNs. CVs could be tasked individually in CVBGs, grouped with CVNs for mutual protection, or used in their CV/LPH role in an ESG.

    CVBGs could take the deployment pressure off of CVNBGs in a way that an ESG can’t.

    I really don’t know if this would be cost neutral. Lengthening the CVN build cycle might eat up any potential cost savings. More aircraft may be needed (depending on the size of the CV). Additional cost savings could come from cancelling the F-35B (and maybe C) in favor of the cheaper Super Hornet.

    It just seems like the LHA/Ds are almost there – especially the new LHAs.

  14. MatR permalink
    May 20, 2010 10:03 am

    Bah! Humbug! Grr! Snarl!

    This is a paper tiger, and a moot point to boot. If a land based aircraft can’t cope with ash, neither can a naval aircraft or a Russian bomber. Typhoons and Tornado ADVs operate at the same approximate height as a Tupolev 160, and all the platforms are similarly affected by ash.

    If the Russians are crazy enough to fly through ash and wear out the engines on their continually shrinking, rusting airfleet, perhaps we should say good luck to them, we can stay on the ground. The Russian flights are all about prestige, they don’t achieve anything.

    In the highly unlikely even that the Russians are bonkers enough to bomb us, it’s an act of war and the RAF would then be performing the same low-level flights it’s excelled at for 40 years: minor engine damage be darned, it’s WW3.

    About vulnerability: 16 to 20 nations currently produce cruise missiles (never mind the ones who buy them) according to data from the Library of Congress and other sources. More every year, including such ‘jonny-come-latelies’ as Pakistan, South Korea, South Africa, India and Taiwan. Established non-US players include Sweden, Norway, the UK and Germany. The technology is getting cheaper and practically ubiquitous, and increasingly going stealthy and supersonic.

    Carries don’t stand a chance against that kind of threat – not from sneak attacks, submarines, converted merchantmen or swarms, and certainly not in the crowded littorals. You simply can’t destroy a land-based airfield that easily – if you build adequate bunkers, at least the planes will be protected until you perform emergency runway repair. The technology for ultra-tough JDAM-proof concrete is so simple that everyone from the Russians to the Iranians to western university civil engineering departments are currently working with it. (If you have the right fibres and aggregates, and you can cure the concrete slowly, you can even make batches in your own back yard.)

    What we *really* need are atomic zeppelins.

  15. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:56 am

    One quick observation.

    If you look at Table 2, page 9 of the NSIAD-98001 GAO report, it is suggested that a large conventionally-powered CV costs about half as much as a nuclear-powered CV to acquire.

    Which means that a conventionally-powered equivalent of a Nimitz-class carrier (i.e. about $8.4 billion according to ADM Architzel) would have an acquisition cost of about $4.2 billion.

    Which is consistent with what the British might end up paying for their CVFs (i.e. about $3.6 billion per unit) or what the French expected to pay for their PA2 (€3.0 to 3.5 billion, i.e. $3.7 to 4.3 billion per unit ).

  16. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:40 am

    Mike Burleson said : “A single attack was enough to end the reign of the battleship in US service in 1941.”

    I don’t think the demise of the mighty battleships was due to a single attack in 1941, all the more as, from a historical standpoint, the Brits had been there done that during the Battle of Taranto in November of 1940 (not to mention Billy Mitchell).

    One of the factors that lead to the demise of the battleship was production bottlenecks due to the considerable lead times involved supplying such critical items as the big guns and their turrets or the thick armor plates.

    This makes your comparison between CVNs and BBs a valid one, since such a critical item as the nuclear plant also involves significant lead times and would not allow a fast ramp-up in production should the need arise.

    Note that this only applies to nuclear-powered aircraft-carriers though, as producing gas turbines and/or diesel engines for conventionally-powered CVs, even large ones, wouldn’t suffer from this kind of lead times.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:16 am

    (please delete post below)

    And finally, here is a 2006 article that you will most likely find very interesting :

    The US CVN 21 Aircraft Carriers Programme: Capability Requirements, Concepts and Design by Rear Admiral David Architzel, RUSI, Summer 2006.

    This brief paragraph towards the end of the article might get your attention :

    “The lead ship acquisition cost is projected at $8.1Bn, which is nearly $300M less than the acquisition cost to procure an 11th NIMITZ Class ship in FY08. The 1000–1200 billet reduction, system simplifications and design improvements will contribute an additional $5Bn in reductions for lifecycle costs, over the life of each ship.”

    Some quick comments on this paragraph :

    1) Back in 2006, the acquisition cost of a repeat Nimitz was apparently estimated to be about $8.4 billion.

    2) Meanwhile, the unit cost of the first 3 Gerald R. Ford-class carrier has increased to about $13.5 billion, which might make one wonder whether the expected$5 billion reduction in lifecycle costs is really going to be worth it.

  18. May 20, 2010 9:15 am

    Mike, I know this is unusal, but I agree with Scott… that is what Eric Grove was talking about, especially as in Britain (which is not as big as the USA) ALL the airports including military ones were shut down at one point, and the UK’s Air Defence was being provided by 6 Harriers from HMS Ark Royal…playing point guard in the North Atlantic/North Sea against repeated probing by heavy bombers from another nation. This was conducted (barely) with heli-bourne AEW but no AWAC and no tanker support…this is why Britain wants bigger carriers than we have now, so that we can actually be able to utilise those facilities – its not the Royal Navy’s fault that like with the T45 Destroyers (where the civil servants of the MOD decided to procure the not so useful A50 Sylver VLS instead of the Mk41 VLS…and also paid for 12 ships but only recieved 6)…its has been changed to be more of the same so instead of getting a proper flat-top the RN is being given the worlds largest ‘small’ carrier.

    I do find myself in agreement that perhaps 11 is too many CBGs to have to bear the cost of…but I can not see how America could continue with its current rate of deployements (especially the 2 in Indian Ocean supporting Afghanistan) with less than 9…the same with the marines needing about 10 LHDs to support their operations. for Britain really needs about 5 aviation ships, 3 strike and 2 assault to maintain her requirements of a garunteeded avaition ship in both CBG and ATG at any time – who knows if the government needs to build industry up even more after this crisis, the RN just might get them.

    one other note…if anyone knows anything about the 18″ Mark 9 torpedo of 1917 would be most interested to hear, it seems to be forgotten in favour of its more popular cousing the Mark 8 in most publications.

    yours sincerely

    Alex

  19. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:14 am

    And finally, here is a 2006 article that you will most likely find very interesting :

    The US CVN 21 Aircraft Carriers Programme: Capability Requirements, Concepts and Design by Rear Admiral David Architzel, RUSI, Summer 2006.

    This brief paragraph towards the end of the article might get your attention :

    “The lead ship acquisition cost is projected at $8.1Bn, which is nearly $300M less than the acquisition cost to procure an 11th NIMITZ Class ship in FY08. The 1000–1200 billet reduction, system simplifications and design improvements will contribute an additional $5Bn in reductions for lifecycle costs, over the life of each ship.”

    Some quick comments on this paragraph :

    1) Back in 2006, the acquisition cost of a repeat Nimitz was apparently estimated to be about $8.4 billion.

    2) Meanwhile, the unit cost of the first 3 Gerald R. Ford-class carrier has increased to about $13.5 billion, which might make one wonder whether the expected$5 billion</b reduction in lifecycle costs is really worth it.

  20. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:53 am

    A couple more reading suggestions :

    Navy’s Aircraft Carrier Program : Investment Strategy Options, GAO NSIAD-95-17, January 1995

    Navy’s Aircraft Carriers : Cost-Effectiveness of Conventionally and Nuclear-Powered Carriers, GAO NSIAD-98-001, August 1998

  21. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:46 am

    Mike,

    At the risk of repeating myself again, may I kindly encourage you to try and get hold of the May 2000 issue of the Naval Engineers Journal ?

    Every single technical paper included in this issue is well worth the read :

    * Future USN Aircraft Carrier Analysis of Alternatives
    J. D. Raber and Dr. D. A. Perin

    * C4ISR in the 21st Century – the C4I Support Plan as a Bridge
    Cdr. K. MacDougall, P. Andrews, and Dr. N. Broome

    * First Operational Requirements Document (ORD) of the Millennium—Next Generation Aircraft Carrier (CVNX)
    Capt. T. L. Webb, USN

    * CVNX—Expanded Capability Baseline Aircraft Carrier Design Study
    J. D. McWhite

    * CVNX: An Element of the Future Battle Force
    J. S. Canning

    * Flight Deck Design of the Next Generation Aircraft Carrier
    W. Baker, S. D. Brennan, and M. Hnsi

    * The Benefits of Electromagnetically Launching Aircraft
    M. Doyle, G. Sulich, and L. Lebron

    * Material Handling Issues for the 21st Century
    J. Cavalieri, S. Grasso, R. C. Redfern, T. R. Schiller, and J. H. Sillman

    * Advances in Aircraft Carrier Life Cycle Cost Analysis for Acquisition and Ownership Decision-Making
    I. M. Chewning and S. J. Moretto

    * Total Ship Training for Future Aircraft Carriers
    T. Whitten and E. Rikansrud

  22. Scott B. permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:39 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Seeing that volcanoes are not mobile, I was curious how much more effective naval airpower would be instead of land based air in such a circumstance as pointed out by Professor Grove.”

    You have to make a basic distinction between the *where from* and the *where to* aspects on the question.

    On the *where to* side, carrier-based vs land-based would not make much of a difference as long as the destination would be in the path of the ash cloud.

    On the *where from* side, carrier-based vs land-based would make quite a difference depending on whether the departing point would be in the path of the ash cloud or not.

    This was demonstrated not so long ago when the French Charles de Gaulle crossed the arctic circle last month, so as to allow its aircraft to operate away from the ash cloud. More details in this article (sadly in French).

    This is exactly the kind of benefits Dr Eric Grove had in mind when he made the distinction between fixed airfields and mobile airfields, an airfield being where you’re flying from.

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